It was a grey day in New York, with the threat of rain looming over – yet, the weather app on my phone kept reassuring me the pouring would come only in the late afternoon. My plan for the day definitely involved quite a bit of walking and the temperatures were lower than the day before, exactly what I needed. I was quite excited to visit the West Village and the Meatpacking District and I had a very clear itinerary planned for the day – Stonewall Monument (you can read about it here), High Line, the views of the Meatpacking district and, if time allowed (as it did) the Whitney Museum.
From Slaughterhouses to Fashion Houses
The name “Meatpacking” makes my skin crawl to be honest, and I’m not even a vegetarian. It conjures images of raw flesh that are definitely not the most attractive. When I was researching for this trip though I realised this name was inherited from another time – a time when this part of New York was indeed known for its slaughterhouses. In fact, in 1900, there were about 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants which by the 1930s were producing the nation’s third-largest volume of dressed meats.
So how did this area become one of the trendiest and most fancy areas of Manhattan?
The decline started in the 1970s with the proliferation of supermarkets – going to a butcher became unnecessary. As the markets started to close, this industrial neighbourhood became a place with a bad reputation – there was a thriving club scene, where prostitution, drugs and crime were prolific. In the 1990s though, things started to change. This location started to be a popular choice for designers to open their shops. Famous names include Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander McQueen and Moschino. The Whitney Museum relocated to this area and also worked with the city to extend the lease for the few remaining meat wholesalers – there are today five meatpacking companies operating. Yet, the boutiques and bars continue to thrive in the area, making this neighbourhood one of the most up-and-coming of Manhattan.
The birth of the High Line
One of the things that was bothering the eye of the new inhabitants of this district was the now-abandoned elevated railway line that used to link the slaughterhouses to the Hudson River. Since the street level freight caused so many deadly accidents (over 500 lives lost), an elevated line was built and started running in 1933. This was a very expensive project, costing over $150 million at the time and taking 5 years to complete. Yet, it fell into disuse in the 1980s, only running effectively for two decades, as the rise in truck transportation made the service less necessary.
An abandoned line, left in the hand of Nature, covered with wild foliage… of course, this started to bother the inhabitants of what was becoming a very trendy and even chic area. Locals started to sign petitions to get it demolished and removed from their sight. However, and luckily, in 1999 a committee called Friends of the High Line was formed, aiming to save the line and transform the tracks into a green space.
This is how the High Line became one of the highlights for tourists and locals alike, with its first pathway opening to the public in 2009. It was just recently, in 2019, that the full line was completed.
This is indeed a great walk to do when visiting New York – but allow me to be honest here. If I was not aware of the history of this place, which made me to truly appreciate it, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much. The gardens were not very well taken care of. In my opinion, this isn’t a place to go and stay, as you would in a normal park. This is to be walked on, to appreciate the views and the artworks placed along the way.
Pay attention to your surroundings, and you’ll also see from a privileged position amazing street art full of meaning as well as train tracks hidden in the vegetation.
To me, the High Line signifies sustainable and democratised gentrification. Instead of destroying something that has become obsolete, to build expensive housing or a luxury mall, something modern, practical and accessible to anyone was born – a place where locals can go to exercise, go on a leisurely walk, where a very interesting and important district history can be discovered.
It is important to note that I started walking the Highline from the south side (where the Whitney Museum is located), as I was staying in Midtown and I wanted to finish my day with this walk. Still early on , I stepped out into the Chelsea Market to grab something to eat. It was incredibly busy when I went there, but it is a great place to grab some food or drinks if you’re in need of a break and you can easily return to the High Line after getting some calories back into your body. Even if you’re not hungry, you should visit it. This is yet another excellent example of redevelopment and preservation. It used to be the Nabisco biscuit factory, and it is said the Oreo was invented here. Now, this market is the perfect place for foodies and fashionistas alike – and you can shop for some very unique souvenirs here.
I got some tacos at Tacos No 1 and found a seat to rest my legs and eat outside. Once I felt rested, I went back up to the High Line and walked all the way to 34th Street.
The views in the last strand of this walk are absolutely amazing – including the Vessel, one of New York’s newest and most controversial attractions. Located in posh Hudson Yards, it opened in 2019 amisdt critics from locals. This landmark, consisting of a spiral staircase with almost 2,500 individual steps, 46 meters high may be considered by visitors a very Instagramable attraction. Locals immediately questioned the need for such structure – called an interactive artwork – besides its usefulness to take selfies.
Of course, there is more to this criticism – its price, about $150 million dollars. While it consisted of private investment, it is a reminder of the gentrification (or as I prefer to call it “luxuryfication”) of New York, of how it becomes more and more inaccessible to the middle and lower classes. In the Observer’s article Is There a Point to the Vessel If You’re Not There for the Selfie? Scott Indrisek cheeky comment “Come for the free public art; stay for Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton” rings so true for those of us who have been feeling that big cities are making it impossible for non-millionaires to live, and yet trying to keep us sedated with the promise of free artwork.
Still, let’s assume there were good intentions. A free and public artwork, where people can go inside, and climb all of the steps for amazing views and selfies. The sad thing about this is that people started coming here to commit suicides as well – four suicides in about 2 years, including one of a 14-year-old boy. The Vessel kept closing and reopening, but since 2021 we’re only allowed to access the grounds. If you consider there was a pandemic going on, the landmark wasn’t really opened for that long… and yet 4 people lost their lives there, willingly. This illustrates too well where the money actually need to be invested… but I won’t dwell on it for now.
For obvious reasons, even if I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to visit the Vessel, but you do have a great view of it from the last strand of the High Line. Knowing all of these stories about it, doesn’t it make look haunted? to me, it definitely looks like an alien space shift, which is already scary.
What are your thoughts about it?
If you like Art, I do recommend, before or after jumping into the High Line (depending on where you start) visiting the Whitney Museum. Of course, if you are on a budget, choices may have to be made. An adult ticket is $25. After some indecision on my part, I thought to myself, let me just do it. After all, when will I be back in New York? And I don’t regret it at all.
The Whitney Museum is focused on American modern and contemporary art. One thing I did learn about New York’s museums is that the air con is always seemingly on full blast (perhaps it isn’t and I’m being dramatic), so while it was hot outside, indoors it was quite cold. So I’m warning you, if you’re visiting New York in the summer, carry a scarf, a light jacket or a sweater with you if you’re planning on visiting museums – even if it’s warm outdoors.
Besides some of the greatest modern artworks and thought-provoking installations, the Whitney also gives you great views into the Meatpacking District, which still includes a glimpse into its industrial past.
The incredibly realistic sculptures have the perfect backdrop. I spent some time admiring the views at each terrace of the Whitney.
Wow this was a long post… there is just so much to unpack in the Meatpacking District (pun intended!). Would love to hear your thoughts!