Writer Piper Hoffman reports from a vegetarian perspective on what remains of NYC’s once thriving industry
When Donatella Versace and H&M debuted their new collaborative collection last month, they erected their highly hyped catwalk at the historic Pier 57 in the Meatpacking District. Despite its name, the area is now more often associated with fashion, art and trendy dining spots than the slicing, dicing and packaging of dead animals. But this wave of gentrification has not swallowed up the whole neighborhood.
The holdouts are a small group of businesses in Gansevoort Market, a block-sized complex run as a co-op at Little West 12th and Washington streets. Each company’s plant, reached by shallow metal stairs, is far from a modern-looking hall housing an assembly line. Instead, these white-walled rooms are small and sparely furnished with one or two metal tables and, in some cases, carcasses hanging from the ceiling on giant hooks.
These meatpacking companies’ names hearken back to the Boss Tweed days: Weichshel Beef Wholesale, London Meat Company, John W. Williams Inc., J.T. Jobaggy. They are owned and managed by men—only men—who have been in the business for decades; some of them even inheriting their business from their father.
I should disclose that I haven’t eaten meat in 26 years; my husband stopped eating meat soon after our 1995 wedding. This diet isn’t a health regimen but a boycott of what I consider a cruel industry. That belief has motivated more than my food choices: I ran an animal law group in law school, worked as an animal rights litigator after law school, and have participated in the Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals of the New York City Bar Association.
When I set out to learn about what remains of meatpacking in the district named after it, I didn’t expect to like the people involved. I certainly didn’t expect them to throw their plants’ doors open to me. But they proved me wrong.
When I asked a London Meat worker whether I could talk to someone about the industry, he said, “Absolutely, I’ll get him,” and he did. A worker for J.T. Jaboggy said he thought the owner was out for breakfast—then took me to the diner on the corner to look for him.
Meatpackers receive the whole or sectioned remains of already slaughtered animals and slice them into the portions familiar from menus and butcher shops: filet mignon, lamb chops, rump roast. They broil out pathogens in hot rooms (160 degrees for six to 24 hours), and ferment or dry-age sausage and prime cuts of steak in cooling rooms crammed with floor-to-ceiling shelves to accommodate all of the product.
When the raw material arrives it looks like enormous, impersonal slabs of flesh. But when the packaged chunks leave the building, they look like dinner. Well, not to me, but to most Americans.
Odd but Friendly Neighbors
John Jaboggy, the tall and lanky owner of J.T. Jaboggy, is always on. In his small, cluttered office, in the Gansevoort Market, he fields a stream of phone calls and visitors without losing the thread of our interview. Jaboggy says that he gets up at 3 a.m. every day. “We have to fabricate [the meat] to get it on the trucks. The truck has to get to its destination early,” he explains.
Over the course of our conversation, Jaboggy recalls the frenetic pace of cutting and hauling in the Meatpacking District of 40 years ago. He estimates that between 200 to 250 meat companies, from small storefronts to large warehouse-size facilities, operated in the area at the time, and the industry dominated the neighborhood. “Every company and storefront was a meat company,” he said. From 15th Street down to Gansevoort and from Ninth Avenue across to Washington Street, “it was packed with meat companies.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, a few hundred slaughterhouses and packing plants filled the District. Within a few decades the area had become one of the largest producers of packaged meat in the nation. Garbage incineration also developed in the area as a separate industry. This combination of odiferous and deserted nighttime streets kept most folks away, creating an opportunity for an underground subculture. The 1970s saw a burgeoning nightlife of drugs and prostitution, facilitated in no small part by a growing number of sex clubs and BDSM bars. Gay leather bars, like members-only Mineshaft and The Manhole, opened for business.
By the early 1990s, though, the atmosphere had begun to change as the rents started rising, and by the mid-’90s, high-priced boutiques ventured in. The neighborhood’s chic status was sealed when Sex and the City moved its character Samantha Jones to the district in 2000.
The biggest rise in real estate prices and rents occurred in the last 10 years, according to Jonathan Anapol, a real estate agent with Prime Manhattan Realty. With 15 years of experience selling Meatpacking District properties, Anapol says that the last decade has also “exhibited the greatest changes in ownership” from private families to corporate landlords, coinciding with lots of renovation.
Despite the continued presence of meatpackers amid the high-priced fashion and brunches, Michael Milano, owner of London Meat Co. and Milano Sausage who has worked in the neighborhood for over 20 years, says there isn’t any tension between his business and his upscale neighbors. “People came here for a reason. They like the Meatpacking District. It’s always been a quiet neighborhood,” he said.
Jaboggy, who followed his father and grandfather into the business at the age of 14 in 1970, said, “We don’t really bother with each other. We don’t really mix in any way.” Jaboggy not only knows all the local private landlords, but he knew their parents and even grandparents. Now he is growing friendly with the newer corporate landlords.
Giulio Eliseo, a London Meat employee, says it was the landlords who drove out his fellow companies by raising rents. But he also doesn’t blame the exile or shuttering of the packing businesses in the District on the shops and nightclubs that replaced them.
Jaboggy traces the industry’s local decline to a number of factors. As company owners retired, many of their sons chose not to follow them into the meat business (Jaboggy jokes that they were “the smart ones”–though he himself holds a degree from NYU). The resulting decreased workforce coincided with the rise of vacuum-sealed meat cuts sold directly to restaurants and supermarkets from new plants in the western states. Jaboggy says that the western operations’ expenses, like land and labor, were lower, and some New York-based packers couldn’t compete. On top of that, he adds, the buildings in New York City were aging, raising the cost of compliance with U.S.D.A. regulations. Some meatpackers who outlasted all of those changes were lured away by Hunts Point Market in the Bronx and cheaper real estate in New Jersey.
Ironically, a vegetarian presence is among those that filled the vacuum left by the departing meatpackers. In May a Meatpacking District art gallery called Gavin Brown’s enterprise hosted an exhibit named Go Vegan. The gallery had recently doubled its size by taking over the space that formerly housed Pat LaFreida Meats, which moved to New Jersey.
Mere blocks from Gansevoort Market is Stella McCartney’s clothing boutique, where a coat sells for $2,000. The sales clerk explains that the designer’s shoes and bags are all vegan—they contain no animal products, like leather.
The packers are the surprise in their own neighborhood. When asked whether there were any meatpacking businesses still in the area, a majority of pedestrians polled in the neighborhood (setting aside those who said they did not know) said “no.” A blond tourist from Amsterdam answered confidently, “Not anymore!” His companion disagreed, but admitted that her opinion was formed after consulting her guidebook. A young Brooklynite taking a breather on a sidewalk bench answered, “Not for a while.”
The Road to Gansevoort
The friendly meatpackers who shared their time and histories with me profit from the suffering of animals. I decry what they do but I can’t say it makes them bad people. They certainly don’t think they are doing anything wrong. Eliseo is an animal lover—he has four dogs, which “are probably raised better than most humans are.”
Organizations that have investigated agribusiness, such as the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals, tell a different story. Books have been written describing the fate of creatures born into factory farms: from babies born to mothers confined in crates, to a childhood and adulthood spent in overcrowded pens, to an often brutal death in a slaughterhouse before they are shipped off to a meatpacking plant.
Meeting meatpackers highlighted a dilemma. It is easier in the abstract to condemn people involved in the process of turning conscious, sentient animals into food; it is harder when I meet those people, some of whom are carrying on long family traditions. And when it comes to the people I love, like my family and friends who eat meat, I can’t dismiss them as bad. I try to strike a balance: I oppose the eating of meat, but not the people who do it.
The Meatpacking District has also struck a balance. The boutiques and the meatpackers may not mix, but neither do they clash, and they all thrive: in the difficult economy of the last three years, real estate agent Anapol says, the area “has held its price pretty well.” Sometimes surprising juxtapositions work.
To find more of Piper Hoffman’s work visit her blog at www.piperhoffman.com.
Photo Credits: Dave Whelan / Dan DeLuca / George K. Denison / Sarah Chilcott
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