If there’s one thing that the Meatpacking District is renowned for, other than the blood-stained aprons of the industry workers and the slightly pungent smell of flesh, it’s the nightlife. However, like most aspects of this New York City neighborhood, the history of the after-hours scene has had some grimy sections, and ultimately is anything but cut-and-dry.
As Manhattan was being built up, cobblestone by cobblestone, the Meatpacking District was having secrets built underneath it’s ground. Under Hudson Street, between West 14th Street and Gansevoort Street, humungous vaults were being built, creating massive open-air spaces, structurally sound enough to completely bear the weight of the horse-drawn buggies rolling overhead and the constant pedestrian traffic. It is up for debate what these vaults were initially used for in the 1800s, some sources say storage while some say illegal activities. Whatever the initial reason, though, it was not long before the underground areas were appropriated for a vast variety of new and (some may say) exciting activities.
The vaults below 675 Hudson street, were mostly untouched throughout the beginning of the 20th century. The area and location was not ideal, as it was in the middle of the slaughterhouse area, for any sort of business other than meat. However, since it was completely underground, even the meat industry found this location a hassle to deal with on a regular basis. Thus, for years, it stood uninhabited. Eventually, however, in the latter half of the 20th century, as the Meatpacking District itself began to shift clientele, the underground, uninhabited space changed quickly from a nuisance to a Godsend.
The Hellfire Club, one of the country’s most renowned BDSM sex clubs opened up underneath 675 Hudson Street, neighboring other legendary sex clubs such as The Vault, all of whom found solace in the unobtrusive location of the underground Hudson Street vaults. Eventually, The Vault moved locations, while the Hellfire Club retained it’s underground, ‘hellish’ place. The Hellfire Club was featured in television shows and movies throughout the 80s, but they never were able to use direct footage from the club for it never would have passed any sort of screening tests for American audiences. Oftentimes, movies would take shots of the entrance to the Hellfire Club, (the stairs down to Hell itself) and then recreate everything on a set in Hollywood. There was no glamour in this club, but rather noises and toys that seemed very reminiscent of the namesake of the club.
Lenny Waller, manager of the Hellfire Club, worked hard to save and preserve the BDSM community within the Meatpacking District, and is still something of a legend within the community at large. However, despite his best efforts, massive city crackdowns on the nightlife of NYC during Giuliani’s administration eventually shut the gates of hell.
Since then, 675 Hudson Street and all of the adjoining 6,500 square foot vaults have gone through many transitional phases. 675 Hudson Street cleaned up to house an upscale Italian restaurant and bar for a few years.
In May 2009, 675 Hudson Street was taken in for its most current usage, and was turned into the 675 Bar. Catering to the less well-to-do Meatpacking residents and tourists, the 675 Bar retains some of the eclectic nature which it has prided itself on for so long (however, with significantly less leather and screaming). Now, at the 675 Bar, patrons are greeted by a bouncer who smiles at them, can drink beer off tap, play board games, lounge on thrift-shop style furniture, dance on the shag carpeting, and pretty much afford all of it. Trying to create an atmosphere that is more accessible to the average-income level New Yorker, the 675 Bar is a lovely shift from the staggering price tags of nearly every other bar and club in the greater Meatpacking Area.
The fact that this club is underground does a lot to create a very distinctive feeling within the club, even with loud music playing, and with the lights dim. The space is tight and full of corners, with many separate and small rooms which were created at the time of the underground sex clubs to separate different types of nightly activity. Now, the rooms are full of antique, thrifted furniture, warm, comfortable carpeting, dim lighting, music, and games. There is something about the intimacy within the 675 Bar that is almost Bachelardian in nature. This club specializes in corners; every room has tucked away chairs and private spaces in which intimacy is frequent to arise. In his book The Poetics of Space, Bachelard discusses the ways in which corners alter the state of mind of those within them, “The dreamer in his corner wrote off the world in a detailed daydream that destroyed, one by one, all the objects in the world” (143) and makes it very logical why the excessive number of corners within 675 Bar creates the intimacy that is lacked in so many other nightlife establishments. In addition to the fact that this club caters to the less-well off crowd, the majority of whom are heading instead to Plunge, atop the Gansevoort Hotel for instance where feigned intimacy at best is the desire of the evening, 675 Bar looks to create something completely and wholly different from the majority of clubs. Many reviews of this bar discuss the fact that genuine connections have been made there, rather than single-night interactions, as people tuck themselves into the corner to talk. Whether it is the same sense of corner-magic that is present within Bachelard’s philosophies, or whether it is simply the isolation from the rest of the room, the corner seats in the 675 Bar seem to be doing something right.
From the start of it’s history, and even up to today, there has been one way to consistently classify 675 Hudson Street; really, it’s just a little different.
Throughout the majority of the 80s and 90s, the Meatpacking District was a place that the tender-hearted New Yorker avoided after dark. Illicit activity was what it was most known for, with famous sex clubs, huge prostitution rings, drug lords perusing all of the corners, and a very thriving cross-dressing culture, it wasn’t quite the corner of New York City that most people were the exceedingly proud of. As a result, Mayor Giuliani, during his huge crackdown on crime, targeted the nightlife of the Meatpacking District (and all of Manhattan) with many regulations and a prohibition-era law known as the 1926 Cabaret Act. This law, essentially, made dancing in New York City illegal without a permit. A countless number of clubs and bars were shut down for not abiding by this law, and it became a huge hinderance to the entirety of the nightlife scene within the Meatpacking District, an area that was especially regulated and persecuted by police. It became something of an underground war between those who found said with chagrin “the city who never sleeps” and those who flaunted it.
After Mayor Bloomberg put an end to the 1926 Cabaret Law, the nightlife in the Meatpacking District started back up in full swing. Quickly, the amount of clubs and bars in the Meatpacking District skyrocketed and this industrial town turned into something of a night-owl’s Disneyland. Catering mostly to the high-end, well-to-do New Yorkers, clubs such as Plunge (a rooftop bar atop the Hotel Gansevoort who works only in bottle service and has a cover charge that most people would feel queazy paying) and Le Bain (the rooftop bar atop the Standard Hotel, known as the most ‘difficult to enter’ club in the Meatpacking District) flaunt their exceedingly expensive drinks, overwhelmingly attractive staff, and exclusivity promoting models, celebrities, and the most elite clientele only.
However, the average New Yorker can still find a nighttime haven within the Meatpacking District so long as joints like Hogs and Heifers (a motorcycle themed dive bar) and Club 675 exist where they serve beer from the tap and don’t judge you for oil on your pants.
There is something about the fact that the Meatpacking District sports a highly relevant clubbing scene, bringing people from 18 upwards to the neighborhood nearly every night of the week. Albeit, weekends hold the heaviest crowds, there are nighttime workers and bouncers (many of whom are menacing, to say the least) at every club who stand at the doorways all night and survey the area during the hours of darkness. In daytime, though the majority of the clubs are closed for actual business, bus boys, deliveries, and office-work spend the light hours prepping the club for the next evening’s soiree. In this way, the club scene of the Meatpacking District does a lot to keep constant eyes on the street. Despite the reputation for clubs as houses of illicit behavior, these buildings act as constantly awake enterprises, constantly sporting a person or two who’s eyes can be, at any moment, turned toward the area. Jane Jacobs discusses these amateur patrolmen in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and cites them as a direct benefit to neighborhoods in terms of protection and awareness. In a way, the maintenance of the nightclubbing industry in the Meatpacking District has done a lot to prevent it from becoming an area full of immense crime, illicit activity, and dangerous populations.
From it’s seedy start, the Meatpacking District’s nightlife has flourished into something for the books. Now, “instead of being a place where anything goes, it is a place where everyone goes” (McKinley). Known to many as the trendiest neighborhood in Manhattan, the clubbing scene makes it so that this neighborhood really seems to be where “the city that never sleeps” sleeps the least.
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