Perhaps no part of Manhattan has changed as dramatically since the 1980s as the Meatpacking District. Located on the Lower West Side, the district has gone from a blue-collar warehouse district with a seedy side into a hyper-luxurious, bustling neighborhood.
From the High Line to the expensive shops and restaurants along the old cobblestone streets, everything looks quite different from when Brian Rose first brought his camera to the Meatpacking District. A young photographer in 1985, Rose spent a few days that winter walking around the area in the mid-afternoon, after the meat markets closed and before the sex clubs opened. Right around the time Rose took his photos, one of those clubs, The Mineshaft, was shut down by the city for permitting ''high-risk sexual activity'' during the worsening AIDS epidemic.
Rose never got around to printing the film from that shoot—until 2012. Blown away by what he saw when compared his photographs to those same streets and buildings today, he decided to re-create each shot. The result is an incredible set of then-and-nows in the new book Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013.
Many of the old buildings Rose shot in 1985 remain today, but the life they support appears to be from a different universe. In the book's foreword, Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York expresses not only a longing for what the Meatpacking district used to be but bewilderment over how fast it all went away, writing of the district's past: "[M]eat on hooks, libertines in leather, sex-shifters, artists, poets, the indescribable stink of it all, that mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful (to crib e.e. cummings) underbelly of the old New York—was it all a collective hallucination? Was it ever real?"
Rare proof of that past can be found in Rose's book. He talked to CityLab about rediscovering his old photos and how much the Meatpacking District—and Manhattan—have changed:
How long had you been living in and photographing New York before you decided to shoot the Meatpacking District?
I moved to New York in 1977 to attend art school at Cooper Union. I had started shooting color, and I knew that Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography, was teaching there. I arrived on the day of the blackout and the all night looting that followed. The serial killer Son of Sam was still on the loose, and the city was sweltering. But I was excited to finally realize my dream of living in New York City.
After graduating from Cooper I began photographing the Lower East Side with a view camera. It was a neighborhood rich in history that now teetered on the brink as buildings burned or were left abandoned. We called the area east of Avenue A the war zone. It was also a moment of great creativity in music and art. CBGB, the famous punk club, was around the corner from where I lived, and Soho was full of artists and galleries. I went on to photograph the Wall Street area and photographed Central Park, working with the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. But by 1985 I was at a turning point, looking for some new direction.
What was your perception of the district before you first explored it?
The Meatpacking District was on the periphery of my world in those days. I had occasionally seen it early in the morning when the market was in full swing and white-coated men grappled with carcasses of meat hanging from hooks under sidewalk sheds. And I had caught glimpses of the nighttime scene, multiple scenes really, of transvestite prostitutes and sex clubs frequented by men in leather motorcycle gear.
I also knew that the neighborhood was mostly empty during the day, and it was that utter stillness, devoid of people, that I wanted to document. It's hard to imagine now, with virtually every part of the city teeming with people, that many parts of Manhattan were relatively quiet. I still have a distinct memory of footsteps echoing on the cobblestones in Soho, and on a Sunday I once actually walked up an exit ramp onto the FDR Drive to take a picture of the Fulton Fish Market. There were few cars, and the cops had greater concerns elsewhere.
You didn’t get around to printing your photos until 2012. Why the long delay?
I only spent a few days photographing the Meatpacking District and up into Chelsea. It was winter, a bit snowy. I did not feel inspired. So, I developed the film and never got around to making contact prints or enlargements. A few months later, I flew to Europe to begin photographing the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a project that I am still involved with. I kept my apartment in New York, but lived in the Netherlands with my Dutch wife for 15 years, and we came back full time to the city in 2007.
After 9/11, I felt a strong desire to reconnect photographically with New York in some way. So, I began re-photographing the Lower East Side, and published a book that presented a non-linear juxtaposition of images from 1980 and 2010. I mixed up the images from the two eras to break with the usual then and now paradigm.
Once the book was out, I began thinking about a follow-up. I remembered the box of negatives sitting on a shelf in my office, and decided to scan them and see what was there.
What was your first reaction to seeing the photos 27 years later?
I was quite stunned. I wasn't prepared for the utter emptiness of the streets, the eeriness, the worn beauty. The pictures were made without artifice. They were just straight documents of the streets and architecture, but poetic at the same time. I was confronted with a city long vanished seen through my own eyes, but largely forgotten.
In the years following your ‘85 shoot, was there a moment where you realized that the Meatpacking district was about to change dramatically?
For many years, the Meatpacking District remained a holdout as most of Lower Manhattan gentrified. It was a difficult environment. There were artists and other urban pioneers living in the neighborhood, but the early morning cacophony of the market and the lingering stench that permeated everything dissuaded others from following. But it happened quickly in the early 2000s. The meat businesses began heading for the Hunt's Point market in the Bronx—a modern facility—rents skyrocketed, and nightclubs, restaurants, and couture houses moved in.
Did reshooting the same places in 2013 give you a different perspective on how much everything had changed?
Unlike with the Lower East Side book, I decided to do side-by-side views of the Meatpacking District—the changes were just so startling. At the same time, physically, most of the neighborhood remains intact. If everything had just been leveled and rebuilt, I'd have no project.
The new buildings, many of which are architecturally interesting, are integrated into the historic cityscape. The High Line threads through and between the buildings. It's an urbanistically fascinating place, regardless of what one thinks about gentrification. And there are still some meat businesses in the city-owned Gansevoort Market under the High Line.
What do you like about the Meatpacking District today? What do you miss from the way it was when you first explored it?
I like the new architectural jumble of the West Side including the Meatpacking District, but I miss the more diverse Manhattan that was here when I arrived in 1977. Every block was different, every neighborhood more distinct. Though much of the industrial base had already gone, there was a blue-collar feel to parts of Manhattan along the docks, in the Garment District, and in the various open markets like the Meatpacking District. Manhattan is now about the nexus of money, technology, and the arts. In the old days, you could come here without a firm agenda—a dream was enough. Now you need a business plan.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for pre-Bloomberg Manhattan, and Moss’ foreword in your book expresses that quite passionately. The photographs you have taken appear rather free of judgement, but you’ve lived in New York for a long time. Do you find yourself missing an older version of the city?
When I was doing my Lower East Side project, I put a large map of the neighborhood on the wall and pinned the locations of each photograph. I began to think of my photographic process as a sort mental mapping of the city, overlaying my map on the pre-existing map of the streets and buildings. And I liked the idea that each viewer could bring his or her own mental map to mine, confirming and challenging their own view of things. To do that, it was important to maintain a certain distance, keeping things open-ended, but always urging one to look, look hard, look harder.
I asked Jeremiah Moss to write the foreword to Metamorphosis precisely because of his point of view. It's legitimate, perhaps a little extreme. His gloomy angst about where things are going is shared by a lot of people. Having lived through the '70s and '80s in New York, I'm a little more sanguine about these changes. You can preserve buildings, but you can't preserve moments in time. My book is as much about the present as it is about the past, and I'm happy to be living in the here and now.