meatpacking-baltic-triangle

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.”

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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.
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“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…”

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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.

  • Rich

    Great stuff, reminds me of the dynamics of el raval and el Bourne in Barcelona.

  • Nick

    Interesting piece….with the usual undercurrent of Liverpool City Council axe grinding. I guess this is intended to make the article “edgy.”

    I don’t agree with your conclusion 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.” If left to their own devices, areas such as the Baltic Triangle sit through 60-100 years of dereliction before a few fledgling cultural groups set up in the area due to cheaper overheads than a mile closer to the city centre. Master plans for areas like the Baltic Triangle are always needed to ensure the correct type of regeneration occurs. And don’t kid yourself, the Meat Packing District might have grown organically but still within the boundaries of a framework.

    Also, I’ve got to point out that the “sturdily impressive warehouses” of the Baltic Triangle are not Grade II listed spaces. There are only three listed buildings in the area and they are 1) the Scandinavian Seamans Church 2) the Baltic Fleet Public House and 3) the NOVAS/CUC building. At a push, I’ll give you St Vincent De Paul RC Church on St James Street….although whether this is in the “triangle” is debatable.

    Shame you never researched the area you work in as much as you researched New York!

  • david_lloyd

    But the Novas/Elevator building is a massive warehouse/space, Grade II listed. Probably the biggest reclaimed warehouse development in the city, currently. So aren’t you splitting hairs a little? And what about the regeneration of East Berlin? Of Temple Bar? Of even the Ropewalks, really – not top down, bottom up. We approve of the council’s decision to ringfence the area as a digital hub – but are less convinced about the woolly thinking behind the SIF’s so-called ‘distinctive neighbourhoods’ agenda. Let the people decide.

  • Nick

    Not really splitting hairs. I already acknowledged that the
    Novas building is listed in my comment. My point was that your article alluded
    to the warehouses (note plural) of the area being grade II listed – even going as
    far as saying that the building Camp and Furnace is in is listed. Intentionally
    or not, this gives the reader the illusion that the streets are lined with
    listed buildings.

    And
    what about the regeneration of East Berlin you
    ask? Good question! Whilst on the surface, it might look as though the artists,
    poets and craftsmen who occupy areas such as Prenzlauer Berg are responsible
    for its remarkable regeneration, the truth is that a vast share of the housing
    stock was given to the government. Now the senate controls the rent to ensure
    that the longest serving residents (the artists and creative community) are
    able to stay in the area. The government even leans on private landlords to
    prevent rent rises. The government is preventing gentrification and allowing
    the remarkable turn of fortune to the area to continue.

    Prior
    to government intervention the area was literally crumbling with high rates of
    property vacancies, welfare dependency and poor living conditions. So it is
    fair to say that regeneration has been facilitated by the government. Even
    regeneration companies such as S.T.E.R.N are contracted by the Berlin
    Government and as such will toe the party line.

    Prenzlauer
    Berg was left to its own devices, just as the Baltic Triangle has been and they
    both went through an age of deprivation. It doesn’t always work! You can have
    all the will in the world to regenerate an area but will alone is not enough. The whole point in
    my previous comment was not to argue about top down/bottom up. In fact, I didn’t
    even mention it. It was to merely state that regeneration has to operate within
    a framework for it to be successful. The framework comes from Local Government
    and Planning Policy – which can be influence by the ideology of the end users –
    as is the case in Berlin.
    None of us want top down, but it certainly won’t be solely bottom up. That is a
    romantic notion. The best regeneration is when it meets in the middle.

  • Nick

    I’ll try that again!

    Not really splitting hairs. I already acknowledged that the
    Novas building is listed in my comment. My point was that your article alluded to the warehouses (note plural) of the area being grade II listed – even going as far as saying that the building Camp and Furnace is in is listed. Intentionally or not, this gives the reader the illusion that the streets are lined with listed buildings.

    And what about the regeneration of East Berlin you
    ask? Good question! Whilst on the surface, it might look as though the artists, poets and craftsmen who occupy areas such as Prenzlauer Berg are responsible for its remarkable regeneration, the truth is that a vast share of the housing stock was given to the government. Now the senate controls the rent to ensure that the longest serving residents (the artists and creative community) are able to stay in the area. The government even leans on private landlords to prevent rent rises. The government is preventing gentrification and allowing the remarkable turn of fortune to the area to continue.

    Prior to government intervention the area was literally crumbling with high rates of property vacancies, welfare dependency and poor living conditions. So it is fair to say that regeneration has been facilitated by the government. Even regeneration companies such as S.T.E.R.N are contracted by the Berlin Government and as such will toe the party line.

    Prenzlauer Berg was left to its own devices, just as the Baltic Triangle has been and they both went through an age of deprivation. It doesn’t always work! You can have all the will in the world to regenerate an area but will alone is not enough. The whole point in my previous comment was not to argue about top down/bottom up. In fact, I didn’t even mention it. It was to merely state that regeneration has to operate within
    a framework for it to be successful. The framework comes from Local Government and Planning Policy – which can be influence by the ideology of the end users – as is the case in Berlin.

    None of us want top down, but it certainly won’t be solely bottom up. That is a romantic notion. The best regeneration is when it meets in the middle

  • MikeHomfray

    Really would help if the council wasnt so incredibly touchy about anything that might be viewed as constructive criticism.
    The real problem with the triangle is transport its fine if you have a car but the public transport links sre negligible.