Volume 74, Number 11 | July 14 - 20, 2004

Meat Market on the ropes

A special Village supplement

Bring back the beefcake, and add some flowers too

By Tim Gay

Villager file photo

Filming “Cruising” in 1979 in the Triangle Building, once home to Jay’s Hangout and the Hellfire Club. In the movie, a police officer goes undercover in the gay leather and S&M scene. The building’s former sex dens have been replaced by Vento, a trattoria, and Level V, a club in the basement.

Thirty years ago this summer, Neal Porter was a student at New York University. He subleased an apartment on Little W. 12th St., between Washington St. and Ninth Ave. “When I opened the door in the morning, I’d ask the meat packers to move the beef.”

Neal went on to sublease other Meat-packing District apartments, including two different ones at Horatio and Washington Sts., and one illegal sublet at Westbeth. After 1981, however, Neal left for quieter living in Chelsea.

Neal and I recently strolled through the old neighborhood, his first visit in many years. Everywhere we walked on a Tuesday night was crowded with trendy mostly white people under the age of 30.

“The changes are huge,” he remarked. “And not necessarily for the better. I remember this as an outlaw neighborhood, a working neighborhood on the edge. Now it’s become another boutique land.”

Villager file photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
A dominatrix got revved up two years ago at the Hellfire Club.
Hogs & Heifers and the Hog Pit are still there with their heterosexual clientele. But long gone are the gay places like Alice in Wonderland, Assterisk, Mars, The Zoo, Cell Block, 12 West and River Club. Taxi repair garages are now theme restaurants, delis are lounges and parking lots have grown into hotels.

Neal and I paused at the triangular building bounded by 13th St., Ninth Ave. and Hudson St. From the late 1960s until just last year, it was the home of Jay’s Hangout and a number of sex clubs including the infamous Hellfire Club and private parties on the upper floors. I remember that in 1983 and 1984, a pornography producer built a hostel-like rooming house on the fourth floor where he rented spaces to Times Sq. hustlers and tried to keep them out of trouble.

In the 1970s and early ’80s, organized crime and dishonest police officers controlled gay clubs and after-hours places. Two bartenders were killed at Jay’s in the late 1970s, possibly in a rubout. In 1985, an investigation led to indictments against a dozen area police officers for taking protection money from after-hours clubs.

That no longer seems to be the case. These new Meat Market establishments, hopefully, are collecting sales taxes.

Sitting in the open windows of what was once Jay’s were the ubiquitous youngsters, drinking cosmos and martinis. “If only they knew that they are sitting where millions of men once came for sex,” I said to Neal.

“I don’t think you should tell them,” Neal warned. However, Neal and I did do a conservative calculation: If Jay’s had 150 patrons per night, then at 365 days per year for 30 years would equal 1,650,000 men entering their doors. This number, however, does not include Hellfire patrons in the basement, or others going to private parties on the upper floors.

We walked on W. 13th St. The Lure, a leather bar from 1994 to 2003, is now a physical therapy clinic. It is next door to Soho House, where drinking is reserved for members only and their guests.

At one time, the Mineshaft was the area’s premier members-only club. Located on Washington St. at Little W. 12th St., it was open around the clock from Wednesday night through Monday morning, featuring a roof deck, clothes check, dungeons and other amenities. The S&M free-for-all opened in 1977 before the AIDS era, and was finally closed by the city’s Department of Health in 1985. Wally Wallace, the manager, went on to have private spaces on Christopher St. and in Chelsea, but nothing lived up to the notoriety of the Mineshaft.

After being vacant for nearly two decades, the Mineshaft is opening as a Chinese restaurant. Neal and I don’t think we’ll be dining there.

We did end up at Florent’s on Gansevoort St. I remember when Florent opened in 1985, when the Mineshaft was still very much in business. Back then, Florent did not have a liquor license, and buying wine meant walking east all the way to Eighth Ave.

“Maybe it was 1978 or ’79 or ’81, and I was coming from the Anvil, or the Mineshaft, or someplace,” Florent Morellet recalled. “It was morning, and I went into the R&L dinner for breakfast. I immediately loved the place.”

In 1984, a friend stopped Morellet on a street in Chelsea and told him that the R&L was for sale. Within a year, the R&L was bought and reopened as Florent with its quilted aluminum panels freshly shined, illuminating its American-French bistro fare.

But Florent endured and prospered through the years. Perhaps Florent was the prototype for the area’s newly minted image.

However, the Meat-packing District was not just for gay men. Lesbians, heterosexuals and transgender people worked there — and lived there, too, in the West Coast apartments and in the townhouses tucked in on Horatio and Greenwich Sts. — and on the Meat Market’s fringes, on Jane St. and at nearby Westbeth.

Shelley Barclay has lived on Bethune St. for 18 years. “In a way, it’s great, and in a way, it sucks,” she said about the new Meat Market. “In the old days, it was quieter. The clubs were mostly for men, just men. Now, at least, you can get a cab at any time.”

When asked if she recalled anything for women “back then,” Shelley thought for a moment. “Oh yes, at 14th and Washington. The Clit Club. But it was only open one or two nights a month.”

The Clit Club, Meat, Jackie 60 and a number of other special one-night-a-month clubs in the late ’80s and early ’90s were all located in the same space on Washington St. south of 14th. Today, there are still some clubs there, but just next door are a string of new glass-fronted retail stores for T-shirts and eyeglasses.

Neal misses the edgy quality. Shelley missed the quiet. But Morellet sees change as inevitable. “You have to love change if you live in New York,” he said.

Morellet was one of the founders of the Save Ganesvoort Market Task Force. Under the auspices of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the task force successfully campaigned in 2003 for historic designation of the area by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“I’m trying to channel change,” Morellet clarified. “Landmarking is important, so all new construction must go through the landmark hearings. The commercial zoning gives a certain amount of control. The nightclubs, galleries and industries give vitality to the neighborhood. No, I’m not nostalgic about the old days.”

With the future in mind, Morellet and Jo Hamilton, co-chairperson of Save Ganesvoort, are working on a new project.

In 2001, City Councilmember Christine Quinn proposed moving the Flower Market district from Sixth Ave. in the W. 20s to the Meat Market. Save Ganesvoort embraced the idea, along with numerous area businesses, associations and residents. On July 7, Save Ganesvoort and the Flower Market Association of New York City announced that a major feasibility study will begin. The study, by the way, is aptly called “The Meat Market Blooms Project.”

“The Flower Market would be a 24-hour market, perfect for the neighborhood,” said Morellet.

I have another thought about the Flower Market. In a few years, when the trendies get bored and take their stretch Hummers to the next hot neighborhood, the Meat Market/Flower Market will still be there, keeping the streets busy and bright throughout the night.

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