Meatpacking mecca packs in history history

| 04 Mar 2015 | 01:35

Why is it called the Meatpacking District when there are only six meat packers there, down from about 250? Inertia, most likely.

Located on the shore of the Hudson River, it’s a relatively small district in Manhattan stretching from Gansevoort Street at the foot of the High Line north to and including West 14th Street and from the river three blocks east to Hudson Street. Until its recent life as a go-to high fashion mecca, it was for almost 150 years a working market: dirty, gritty, and blood-stained.

For decades it was a market hosting farmers from miles around who came to sell their wares, much as they do today in farmers’ markets across the city. Farmers started gathering in the 1860s, migrating from overcrowded markets farther south. They set up at the corner of Gansevoort and Greenwich streets, spontaneously creating the Gansevoort Farmers’ Market.

Gansevoort Street has a pretty interesting history itself. It was originally an Indian footpath to the river, following the same route it has today. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was known variously as Old Kill, Great Kill and Great Kiln road. A kiln—pronounced at the time and in some quarters still with a silent “n”—was an oven or furnace, which in this case burned oyster shells to reduce them to mortar, an essential ingredient for the bricks-and-mortar building trade.

In 1811, expecting a war with Britain, the city created landfill at the foot of Old Kill and erected a fort there. It was called Fort Gansevoort in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, Peter Gansevoort, who much later became the grandfather of the author Herman Melville. The street was renamed for the fort in 1937, even though the fort had been pulled down 90 years earlier.

In the early 1830s, the Hudson River shoreline ran along Washington Street north of Jane Street, jutting out where the fort stood.

Elsewhere, construction began in 1846 on the Hudson River Railroad with a terminus planned on Gansevoort Street for a train yard and freight depot. The fort was leveled at that time in order to accommodate it. The city created landfill extending all the way up to Midtown and farther. West Street and beyond it, 13th Avenue, were created, and farmers moved west to share that land. Piers, docks and wharves were built in the river–an 1854 map shows lumber, coal and stone yards on both sides of West Street. Exactly when meat marketers joined the farmers is not known, but most likely it happened little by little over time.

The 9th Avenue el was built in the late 1860s to bring in produce and people who commuted to the area. Residential construction was undertaken for the increased numbers of workers, modest houses four and five stories high. Also in the late 1860s the Hudson River Railroad abandoned its train yard, and the market took over that space entirely. Crowded doesn’t begin to describe it.

In 1889 the city built West Washington Market, wholesale facilities for meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products across West Street on 13th Avenue to rent to farmers. More wholesalers applied for space than could possibly be accommodated, and the situation became even more frenetic the following year when brine-cooled water began to be pumped under West Street to provide refrigeration.

About 30 of the houses built in the area didn’t last very long, but were reduced over a period of about 50 years starting in the 1880s, knocked down to two or three stories. Sometimes two or three houses were joined, and instead of front rooms, kitchens, sitting rooms and bedrooms, the houses were gutted to create large interior spaces in which food could be handled and people could work. Once party walls were removed, those large open spaces could not support upper stories, so they were taken down to allow the load to meet capacity and the buildings were altered to two or three floors—offices upstairs—becoming what you see now as the characteristic building type in the district.

To many of those buildings, canopies were added with hooks on conveyor belts so that carcasses, when they were delivered (the animals were slaughtered and skinned elsewhere) could be loaded on the hooks and trundled inside, where they were dressed, i.e. cut into chops and roasts for retail sale. Those canopies—minus the hooks—are considered a characteristic feature of the district and remain.

Early in the 20th century, technology enabled the building of steamships and ocean liners with greater load capacity, which in turn meant deeper drafts. Nineteenth-century landfill obstructed them, so, rather than lose lucrative docking tariffs to competing ports, New York City dredged the same landfill it had created, allowing the new ships to enter and demolishing 13th Avenue in the process. That’s why you don’t see it any more.

The disadvantages of the Gansevoort Market were beginning to be felt in the late 1930s. For one thing, organized gangs were extorting money for good spaces, or any space at all, and it was pretty much impossible to move around. For another, 99-year warehouse leases began to expire. When they could, farmers migrated to other markets farther downtown, in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Some farmers continued to sell produce across West Street until mid-century, but they didn’t pay the city much for their stalls. Meat marketers paid more, and possibly for that reason, the city made plans to build special market buildings for them and turn the Gansevoort Market into a city-wide meat distribution center. It was finished in 1950, occupying city-owned land where Fort Gansevoort had stood. It was demolished very recently for the new Whitney Museum, which is almost finished, the third major piece of construction in 200 years to occupy the site of the old Fort Gansevoort.

Meat marketers one by one finally joined their fellow food producers in the Bronx starting in the 1990s, and that is why there are so few meat packers left in the Meatpacking District.

In 2002 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the meatpacking district as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, and many other types of businesses, especially those in the high-end fashion world, began to headquarter there. Those little two story buildings have been altered once again to accommodate new market uses, and life goes on. In some cases, life goes on as before; just last year, a new “Gansevoort Market” food hall opened on Gansevoort Street.

This article originally appeared on 6sqft, a website dedicated to delivering the latest on real estate, architecture, and design, straight from New York City. View the original at Reprinted with permission.