West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 7 | July 18 - 24, 2007
Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
A proliferation of clubs and restaurants, many with sidewalk cafes, like Pastis above, have made the Meat Market’s sidewalks inhospitable for transgender prostitutes.
Hookers have been replaced with hubbub and hype
By Lucas Mann
The Meatpacking District is awash with new business. The windows in Diane von Furstenberg’s new shop and fashion studio at 14th and Washington Sts. morph through an array of colors at night, while young bargoers pour out of new watering holes like the Brass Monkey on Little W. 12th St. The Meat Market is bright and wealthy and, perhaps most important, open 24/7. It is a far cry from even just a few years ago when the district’s main nighttime business flourished in the dark, away from attention.
“You know, I remember when this was their neighborhood,” said Ivy Jeanne Brown, speaking about the transgender prostitutes who historically patrolled the streets of the Meat Market and upper Greenwich Village at night. Brown has lived at 14th and Hudson Sts. for 27 years, watching the neighborhood change around her. “I’ve been wondering where all the girls have gone,” she said. She said she’d seen some driving around in cars, perhaps in an effort to be more discreet.
Brown has certainly seen and heard their replacements in the early hours of the morning, “Gaggles of drunk girls in those heels,” as she put it.
She explained that, to her, the change toward affluence and away from illicit activity wasn’t necessarily a positive one.
“I feel more vulnerable now because those girls really looked out for me,” said Brown of the hookers. “I knew many of them well and there was a camaraderie around here. And there’s more crime here now. Robbers never used to come here because there was nobody to rob, just the big, strong working girls who weren’t worth the trouble. Now people are being held up, apartments are getting broken into.”
Nancy Blanford, Brown’s neighbor, was more blunt in her description of the neighborhood’s change.
“We’re overrun by screaming, drunken children all night long,” she exclaimed. “Of course, that’s going to keep people away who just want to do quiet business,” she said of the prostitutes. “For the most part they were well behaved and I didn’t really mind.”
Not all longtime Meatpacking District neighbors are disappointed about the disappearance of the “working girls,” however.
“Well, it’s hard to get rid of them totally, but we’re still very happy with the change,” said William Cornwell, a resident of Horatio St. since 1961. “The Sixth Precinct cracked down about three or four years ago with a concentrated effort to get them off of our streets. There were more police in the area and a lot more of them on foot. They worked with the neighbors on the Sixth Precinct Community Council.”
The crackdown that Cornwell spoke of came after years of complaints against loud groups of prostitutes by residents and businesses in and around the Meat Market. Yet the change happened only on the heels of the growing economic boom in the neighborhood. Still, this is a fact that Cornwell can swallow easily.
“Yes, I think that the cracking down was helped by the fact that the neighborhood was becoming more affluent,” he said. “The clubs in the Meat Market have changed things. The streets are now parking lots for the clubs. The people leaving the bars are noisy, but they at least eventually drive home. The development of the Meat Market has really helped diminish the hooker trade. Now I see two or three or four out on the streets instead of 20 or 30 or 40.”
Where have the transgendered prostitutes gone? Bob Gormley, district manager of Community Board 2, said that all the development around 14th St. has simply pushed some of the action downtown.
“We have had some complaints about prostitutes moving further south away from the crowds and onto more residential streets,” Gormley said. “At public meetings, some of the West Village people are really irate about what they’re seeing now.”
David Poster, president of the Christopher St. Patrol, a neighborhood anticrime watch organization, agreed that a real problem is being pushed south into the residential Village.
“They used to be able to stay up by the closed meatpacking businesses all night,” said Poster. “Now it’s a major problem for families in residential areas. They’re out on the street all night, sometimes until 7:30 in the morning. There will be groups of five, sometimes 10. They’ll solicit anybody, even kids. They’re very vocal and people feel threatened.”
Poster agrees there has been a lot of police intervention over the past five years, but says even that attention cannot completely discourage the prostitutes from working the Village.
“There are about 400 arrests a year now, but they don’t end up doing any time, so there’s no deterrent to stop,” Poster said. “They’re all over 10th St., Bethune, Weehawken, and it’s definitely gotten worse over the past couple of years.”
Last Saturday morning at 2:30, a stroll through the West Village and into the Meatpacking District revealed a surprising lack of illicit activity and none of the threatening behavior Poster described. The police presence was certainly there. In fact, in a 45-minute walk, only eight apparent transgender prostitutes were seen, the largest group being five of them laughing and talking on cell phones at a reasonable volume, while one or more police cars rolled by silently through the streets at least 10 times.
On the other hand, the heart of the Meatpacking District looked every bit the “circus” that Brown and Blanford described. The main intersection, where 13th, 14th and Greenwich Sts. form a triangle was packed with clubgoers spilling out onto the street. Hundreds and hundreds of pairs of high heels clicked across the cobblestones, while S.U.V.s packed to the brim with drunken revelers began their shaky rides home.
In the quiet streets farther south, there was no large-scale clustering of transgender prostitutes. There were a few, spread out on various corners along Washington St.
Sweet Chocolate, as she referred to herself, stood calmly and silently on the corner of Washington and Perry Sts., waiting for a little bit of work that was becoming increasingly hard to find.
“I’ve been here since 11 and I haven’t gotten one job,” she sad glumly. “Not one date. Three or four years ago, I was making money out here, I mean like rent money.”
Now 43, a veteran of the neighborhood streets, Sweet Chocolate has prostituted off and on, only when the rent had to be paid, since she was 12. Her age shows in the creases around her mouth when she gives a sweet, gap-toothed smile.
“I try to stay on quiet corners and just keep to myself,” she explained. “And I try and not be on residential corners. This place right here,” she said, pointing to an abandoned lot behind her, “nobody’s been here for years. Across the street is where people live, and they have guards.”
According to Sweet Chocolate, the prostitutes’ working conditions keep worsening.
“It’s gotten a lot harder to work around here,” she said. “Yes, I know that things are changing. More cops be harassing you. If you on the same corner for too long there’s always one yelling at you and asking you what you’re doing there. And a lot of the old girls don’t come around anymore. These young girls that come out here now, they do anything just for 5 or 10 dollars. I won’t do that, I ain’t out here for drug money.”
Sweet Chocolate used to troll the Meatpacking District, like most of the transgender prostitutes she knew, but said that the constant crowds and attention, and the fierce competition made her one of the first to move south.
Standing in the glow of a solitary streetlamp, she could have passed for a schoolteacher, in a denim skirt that was tight but went down to her knees and a silky green top. A block away at Charles and Washington Sts., stood one of the few examples of competition around that evening, a long-legged, 18-year-old beauty also seeing no action. They kept some space between themselves, however, and didn’t talk, neither wanting to draw attention and risk arrest.
“The neighbors are O.K., they don’t hassle me, but I know they’ll be calling the cops, so I just try to mind my business,” Chocolate reasoned.
She looked weary after four hours on her feet with nothing to show for it. She had taken the Number 2 train down from the Bronx, like she’d been doing for three decades. As she spoke, a pair of police cars tried to trick her, taking turns rolling down Perry St., the first riding slowly west toward her street corner and the second one waiting a couple of minutes until she felt safe before tearing down the street to try to catch her doing something illegal. Chocolate was not phased this was not the first time she’d seen this technique and calmly turned her back on the street, pretending to study her nails. After the squad cars passed, she sighed and headed toward Greenwich St., trying to find “a date” before heading home.
Five blocks north, the bars and clubs were having no trouble doing business. Cabs were hailed, people frantically called friends to get them through the velvet ropes, a girl held her friend’s hair while she tried to vomit on 13th St. Many of the young crowd both attending and working at the nightspots hardly knew of the transgendered prostitutes.
“Oh, I usually don’t see any of that,” said Oli, who has worked at the Hog Pit on 13th St. for the past two years. “Last weekend, there were apparently some who came by. I thought they were teenaged girls until my bouncer told me otherwise. Yeah, it was pretty weird.”