When walking around the Meatpacking District today, one cannot refrain from reveling in the sight of an extravagant pair of imported shoes or resist sitting down at one of the many hip restaurants – even if it is just to enjoy the lively atmosphere and observe the broad variety of interesting individuals occupying the streets of this neighborhood. It is strange to visualize a time when the neighborhood could have been largely defined as a center for meat, a time when the beautiful cobblestone streets were grimy and filled with blood, when the dominant sound was that of animals dying and when the artistic and stylish warehouses were slaughterhouses.
During the colonial times butchers bought animals from outlying stockyards and brought them to the city to slaughter. The slaughtering was executed roughly and in bulks, in spaces built out of wood – containing merely a hoist, table, and gutter. These spaces were poorly lit, not well ventilated and impossible to clean – the resulting blood and waste flowed into the surrounding streets, ponds, and rivers. This grimy pollution combined with the sound of dying animals made the area exceedingly unpleasant.
The local supply of meat soon became inadequate and livestock was driven to the city from as far west as Ohio. With the rise of the industrial revolution the drivers were however superseded by railway lines and steam powered vessels. Animals grazing on the shores of New Jersey were barged across the Hudson River to meet their demise. Cattle traffic became so heavy that two underground cattle tracks were constructed in order to drive animals under, instead of across Twelfth Avenue. Consequently the number of slaughterhouses along the Hudson River increased tremendously and the city’s midtown waterfront became known as the “Slaughterhouse District” and the largest center of beef production in the country.
These concentrated slaughterhouses were a major public health issue and so in 1870 the Board of Health adopted a sanitary code that regulated the hygiene and also banned a few slaughterhouses between second and Tenth Avenue. Big new companies like Schwarzchild and Sulzberger developed large factories with improved sanitation for slaughtering and processing meat – these were modeled after slaughterhouses near Paris known as “abattoirs”. Animals were herded along ramps to upper stories to be slaughtered and cleaned by teams of butchers working in long rows of baulks. Meat was stored in ice rooms in the lower stories and waste parts were processed by workers. From the 1870’s to mid-1900s large quantities of fresh meat was shipped from these abattoirs to Europe in containers cooled with ice.
In the early 1900s the city had 240 sites for slaughtering cattle; meatpackers in the city produced the third largest volume of dressed meat in country during the 1920s and 1930s. Manhattan’s Refrigeration Company operated a power plant and nine warehouses in the neighborhood. The development of the Chelsea Piers also helped to build the neighborhood into one of the largest districts of wholesale meat, poultry, and seafood distribution. During the early 1990s Gansevoort Market and the West Washington Market was the center for wholesale meat trade and the place where the majority of the city’s slaughterhouses were situated.
After World War II the market declined tremendously due to the cost of labor and the industry’s dependence on new technology. The slaughtering district on Manhattan’s east side was cleared for the United Nations Plaza in 1940, and that on the west side was closed by strikes in the 1960’s. Meat dealers declined drastically in number and became concentrated around west 14th street (the Meatpacking District). Soon the advantages of the Meatpacking District were overshadowed by newer, more efficient and more cost-effective forms of distribution. The shipping industry of the Hudson River declined and by 1979 the Manhattan Refrigerator Company closed down. In 1980 The High-line’s use as railroad was stopped, which additionally impacted the transport of meat. The decline of the meatpacking industry left many empty warehouses and an exceedingly run-down area.
The renaissance of the city in the 1990’s transformed the Meatpacking District into the neighborhood it is today – a high-end area for young professionals and luxury boutiques, expensive restaurants and grand housing. Currently fewer than thirty businesses connected to the meatpacking industry remain. The majority of the warehouses are now filled with top designer stores and trendy restaurants. Certain warehouses, particularly those located towards the Hudson River edge of the Meatpacking District, serve as storage facilities for automobile companies. The Gansevoort Market Historic District was established by the New York City Landmarks preservation Commission in 2003 to sustain the historical quality of the neighborhood. The preservation of the exterior of the buildings and the old-fashioned cobblestone roads allow the neighborhood to still closely resemble the appearance it held a few centuries ago. There is a sense of “sameness” when walking around the neighborhood due to the few landmarks and the lack of mixed-uses. What once was a center for meatpacking now is a center for nightlife and upscale shopping.
- Only a few meat storage companies remain.
- Gody, Lou, Chester D. Harvey, and James Reed. The WPA Guide to New York City. Rev ed. American Guide Series. New York: Random House, 1939.
- MEATPACKING DISTRICT, Manhattan | | Forgotten New. Forgotten New York. Accessed November 14, 2013. http://forgotten-ny.com/2006/02/meatpacking-district-manhattan/.
- Friends of Hudson River Park. “An Urban Waterfront Retreat Rich With History.” Hudson River Park. Accessed November 12, 2013. http://www.hudsonriverpark.org/education-and-environment/history.