Exchanging a rib eye steak for custom made jeans

By Margarita Persico

New York, NY — In the TV series Sex and the City, Samantha Jones runs away from her Upper East Side “rent and life controlled” apartment, as the star of the series Carrie Bradshaw, puts it, and moves to the “hot and trendy Meatpacking District (MPD) where rents were much, much higher.”

Samantha Jones, a sexy blond New Yorker in her mid-forties, seems to be always in the right places. This once gritty neighborhood with cobblestone streets whose main industry has been cutting up cattle and distributing its parts is now becoming a fashionable hotspot.

New businesses and more affluent residents are coming in, and meatpackers, butchers, artists and other low income residents are leaving. Some call this process gentrification. Others call it recycling by restoring the old.

In Sex and the City, neighbors on Gansevoort Street are quiet transsexuals during the day and a noisy nuisance during the nights as customers arrive soliciting services. In real-life, stay-at-home moms with strollers, young businesspeople in suits and sophisticated club goers mix with the transsexuals in the lively Meatpacking District.

The smell of fresh meat is, however, still in the air. Men with long white jackets and navy baseball caps carry out of the building a meat hanger of rib eye steak—a constant scene for the passersby early in the morning at the 22-block area between Chelsea and Greenwich Village. The area may be even more radically changed when a former elevated railway used for transporting meats will be converted into a park in the skies, modeled after Paris’s Promenade Plantée.

Meatpacking District (Photo: Margarita Persico)

Plans are underway for a museum, a hotel and the restoration of an old local relic: the West Side Elevated Freight Railroad. Known as the High Line, the 6.7 acre train tracks historically used to transport meats to the MPD will soon turn into an elevated park at a cost of $130 million.

The High Line that cuts from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street was built of steel and reinforced concrete covering 1.45 miles. The line was discontinued in 1983 opening the market to trucks only, and the elevated train tracts were rescued from demolition in 1999 by the non-profit organization Friends of the High Line.

The High Line is a promise to increase even more the migration of upper-class people and businesses into the area. A satellite of the Whitney Museum of American Art will open at the old location of Western Beef attached to the entrance of the elevated park, and The Standard Hotel will straddle the High Line.

But the rapid transition from working class to trendy is already very apparent. One of the butchers at Walmir Meats on Washington Street, a 67-year-old Italian man who declined to give his name, noticed the changes during the last decade, as “yuppies” started buying the place, he says. “Once they buy the building, they do not want meats,” says the butcher who started working in the MPD in 1960.

The butcher claims that the yuppies want to turn the place into a tourist site. Dressed in a pristine white long jacket over his clothes, the butcher recalls when artists lived for free in the rat-infested lofts above the meat packers. Now, he says, “they pay $3,000-$4,000 a month [for the lofts] as-is. …None of the flats are renovated.”

Gansevoort Street is just around the corner – the street where the fictional Samantha Jones lived. Jones’ extroverted character epitomizes the image of the affluent yuppies that have been displacing the butchers. The number of butcher shops in the area fell from 150 to nearly 25 in the past two decades.

Butchers still greet their customers—meat distributors who arrive in trucks and park in front of brick buildings with jutting metal awnings. These awnings have conveyors underneath to latch meats onto the hooks, which are then loaded into the trucks waiting on the docks.

New establishments are replacing the MPD meat houses to supply the new neighborhood with some “basic” needs: world-renowned restaurants, designer boutiques, and art galleries. There is a new crowd at the MPD, says Yat Sang, manager at Highline, an upscale Thai restaurant that opened two years ago on Washington Street.

Its contemporary white exterior structure draws attention almost as if violating a building code in an area where all buildings are rusty brick exterior and exude an old Wild West ambiance. Young people from New Jersey are visiting on weekends, Sang adds.

“The night life here is really popular and it is slowly becoming more of a shopping destination,” says Anya, 29, who declined to give her last name, has been working at Girlshop for two years.

“Right now… it’s super, super trendy,” says Paul Fox who works as a digital technician for Digital Inc. at the MPD. “You walk around and there is a lot of construction going on. They are just opening a lot of new restaurants and clubs. It is becoming the new hot spot in the city.”

He says that popular hangouts are STK, a steak house; and Buddakan, a Pan-Asian-fusion restaurant. Celebrity chef Mario Batali has followed the crowd to the MPD to establish Del Posto, where a tasting menu goes for $120 per person.

Integration of the “old” and the “new” at the Meat Packing District is symbolized at the end of one of Sex and the City’s episodes, when Samantha Jones invites her transsexual neighbors, Destiny, China, and Jo, for a “kiss and make-up party,” as Bradshaw puts it.

They drink Destiny’s flirtini—a mix of vodka, pineapple and champagne — and dance on Jones’ roof top on a sunny summer day. The camera zooms away from the roof top party filled with yuppie newcomers to the neighborhood brick buildings in an aerial view of Chelsea, the Village and finally the Empire State building. The Meatpacking District is beckoning the world to notice.

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