Seven years ago, a picturesque swath of lower Manhattan by the Hudson River was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. This official designation by government agencies marked another layer of recognition and protection of this unique area, traditionally known for cobblestones, hanging sides of meat, blood in the gutters, brick warehouses, adventurous nightlife, and an old freight railroad called the High Line.
This milestone, achieved on April 11, 2007, came three-and-a-half years after a smaller area within it was designated the Gansevoort Market Historic District by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in September of 2003. That designation, sought by GVSHP and its allies for several years under the flag of the Save Gansevoort Market Task Force, meant that buildings on Gansevoort, Little West 12th, 13th, 14th and Washington Streets, as well as Ninth Avenue, would be largely preserved, replete with metal canopies, brick facades both homely and grand, and a low-rise profile.
GVSHP’s interest in the area goes back to our organization’s beginning, when founding executive director Regina Kellerman, a prominent architectural historian, undertook a study of the Greenwich Village waterfront that included an inventory of the district and its structures. In the last decades of the last century, the area was half meatpacking factory and half sleepy village, a place that was busy overnight and desolate during the day, a place unlike any other in Manhattan.
We advocated for the city-delineated historic district to be as large as that of the Registers. The city LPC designation carries a regulatory framework with it, whereas the SNR designation is largely honorary — except that it also comes with potential tax benefits for “contributing” (architecturally or historically worthy) buildings that are income-producing. Any such building can apply for a 20 percent federal investment tax credit for substantial rehabilitation work, whether performed inside or out. Yet Kathy Howe, the survey and evaluation coordinator for the state’s Division for Historic Preservation, says she and her colleagues are unaware of any tax credit applications being filed since 2007. (Property owners who want to change that sad statistic can begin the application process by calling Dan McEneny, our region’s Preservation Program Analyst, at (518) 237-8643, ex. 3257.)
Howe made the observation about the Meatpacking District that we all do: Oh, how it has changed. “The quality that made it special was the open sky, the low scale,” she said. Construction around the small historic district has closed in some of the sky, and mainstream commerce has replaced all but a few of the meatpackers. As a former resident of the area just as it was beginning to change — on West 14th Street from 1999 to 2002 — I still find it difficult to comprehend. The area went from grimy-edgy-unusual, to grimy-edgy-buzzy, to edgy-buzzy-artsy, to buzzy-artsy-commercial — to the mall it is today.
Most of us who remember grimy-edgy-unusual, and miss it, are still glad that the evocative buildings are preserved, despite how their uses have changed. It’s better than a sea of Hotel Gansevoorts. The “uses” part is the next frontier of neighborhood preservation, and at GVSHP we are hard at work on new models and mechanisms to address this pressing challenge.
This video by photographer Brian Rose vividly shows the area’s “Metamorphosis.” He will discuss his forthcoming book at a GVSHP event in July; stay tuned for that.