The Tenderloin

Checker Cab and newlyweds

“Hey there, where to?”

“9 Ave. and 13 St.”

“Are ya going to catch?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“I’m a cabdriver, we should know where the hotspots are. It’s new and a pretty popular club but I have yet to get inside of it.”

Without a doubt, there is no other neighborhood in Manhattan right now that polarizes New Yorkers like the Meatpacking District. Fashionistas and those with money flock to it, tourists put it on their must-see list when visiting town, and locals shun it like the plague. Times Square may evoke similar love/hate feelings but the Crossroads of the World hasn’t changed a whole lot since the last of the “Times Towers” were completed in the middle of the last decade.

The area where 9 Ave. dissolves into a jumble of cobblestone-laden rues is another story altogether. At one time, Meatpacking was a moniker that the neighborhood deserved. Old-style loft buildings with loading docks were home to processing plants that handled much of the beef that the Big Apple consumed. So many trucks rumbled through the streets that the highway and rail line that ran through the West Side were elevated to avoid the numerous grade-crossing conflicts that arose each day. No one wanted to live, work, or eat in an open-air slaughterhouse that was the east coast’s version of The Jungle and the only signs of life at night were those of the LGBT persuasion that roamed the streets looking to turn tricks.

Like so many instances of my youth, one of my biggest regrets was that I was not able to photograph the area when I first made my way through it alone in the mid-90’s. What would have shown up on the images were old buildings long past their prime, a giant Western Beef depot, empty streets, an occasional rumbling truck, and the old diners that served those who held the blue-collar jobs that were rapidly fading from the cityscape. It was a wonderland for those intrepid enough to make the trek down there, but not terribly exciting for those looking to pass the day in the neighborhood.

Nothing could be further from the truth now. Like so much of New York, Postindustrialization has taken root there and flourished to the point where the mere mentioning of the neighborhood in conversation now elicits snickers. At the heart of this lies none other than Ganesvoort Street and while it’s not terribly long when it comes to venues on the Manhattan Street grid, it is the epitome of the infrastructural change and stasis that characterizes Gotham today. Both ends of it were sites of massive projects that altered the lives of nearly every New Yorker with the east end block off for a Water Tunnel #3 shaft and the west end the site of the collapse that spelled the untimely end of the West Side Highway. In between are much of the things that characterize the district as we know it today: The construction of the new Whitney Museum, the shuttered remains of Florent, the clubs all in a row, and a cobblestone street to link them all together. None of the buildings were in the same state 10 years ago and it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll be a decade from now but given how high rents are climbing, it’s unlikely that the stasis will take effect and turn the neighborhood into a living museum that will serve as a reminder of how the uber-rich partied in the late 2000’s and ’10’s.

In the middle of this runs the highly-praised High Line, which many have lauded as the catalyst for the neighborhood. While the change would have taken place with or without it, it has been a gigantic draw for locals, tourists, and architects alike. 30 years after the last trainload of frozen turkeys rumbled on it, it was reborn as an Urban Park modeled after one in Paris, for the enjoyment of all. What many New Yorkers are unaware of is that it used to continue south of its current terminus, having been quietly torn down years before the remaining section was reborn as an elevated promenade. Like the Highway a block to the west, decay had taken its toll in a era where destruction was the conventional wisdom. Today, the thought of eliminating a right-of-way that valuable would be met with outcry, if for no other reason than preserving it as a transit route in a city that desperately needs more. Whether the High Line was reused properly will be the subject of debate far into the future but one thing for sure is that it has been a success, largely due to the integration into the buildings and streetscape of Far West Side and not the avoidance of it like in its previous incarnation.

Colorful bari sax player – High Line

As some retailers move out and other areas of the city that are cheap continue to gentrify, the Meatpacking District may see a day where it’s not a “hot spot” anymore. Given how many times I drop off and pick up down there, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Much of the city’s next hotel boom will oddly be on the Lower East Side and if zoning was ever changed, that could be fashionista central within a few years. Even the old Essex Street Trolley Terminal under Delancey Street could be reinvented as the “Low Line” – the next urban relic reinvented for a city that glorifies and commodifies the past, in the form of public-private partnerships. For now, that remains to be seen whether the trendiness of the West Side will migrate eat and reinvent a neighborhood that bridges Hipsterville with the rest of Manhattan.

“Here you go.”

“Thanks Pat.”

“Not problem. You missed it at the bar – I ended up eating the snacks that they left out on it because I thought they were for everyone seated there. Apparently they weren’t, as the people next to me gave me a look as I snuck one in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I had to have one since it took so long to get our drinks. This place reminds me so much of a casino even though I haven’t been in one in years.”

“It is pretty nice in here.”

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the city, just like what I heard. Such a 70’s look to it but I don’t see it getting outdated anytime soon. I know things cost a fortune in here but this was worth it. How’s your drink?”

“Good, yours?”

“It’s wonderful, but anything with Saint Germain is. Want to try some?”

“Sure.”

“You know, it’s funny. I take people through right by this hotel all the time and now it’s so odd seeing it from up here. Everything looks so small and so distant. I can see why they call this the Boom Boom room. I’m glad you’re here with me to take it in.”

“It’s nice to be with you too Pat.”

The woman I was with that night is no longer in my life but just like out time on top of the Standard, I’ll cherish our time together. It’s always nice to reminisce, even if I’m not meant to live the high life right now.

The view from the Standard

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Lights Out

Still no sign of the Halloween Parade – West Village

“Hey there, where to?”

“Fulton and William.”

“Alrighty. I know the power’s out south of 34 St. Do ya mind if I take the FDR down? The less intersections I have to go through, the better.”

“Do what you have to do and get us as close to home as you can.”

“No problem.”

And so it went. The end of the above conversation was repeated quite a few times last week as many New Yorkers were forced to go home at night, even if they didn’t have much of anything there waiting for them.

Much was written about the Hurricane that the Big Apple bore the onslaught of last week and much more will be penned in the coming weeks and months as the city continues to clean up and get back onto its feet again. There was no doubt that this storm was powerful – enough so to force the cancellation of the Village Halloween Parade, the Marathon, a week of school, early voting for tomorrow’s election, and countless end-of-season festivals, street fairs, and neighborhood events. The common thread that I read about, and to a lesser extent heard in my cab, was how similar this was to 9/11, when it came to shock, awe, and devastation inflicted on New Yorkers. Upon a closer look though, that really wasn’t the case.

I was not in the city on 9/11 but was planning on going in that Tuesday since I turned 25 the day before. I went out to watch the Giants open up Monday Night Football the night of my birthday and anyone who was in the city that day can recall how beautiful and clear the sky was when the planes hit. What most people don’t remember is how it poured that Monday before, and I mean poured as in not letting up for hours on end. It was because of that that my usual trek through the city alone on my birthday had to be postponed for a day, and then for a week.

When the Towers fell, most people thought that we had reached a turning point in American History. Our economic might had already peaked, the economy would dip into a serious recession, Lower Manhattan would never recover, tons of buildings would either fall of have to be torn down in later months, and thousands upon thousands would become the first casualties of what would be dubbed the “War on Terror”. Thankfully, most of those assessments did not come to fruition as most of Lower Manhattan was cleaned up and on the road to recovery by the time the last steel beam was removed from Ground Zero 6 months later. The nation moved on, only the Deustche Bank building had to be razed, and the Battle of Antietam remained the bloodiest day in American History. History proved to be the ultimate judge of what happened on 9/11, even if the toll was still grim in the end.

Sandy turned out to be a completely different beast, as the cancelling of the Marathon proved to New Yorkers. For all of his good intentions, Mayor Bloomberg was wrong to want to go forward with a race less than a week after the city came to a halt. 9/11 was nearly two months before the race and there were only 16 acres directly affected by the planes that struck Manhattan. The last storm was powerful enough to remind New Yorkers of the giant land mass at the western end of the Verrazano Bridge and the beaches on the far side of JFK. For them, life will never be the same and it will bring into question the uneasy relationship between the far-flung reaches of New York and the economic center of the city that receives the lion’s share of money and attention.

This week’s cover of New York served as a hauntingly beautiful reminder of how much of Manhattan was plunged into darkness due to the storm and the clear demarcation line that resulted from the power outage. I had to cross it several times during my shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and it was extremely difficult to imagine that it was not the first time that the lights had gone out there on such a massive scale. Anyone who could recall the blackouts of ’65, ’77, and ’03 will vouch that they were notable in city’s history for different reasons. The causes, and reaction by those stuck in the dark led to changes in infrastructure and policing in the affected areas. Once again, those will be the issues that the next Mayor of New York will have to address when the cleanup is done.

The truth is that the Big Apple is only as good as the conditions of the utility and transportation networks in it. Many historians have cited the Blizzard of 1888 as the catalyst that led to the burying of the electrical system and the creation of what later became the IRT, the city’s first underground rapid-transit system. With a fare hike looming in March, the relationship of the transit system to the patrons who use it will be under increased scrutiny over the winter as the final numbers are worked out. New Yorkers hate having to dig deeper to get on a bus or train for what they feel is a lack of return for the extra money being shelled out. What many of them don’t realize is that the system is so expansive and antiquated that any lack of a fare hike will only hurt in the long run. Having to maintain and expand the mass-transit network will be important in the future as the price of oil will remain high and the policy of developing the waterfront and using ferries to haul passengers between the glistening new towers will have to be looked as closer. Sandy reminded us that New York is quite an expansive locale and all areas will have to be kept in the fray for the city to remain competitive and desirable for those looking to live there. Having the Rockaways cut off from the mainland will not just affect those who live there, but will serve as a black eye on the administration as a whole, showing the world that it cannot afford to provide basic necessities for those on the periphery.

In the coming months, the Macy’s parade will weave its way through the West Side, the tree at Rockefeller Center will be lit, and the ball will drop on New Year’s in Times Square. The people watching these events on TV will undoubtedly be touched by the heartwarming resolve of the people of New York but what they won’t see are the Sandy’s of the future that threaten the Big Apple. Fault lines under upper Manhattan could awaken at any time, rising sea levels would permanently wipe out much of Zone A, and any number of terrorist plots could expose fragile grids and people’s nerves that are still in the process of healing. The real resolve of New Yorkers will not come in getting the next holiday celebration off without a hitch, but whether they have the patience and fortitude to address long term environmental, infrastructural, and sustainability issues before the City gets to the point of no return.

Right PSA, wrong city pictured – Murray Hill