New York City is a city of bridges. In Hedda Sterne’s landmark painting New York, N.Y., 1955, excerpted above, the city’s bridges are manifest. Swift and sweeping brush strokes resemble the girders that lift us — our vehicles, our bodies — above the Hudson and East rivers, across an expanse of water, and into an outer borough. While the Meatpacking District is void of bridges, Sterne’s painting makes its home there, in this neighborhood, at the newly erected Whitney Museum of American Art.
One thing we all know about New York is that the only constant is change. The Meatpacking District is either the impetus of such change or the byproduct of the city’s own deep-seated inertia — I cannot tell which is more true (but this website will tell you this neighborhood is the change agent of the borough). Since moving to New York more than 10 years ago, I have been to the Meatpacking District only occasionally. Each time, something is new, either removed or replaced.
These days, the small neighborhood in the deep west of Manhattan feels like a Fifth Avenue imprint with an artistic bent whose provenance maps back to before the Whitney descended. Maybe it’s the streets paved of Belgian blocks, commonly and erroneously called “cobblestones” which harken back to an older, less hectic time. Or maybe it’s the quasi-creative types who wander the streets with Moleskines in their backpacks du jour (is it Fjallraven now?) and feast off trust fund accounts to aid their penchant for nifty eyeglasses. You tell me.
Ample shopping awaits you as you perambulate about, in a part of the city wedged between two powerhouse ‘hoods (Chelsea to the north and West Village to the south). You’ll find stores like Apple (the best and least maddening one in the city), Patagonia, Sorel, Warby Parker, and a handful of boutiques with outrageous offerings and outsized prices. For a neighborhood that was once overflowing with tenements, you’d be surprised by the rents such retailers must pay.
The newest attraction in the neighborhood is the Whitney Museum of American Art. Although it called the Upper East Side its home for many years, the Whitney fits in nicely down on Gansevoort, close to the river, with a view of the W hotel in Hoboken. In the nearly 10-story building, you’ll find artwork from some of the greats in the Whitney’s collection: Edward Hopper (although Nighthawks is seldom on view), Andrew Wyeth, Ansel Adams, George Bellows, and many others you know. Their exhibits are typically worthwhile, even for the current $22 adult ticket price (kids get in free!). You’ll likely see signs in the subway for the Whitney Biennial and I encourage you to see it at least once.
If art and shopping aren’t your idea of a good time, you might take a walk on the High Line, which begins near the Whitney. I’ve covered the wonder of the High Line elsewhere, so see this and come on back to learn more about Meatpacking.
Food is hit or miss in the ‘hood, and I suspect many places rest on their “good location” laurels when it comes to quality of service and cuisine. For more than a century, the Old Homestead Steakhouse has been serving up decent steaks in a moody, masculine interior designed for suits. While I enjoyed this restaurant, the others I’ve visited in Meatpacking leave something to be desired. For example, the Bubby’s location there clearly skates by on name recognition and sheer luck of location. The food is a step down from the TriBeCa outpost and they don’t even have pies all the time (which is basically a sin given that Bubby’s is known for its pies). Bill’s Bar and Burger is no better, with an aggressive ambiance and burgers that wouldn’t pass muster by one of the Five Guys. A modern Manhattan staple, Dos Caminos makes an appearance, but the neighborhood’s food on a whole can’t be salvaged by their excellent chorizo fundido. A restaurant called The Diner peddles fare at higher prices than just about any diner in America and the suggested quintessence of “The Diner” largely disappoints (or gets under your skin, if you’re from New Jersey).
The slick quaintness of the neighborhood makes it a good place to explore on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. And, once you’ve discovered all the Meatpacking District has to offer, you can navigate north, south, or east to take in some of Manhattan’s other amazing neighborhoods. I wouldn’t encourage you to walk west, unless it’s a hot enough day to take a swim in the river.