Flick through any proposal for the cultural regeneration of our city and, before long, you’ll see the New York reference: “this is going to be the ‘Meatpacking District’ of Liverpool”. Ten years ago, it could easily have been the Ropewalks – now it’s the turn of the Baltic Triangle to make a play for the title.
The region’s been cited in the Council’s Strategic Investment Framework (SIF) – with no less than six mentions (more than any other district) – and even the Baltic’s own website refers to itself as ‘Liverpool’s Slice of NYC’s Meatpacking District’
The comparison, at least on paper, makes sense: gritty industrial zone given new lease of life by creative intervention. But the real story is somewhat different. And if we’re to learn anything from this slim downtown corner of Manhattan and its miraculous modern day makeover, we should do more than trot out lazy comparisons. We should take a look at exactly what’s happening over there…
Lauren Danziger is the Executive Director of the Meatpacking District Improvement Association, a body – funded by local businesses – charged with managing the District’s public spaces, promoting the area’s business interests, and producing a year-round calendar of events.
Falling somewhere between a Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District, the Association’s responsibilities take in sanitation and beautification, promotion and protection. And it does it all via private fundraising, and the collective will of its residents.
We point Danzinger to the Baltic’s website. Does she think our comparisons are odious?
“It’s funny,” Danziger tells SevenStreets, down the line from 9th Avenue, “I get calls all the time from random cities in other countries, saying we’re gonna be the Meatpacking District of wherever, as if there’s a formula to copy. There isn’t. Everything here is very organic.”
Organic or not, this slim stretch of real estate sandwiched between the West Side Highway and 9th Avenue has enjoyed a reboot that’s been nothing short of transformational. The area’s web of side streets has gone from ailing industrial zone to Jimmy Choo-trodden catwalks in less time than you can say ‘double macchiato with soy’: yet, crucially, it’s done so without mutating the area’s DNA too much.
“We never said ‘we’re gonna make this a nightlife sensation, or a cool shopping area’,” Danziger says. “Everything here is just a happy set of circumstances, based on the area’s history and the determination of landlords to keep its character alive.”
No one visits New York these days without wanting to check into the Meatpacking District. It wasn’t always so. Illicit raves, drugs, transvestites and prostitutes… thirty years ago, the MPD was NYC’s meat market. Changes in the supply of fresh food – away from local depots to national distribution centres – saw many of the area’s huge warehouses fall out of use, to be quickly recolonised as cavernous nightclubs.
And not just any nightclubs. The MPD’s out-of-earshot location kept it away from prying eyes too, and legendary gay and BDSM clubs, cheerily named The Manhole and the Mineshaft, made their after dark manoeuvres here.
“The area’s always been zoned as a manufacturing district, which means that no-one can live here legally. They never have. It meant that nightlife flourished here,” Danzinger says.
All of which may come as a bit of a shock to our Council: “The city centre residential offer needs greater identification,” it proclaimed in its SIF. “There should be a number of defined neighbourhoods across the City Centre where we add depth and quality. To illustrate the point we have looked at NYC’s meatpacking district.”
They can’t have looked too closely.
“Yes, we only have five residents here,” Danzinger confirms, “That’s why it works.”
With the cool clubs came the first early adopters – a few trendy boutiques and design studios infested the ground floors of grand, five story slaughterhouses and brick-built office blocks.
Names such as Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander McQueen and Apple became anchor tenants at street level while, above, digital studios colonised long-silenced packing plants and accountancy offices. But this was no latter-day gold rush. The area might have shifted from butchery to boutiques but, importantly, these coolly handsome warehouses and produce markets stayed in the control of a handful of families.
“The property owners have been here for 80, 100 years,” Danzinger says. “Their families were meat cutters, butchers back in the day. That’s what’s so unique about what happens here; they care about this place. People are invested here for life, not just to make a quick buck.”
All of which might serve as a lesson to those in the city who’d happily parcel off entire neighbourhoods, wrap them in tape, and consign them to the fates of CPOs and private equity companies intent on creating ‘the next Liverpool ONE’. As if one size really did fit all regeneration needs.
Continuity is something, Danzinger believes, that separates the MPD from the market-led turmoil and speculation of uptown Manhattan – and of many post industrial cities eager for a slice of the cultural goodlife.
“This is a historic area. There are a few families here who own a lot of properties. Ownership is something that runs very deeply here,” she adds.
The struggle to preserve a sense of place, and the fight to prevent residential creep…these are issues Liverpool – with its pass-the-parcel approach to ownership – could do well to heed. Already within strolling distance of the Baltic’s Greenland Street/Jamaica Street epicentre, the steel skeletons of student flats grow like some implanted strain – harbingers of mixed-use battles ahead.
“The moment developers are allowed to build apartments within earshot of taxis and clubs is the moment the neighbourhood will die,” Danzinger says, matter-of-factly.
There is, in the MPD as everywhere else, the challenge of how much of the past you preserve, and how you take it into the future. It’s something Danziger’s all too aware of.
“We serve as a collective voice and an advocate regarding change in the neighbourhood,” she says. “Change is essential. It’s how you manage it that’s key. We’re not here to represent only the big studios. Everyone has a stake in our community, from a one-man operation to a five floor studio. That’s partly why it works – it’s a symbiotic thing.”
That’s not to say the area’s without a touch of mission creep of its own. The swanky Hotel Gansevoort – with its manicured rooftop garden offering panoramas of the High Line – is one of NYC’s most in-demand, and there have been grumbles about rent rises.
“Twelve years ago there were very few businesses here, and as businesses have relocated it’s put pressure on costs, as there’s more demand and limited space. But that’s natural in any maturing area. We’re still far from being the most expensive place in town.”
“It’s about balance,” she adds.
“We know that, ahead, lies a right way and a wrong way for us to grow. We’ve pulled together the property owners, the businesses and the creative leaders to talk through what we’d like the narrative to be. We can’t stop the council green-lighting new developments if they pass the planning regulations, but we can show how our approach has resulted in a district that’s not just a great place to work, but a great example of how, left to its own devices, a neighbourhood can flourish too.”
Danzinger points to the MPIA’s recent public plaza project: a linear series of nine mini parks along 9th Avenue which has infused new life into the area by encouraging people to not just browse and shop, but to stay, sit, eat and attend events in the heart of the neighbourhood.
“We’re responsible for maintaining these spaces,” she says, “and they’ve been very successfully received. As our businesses develop, they need places for their employees to gather at lunchtime. Same goes for tourists. The more time they spend here, the more they boost the local economy.”
The spaces form natural focal points to the MPD’s busy calendar of events, too. Events that are as homegrown as the herbs in the High Line’s aerial park above.
“Our cultural programme is very important to us, and we’ve had lots of interest from external event organisers wanting a slice of the action, but why would we do that? We’re a cultural hub, we have the talent here. If we sell off our streets to outside promoters make a quick buck, where’s the differentiation between us and Times Square?” she says.
Danzinger’s associationdoesn’t have legislative powers but, by harnessing the support of all who use the district, its mandate is strong: and its results speak for themselves.
What the Meatpacking District shows is that there really is another way. That ownership – whether in property deeds or simply a feeling of connection – encourages responsibility. That the long game will always win out over short term gain and speculation, and that, left to their own devices, our cities’ most interesting corners can breed cultures richer, stronger and better able to adapt to the future, than any top down master plan ever could.
As we say our goodbyes, SevenStreets mentions it’s planning a visit to New York next spring…
“Come and say hi,” Danzinger says, “I’ll buy you a coffee… Oh, that reminds me of another thing: We don’t have any Starbucks here…”
From Meat to Burgers
The Meatpacking district occupies a slim chunk of eight blocks, on Manhattan’s west side – more-or-less wedged between 9th and 10th Avenue, between Chelsea and the West Village. The area developed in the mid 19th century, when freight connections – and the elevated railroad which is now the aerial park of the High Line – allowed the area’s produce markets to transport their goods across New York’s five boroughs.
By 1900, there were 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants here, and the area continued to prosper until, in the 1950’s, improvements in refrigerated travel allowed meat to be transported further, from centralised distribution points.
Now the area’s grand warehouses, tenement blocks and Greek Revival residences house boutique burger bars, digital start ups and design hotels. But, in a nice twist, there’s a new breed of artisan butchers appearing alongside the cocktail joints.
From Baltic to the World
The Baltic Triangle’s name comes from Liverpool’s trading links across to the great ports of Europe – and on to St Petersburg. Its main thoroughfare, Jamaica Street, recalls the city’s links to the slave triangle linking Liverpool to west Africa and the Caribbean, while Greenland Street is another reminder to the city’s less salubrious past: its connections to the whaling industry.
The area’s sturdily impressive warehouses recall the days when 40 per cent of the world’s trade passed through the city’s docks. Now these Grade II listed spaces, which used to store fruit, sugar, spices and spirits, are home to sprawling entertainment venues such as Camp and Furnace, digital start ups and creative agencies such as Sound City, Liverpool Biennial and, erm, SevenStreets.
The area’s nominal triangle shape reaches its apex at the distinctive Baltic Fleet pub, with its cluster of chimneys painted to resemble ships’ funnels.