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NYC meat district preserved in time

NEW YORK -- Hipsters strut down cobblestone streets, peeking into windows of designer fashion shops before crossing velvet ropes and dancing their way into the city's most exclusive nightclubs. By 2 a.m., they share the streets of the rough-and-tumble enclave of lower Manhattan known as the meatpacking district with a convoy of heavy trucks and burly men in blood-stained white jackets who cart lamb and beef carcasses into low-rise warehouses.

Despite the raw odor of freshly killed meat and animal blood blotting the sidewalks, the district has become the trendiest neighborhood in New York City. New high-priced boutiques, restaurants, and clubs have sprung up beside meatpacking distributors who have operated in the area for more than a century. But even with the arrival of glitzy stores, people who work in the different enterprises fought to keep the district the way it has always been: gritty, noisy, and just a bit seedy.

Last month, the city designated 11 blocks and 102 buildings of the meatpacking district, also known as Gansevoort Market, as part of a historic district, which largely keeps the area off-limits to residential developers. In other cities, residents point to cobblestone streets and Victorian brownstones as gems worth saving. But here, community leaders say the meatpackers, their idling 18-wheelers, and carcasses dangling from hooks in the far western edge of Greenwich Village are what merit landmark status. Preservationists compare the three-year campaign to save New York's last marketplace to efforts in the South to preserve old slave shacks, and cite both as examples of a new movement to protect a community's character, not just pretty places.

"Preservation used to be the celebration of dead men's white houses at the top of the hills. That is no longer the case," said Marilyn Fenollosa, senior program officer and regional attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Boston. "What we have come to realize, to the movement's credit, is that preservation is much more than that. We preserve the things that made us who we are, and sometimes it's not very nice."

The National Trust wrote letters in support of the preservation effort. Threatened by rising rents, meatpackers and union leaders joined preservationists, and shop, nightclub, and restaurant owners, to stop residential development in the area. The group, Save the Gansevoort Market Taskforce, feared that new residents would not stand for the loud trucks arriving at 2 a.m., about the time clubgoers spill into the streets. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the historic designation of the meatpacking district is unusual.

"Using historic preservation as a way of maintaining a working industrial neighborhood -- that is somewhat unique," he said. "Usually, the two don't go hand and hand. Usually, you are giving up on an industry staying there, or just focusing on industry and not trying to keep the buildings."

Still, Berman expressed concern about residential development and maintaining the character of the community without making the area a "Disneyland of chic boutiques." In 1975, he said, there were 150 meatpacking companies in the district. Now, there are about 50.

Florent Morellet, a longtime restaurant owner in Gansevoort Market, said that when he opened his business 18 years ago, the district had charm, even with its prostitution and drugs.

"There were traffic jams, trucks, and butchers," recalled Morellet, a native of France. "It reminded me of the old markets of Paris called Les Halles."

Those markets were demolished and replaced by malls, which Morellet calls a huge "urban disaster." He did not want the same thing to happen to the meatpacking district, which he noticed was beginning to change five years ago. Rents were rising, meatpackers were leaving, and newcomers were tearing down the buildings' metal awnings, where meat was hooked. Morellet called on preservationists, meatpackers, union leaders, and city officials. Recently, the task force fought off a developer that wanted to build a residential tower.

Robert Wilkins, owner of Lamb Unlimited, a meatpacking company that sells exotic game to New York's finest restaurants, stood outside his store watching trucks pull up to warehouses and workers unload meat. Wearing the traditional white jacket and a baseball cap, he explained the district's ecosystem: The meatpackers arrive at 2 a.m. and work until noon, about the time the high-fashion shops are opening. The shops close around 8 p.m. as the restaurants and nightclubs open, then the clubs close about the time the meatpackers arrive. "Sometimes the [clubgoers] get in the way and sometimes we get in the way," Wilkins said. "But what you have is a living neighborhood with three major economies coexisting beautifully together."

Wilkins, who has worked in the district for three decades and owned his company for 11 years, said he realized long ago that change in the neighborhood was inevitable. But he said he did not want to see the loss of good union jobs or the community's character.

"You can't have the meatpacking district," he said, "without the meatpackers."

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