After quitting the seminal rock band, Velvet Underground, singer/songwriter, guitarist, producer and photographer Lou Reed became an internationally renowned solo artist who epitomized the black-clad downtown NYC art and music scene for more than 50 years. In 2007 he was the first to play the HighLine Ballroom, with a portion of the concerts’ proceeds benefitting the Friends of the High Line, the organization that preserved and re-envisioned the abandoned elevated railway tracks running along Manhattan’s West Side from the Meatpacking District to Mid-town. This week’s Listen Up is an excerpt from Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse, the live concert film directed by Reed’s friend, artist Julian Schnabel (featured in the No Regrets Tour photograph below), and filmed in Brooklyn in 2006. Here’s Lou Reed (accompanied by guitarist Steve Hunter) performing “Sweet Jane,” written by Reed and originally recorded by the Velvet Underground on their 1970 album Loaded.
In the 1980’s I spent a lot of time running around the meatpacking district. Despite the treacherous ankle-turning Belgian block streets, the meatpacking district was my daily jogging route from our apartment in Chelsea. Blood ran in the streets, and, particularly in the summertime, the powerful stench and sight of raw meat clogged my nostrils and rattled my brain. It was about that time that I started a seven-year stretch as a vegetarian. I was on a smile-nod-wave basis with several of the butchers whom I passed early in the morning, and with a few familiar working girls and boys whom I would see if my day started too early and their night ran too late. Steven and I were surprised when a friend told us that their friend, Florent Morelett, was opening a restaurant in the area. Named Florent, it was not to become just a great restaurant — the place and its maker would become a game changer, a downtown subcultural icon. Fifteen years later, Friends of the High Line proposed repurposing the abandoned elevated railroad tracks, originally opened in 1934 to serve the New York Central Railroad, into a 1.45 mile public park stretching from the Meatpacking District to the Javits Center. The slow change in the area had now been doused with accelerant.
After almost 23 years, Florent closed in 2008. The first segment of the brilliantly refurbished High Line, from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, opened in 2009. And by 2015, only a handful of meatpacking businesses remained in the eponymous district. The others had decamped to pastures with cheaper rents in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx. The Meatpacking District morphed into an uber chic destination – international shops, restaurants, and hotels were multiplying like blond ski bunnies in quilted Moncler jackets.
After 50 years of rubbing elbows with posh socialites on Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum of American Art moved out of its Upper East Side location: they were “moving on” down to the West Side. In May of 2015, the new Whitney opened in a new building designed by Renzo Piano on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. Seen in silhouette when approached from the north, the building deceptively sits quietly within the surrounding cityscape. The museum’s “Z” shaped exterior staircases bring to mind the fire escapes on a West Side Story poster, with museumgoers caught taking a dance break. Inside, crowds weave through the exhibition spaces displaying old favorites and new works from the Whitney’s impressive permanent collection. But moving throughout the museum, the art and the viewer are also drawn into a connection to the Whitney’s new neighborhood: the exterior decks slice open the Meatpacking District and perch above the High Line. The Hudson rolls by at the feet of viewers framed by an expansive floor to ceiling window. The Whitney proudly shares its new perspective on New York and sends a message. While housing some of the best art of the 20th century, in its new home the museum proclaims that it has the right space and the vigorous intention to discover and champion the artists of the 21st. Nice move.
High end shops line the streets throughout the Meatpacking District, from the Samsung 837 “digital playground” to clothing at Diane von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang and Jeffrey. You may come upon random pop-ups like the S’well booth we found on our way to the Whitney Museum. Beyond the delivery trucks, Ubers, and cabs clogging the narrow streets, you’ll find excellent places to eat and drink any time of the day or night, because in the City that Never Sleeps, the Meatpacking District is the self-proclaimed 24-hour epicenter. Our particular favorite restaurant is Buddakan, near the wonderful and always enticing Chelsea Market. an urban food court. Starting at the Whitney Museum, the High Line is a refreshing and engaging walk along the West Side, with beautiful plantings, occasional food stands, art installations, and plenty of places to stop, relax and just enjoy the interactions of people in and with the city.
There’s always something new on Zippertravel’s Pinterest. New York City’s West Side triangle below 16th Street wasn’t always chic and trendy and home to the Whitney Museum. Check out the 127 new pins on “NYC Meatpacking.”
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