Homo homini rodentius est

Glamour and gore at the turn of the century

“Why, I’ll just die of AIDS if I don’t score those Onitsuka Tigers!”

The Meatpacking district in Manhattan used to be a rough industrial zone between the Village and Chelsea where animal carcasses shipped in from the Midwest and beyond were butchered and dressed for restaurants throughout the city. At night, when the factories closed, the area became a shadowy haunt for cruising gays and other sexual renegades who plied their trade on the streets and in the many sex clubs tucked away into its dark corners. Over the past 10 years the area has been targeted by relentlessly voracious developers and has become, inexplicably, a trendy hot spot. The few remaining meat processing plants in the neighborhood sit cheek by jowl with fashion boutiques for Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. A posh bistro resides in the space formerly occupied by an S&M club. Butchers in gore-encrusted white coats give the glad eye to passing stick figures on their way from one overpriced boutique to another and on hot summer days the stench of blood putrefying in the gutter mixes with the scent of designer perfume to create a uniquely noisome aroma that is — more than anything I can think of — a symbol of life in Manhattan at the turn of the century.

Last Saturday there was a “block party” in the neighborhood, sponsored by Details magazine, and I stopped by because it was happening on [World AIDS Day]. Given the area’s history in the life of what was gay culture I wanted to see what, if anything, remained to indicate that history. To their credit, Kenneth Cole sponsored a truck out of which they sold designer tee shirts — the proceeds going to AIDS charities. But there were few takers — the real action was in the penthouse cocktail party at the sleek new Gansevoort Hotel, where an army of black-clad schmoozers sipped their drinks and participated in a silent auction of expensive gifts that benefited the neighborhood commercial association. As I wandered through the crowd — a crowd indistinguishable from any just like it at any event just like this one at any time and location in the city’s recent history — I was struck at the amazing efficiency of metastatic wealth. With the precision of a laser scalpel, high-end commercial developers move into a neighborhood and eradicate every unsightly sign of the area’s blemished history, leaving it smooth and clean and perfectly familiar to people like those sipping their cocktails in the penthouse because it has become a brand of neighborhood they know well.

The New Museum opening. Crowds noticeably avoid the neighboring Bowery Mission (small brick buildings to the right).

Later in the day I traveled over to the Bowery — a traditionally run-down area and another recent target of the developers — to witness the opening of the New Museum. Trust me, the last thing New York needs is a new museum, especially one dedicated to modern avant-garde art, but that’s what we’ve got. Absurdly huge and designed to look like a series of blocks stacked randomly into the sky, the museum looms incongruously over the old street, dwarfing its hundred-year-old and older neighbors. One of those neighbors, just two doors down, is the Bowery Mission. It may be news that there are still functioning missions in New York. The Bowery Mission has been around for over a hundred and fifty years serving the needs of desperate people in the area. How much longer is anyone’s guess. One assumes that the New Museum would not have made such a significant investment in the area unless they were sure that the kind of people they serve — and who are most certainly not the kind of people served by the Bowery Mission — would be migrating into the neighborhood. If it even makes sense to use the word neighborhood when talking about the effects of metastatic wealth.

What is being lost by this kind of development is the idea of neighborhood itself, of course. In the past in a city like New York neighborhoods were defined by economic or cultural boundaries, often ethnic. The displacement of middle and lower class enclaves by a blandly branded hyper-wealthy commercial class means that we’re rapidly heading into a time where there will basically be just two “neighborhoods” left in Manhattan: a large Asian enclave spreading out from Chinatown on the Lower East Side of the island and… everything else.

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