New York in the 1980s was a far cry from the city it is today. At the time, Manhattan was crime-ridden and full of burned-out buildings and unresolved tensions. For photographer Brian Rose, who lived through that era, the present-day city can be startling.
“New York was at a precarious point in time. The city could easily have gone the way of Detroit. We didn’t know,” Rose told Business Insider. “Lower Manhattan was a post-apocalyptic landscape of crumbling buildings and abandoned streets. You couldn’t tell things were going to get better until the late ’80s.”
Rose recently completed a photographic study of one of Manhattan’s most-changed neighborhoods, the Meatpacking District, which has transformed over the last 20 years from an open-air industrial meat market to a glittering hub of nightlife and restaurants. Rose originally photographed the area in 1985 and returned in 2013 to document the same street corners.
Rose has collected his photos from both 1985 and 2013 in a book, “Metamorphoses,” which you can purchase here. He has shared some photos with us, but you can check out the rest in the book or on his website.
The Meatpacking District in the 1980s was a derelict scene. In the early morning hours, trucks rolled in and workers got started on the meat trade. By midday, the streets were 'semi-abandoned,' according to Rose.
At night in the '80s, the neighbourhood was an underground gay mecca that housed leather shops, sex clubs, and bathhouses. Prostitutes, primarily transgendered, strolled in packs along Washington Street.
Today, new buildings are going up all the time. Though most new construction is built on the outskirts of the area due to landmark zoning restrictions, an office building is rising in the heart of the neighbourhood. All six floors will be rented by Samsung.
For the majority of the 20th century, the Meatpacking District was primarily famous for just that -- meat packaging. In 1900, the area was home to 250 slaughterhouses and packaging plants. By the 1930s, the district produced the US's third-largest volume of dressed meats.
Though that number dwindled to 160 by 1974, it wasn't until new food regulations and escalating property values arrived that many of the slaughterhouses decided to leave the area. By 1995, half of the businesses had left.
The gay nightclub scene in Meatpacking plummeted in the late '80s as the AIDs crisis took hold and then-Mayor Koch had the Department of Health close down all of the area's bathhouses, bars, and clubs where 'high-risk sexual activities' took place.
Artists and trend-seekers began to move into the area in the '90s as crime diminished and the rent stayed relatively cheap. A few restaurants moved in, but the meatpacking industry, which was still had a hold in the area, prevented many people from moving in.
The exodus of the meat industry was accelerated with the opening of a 100,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse in Hunts Point, Bronx in 2002. Though Hunts Point had long been a food distribution center, the addition of the warehouse and the relocation of lower Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market to the area moved much of the meat industry to the Bronx.
As slaughterhouses and packaging plants left, the buildings and storefronts they left behind were snatched up by prospecting developers and landlords who moved quickly to bring in restaurants, bars, and high-end fashion stores.
For a time, the neighbourhood was stuck between its meaty past and its high-class future. In a recent documentary, Michelle Dell, the owner of Hogs & Heifers', one of the first bars to move in in the '90s, summed up the dynamic: '... Women started rolling around in their Jimmy Choo and their Guccis slipping and sliding in streets that were covered in this sort of thin film of meat sludge.'
The change accelerated in 1999 when two fashionable restaurants -- Markt and Fressen -- opened in the area. In 2000, famous NYC restaurateur Keith McNally opened Pastis. People lined up to get in.
In 1999, Jeffrey Kalinsky opened his namesake shop Jeffrey, beginning the fashion scene in the area. In just a few years, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Rubin & Chapelle, and Diane Von Furstenberg all opened shops nearby.
While stores were attracted by the 'edgy' energy in the neighbourhood, they were also attracted by the low rents that the empty storefronts offered.
Soon after the fashion stores moved in, national brands began to move in. Ever-trendy, the Apple Store was one of the first.
In recent years, many of the original fashion houses moved out of the area as rents have skyrocketed. Levis, Lululemon, and other chain stores have moved in to fill in the gaps.
The West Side Line was a railroad line that ran along the west side of Manhattan through the High Line, a stretch of elevated track that runs through the Meatpacking District.
In 2006, construction began to repurpose the railway into an urban park and aerial greenway. The opening of the High Line Park in 2009 signaled a new era in the neighbourhood. The park has spurred real estate development.
According to Rose, who has lived in New York on and off since 1977, the transformation of Meatpacking was unusually fast. While areas like SoHo and the Lower East Side gentrified over the course of 30 years, Meatpacking really transformed over the course of a few years in the early 2000s.
'Barely 12 years after (the meat market moved to the Bronx in 2002), the neighbourhood has completely changed. We're already in the second or third wave of changes in the neighbourhood. I never seen any change as abrupt as that,' says Rose.
The neighbourhood isn't done changing. As landlords opt for higher rents and new high-priced condos enter the mix, the area seems on a definite trend upward.
'The Meatpacking District is just a tiny piece of Manhattan, but it symbolizes a lot of what has happened in this city, for good or ill,' says Rose.
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