From Meat to Chic: A Brief History of New York’s Meatpacking District

From Meat to Chic: A Brief History of New York’s Meatpacking District
New York's Meatpacking District-1
Image credit: Bjoertvedt, NY Meatpacking District IMG 2206 gansewoort st horatio st, CC BY-SA 3.0

As a relatively small district on the west side of Manhattan, New York’s Meatpacking District is bordered by the West Village to the south and Chelsea to the north. Home to fashion designers, architects, restaurateurs, and some of the biggest brands in the world, the neighborhood takes its name from the hundreds of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants that it used to be home to. At their peak in the late 1920s, there were some 250 of these companies — some of which remain to this day.

Even though the district’s industrial and gritty past has largely given way to high-end boutiques, stunning galleries, and an exciting nightlife, the Meatpacking District maintains its unique character. An eclectic mix of cobblestone streets and high-rises, historical architecture and modern retail, and a diverse community from every walk of life await those looking to explore one of New York’s most beloved travel destinations.

So, let’s take a brief look at this district’s fascinating history, and the people, places, and events that have made it what it is today.

The Early Days

History of New York's Meatpacking District 1
This image is in public domain.

Before meatpacking was the central activity in the area, the district was originally a Native American trading station known as Sapokanikan, where every kind of product — from terra cotta and lumber to fresh produce — was bought and sold. In the 1860s, farmers began to migrate here to escape the overcrowded markets in the south, setting up what is known today as the Gansevoort Farmers’ Market. Meanwhile, today’s Chelsea Market was once the headquarters of the National Biscuit Company (now part of Kraft Foods, Inc.), which, between 1898 and 1959, made Oreos and Nilla Wafers for households across America.

The aftermath of the Civil War saw the rise of the eponymous meatpacking plants, and the streets became home to carcasses and slabs of chicken, beef, and pork being traded and transported. Other companies, this time in the cigar, automobile, printing, and cosmetics industries, also grew.

But as maritime traffic decreased in the 1960s, the Meatpacking District experienced a decline until the 1990s. Unfortunately, this meant the closure of many of the meatpacking plants that gave the district its name, giving way to supermarkets and new neighborhoods.

A Place to See and be Seen

The late 1990s marked the rise of new development in the area. Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of the high-end Jeffery boutique chain, is largely credited as the first retail leader to see the potential of the neighborhood, choosing to set up shop in the Meatpacking District in 1999. And many were quick to follow — the likes of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Chistian Louboutin, Moschino, and Diane von Furstenberg among them.

In the year 2000, the groundbreaking show Sex and the City saw one of its leads, Samantha, move to the neighborhood, sparking new and exciting public consciousness of the Meatpacking District to viewers around the globe. By 2004, the district was named “New York’s most fashionable neighborhood.”

From then on, developers never looked back. The district saw the launch of an Apple Store in 2007, and The Standard Hotel in 2008. The High Line, an elevated park built on the now-defunct railway, was introduced a year later. Between 2010 and 2012, big name brands like Levi’s and Sephora also made their entrance. All these and more cemented the Meatpacking District’s status as the place to see and be seen.

What to See and Experience

Despite the dramatic glass and steel changes in the area, particularly along the High Line, the Meatpacking District retains much of its old charm — though thankfully, with less blood and animal carcasses. Greek Revival architecture and chic brick-covered lofts stand alongside high-rises and high-end stores.

And if you ever find yourself in the area, here are some of the top spots and activities you should go out and explore:

The High Line

For years, what’s known today as The High Line was an abandoned elevated railroad track and, at one point, was destined for demolition. That is, until the local community rallied together to repurpose the overhead district feature into a park in the sky. Today, the 1.45 mile track, which starts on Gansevoort Street, features stunning views of the Hudson River, over 500 kinds of plants and trees, public art, and fun events — all to be enjoyed on your own two feet. Stargazing activities on Tuesdays are a must-try.

The Standard Hotel

Highline NYC
Image credit: JessyeAnne, Highline NYC 4043997124 cbcac90545, CC BY 2.0

Located right along the High Line in the heart of the Meatpacking District, The Standard is a go-to spot for travelers looking for the best food, culture, and nightlife that the city can offer. Over the years, it has made an indelible mark not just on the city skyline, but also on local culture.

Treat yourself to a fancy dinner at the top of the Shard or, if you’re up for some excitement, pay a visit to the Standard Grill on Sundays for the hotel’s fun twist on the classic game of bingo. Not many know that New York was the birthplace of bingo, a historical feature on Foxy Bingo notes, with toy manufacturer Edwin Lowe being credited for its rise. And although bingo has a reputation for being popular among older folks, the hotel’s Not Your Standard Bingo brings this classic game to the 21st century with exciting activities and dazzling prizes, like Helmut Lang gift cards, Tory Burch handbags, and more.

The Chelsea Market and the Gansevoort Farmers Market

The trendy Chelsea Market pays tribute to its past as a biscuit factory, with brick walls and factory-like floors. But the vendors it houses now sell everything from delicious baked goods, crepes, and tacos, to imported home furnishings and designer clothing. Vegans will also love noodle soups from Very Fresh Noodles, as well as Japanese options at Beyond Sushi.

Just a stone’s throw away is the historic Gansevoort Farmers Market. Smaller and quieter than the Chelsea Market, Gansevoort is a more intimate food hall that features a wide variety of cuisines — from rich ramen bowls and Korean-style fried chicken, to gourmet pizza and burgers. Don’t miss out on a fun dining experience at the picnic tables underneath the sunroof.

The Whitney Museum

Image credit: MusikAnimal, The Whitney Museum, New York City in 2015, CC BY-SA 4.0

Nestled right at the end of the High Line, the 50,000 square foot Whitney Museum is one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world. The permanent collection features American art from the 20th and 21st centuries, but the museum also works with emerging talent for exciting exhibits. After a full day of browsing through their galleries, you can head down to the museum’s restaurant, Untitled.

Samsung 837

Last but definitely not least is the Samsung 837, a digital playground exploring all things technology, sports, fashion, and art. The technological showroom is a three-level building that invites guests to try out Samsung products alongside events in wellness, gaming, and photography, among others. There are even live podcasts and DJ performances for you to enjoy.

It’s not hard at all to fall in love with the Meatpacking District. A neighborhood constantly evolving and innovating, the district is the center of activity and culture in NYC.

Scott is the editor-in-chief of Spice Market New York. He is also an author and publisher of his own craft.