Stroll the Meatpacking District and you will see a number of empty storefronts or cleared out art galleries.
Signs reading “Store for Lease” and “Available to Rent” are plastered in windows. In the midst of what’s an otherwise bustling neighborhood, vacant retail locations give the district the air of a ghost town.
“If you go to 14th Street everything is empty,” said Roberto Monticello, a longtime Chelsea resident. “The rents keep going up so people keep moving out.”
Monticello, known to some as the “Mayor of Meatpacking,” landed on the West Side in 1978. He’s well-acquainted with the neighborhood and knows most of the small businesses and pop-up galleries in the area. Most of them, he says, are moving out because it’s increasingly difficult for proprietors to keep up with the financial pressures in this increasingly popular location.
“Spice Market was pretty well known, pretty famous, but the rents were ridiculous,” Monticello said of celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s West 13th Street restaurant, which closed earlier this fall.
Monticello has proposed transforming the neighborhood into a distinct arts district, which he suggests would be of benefit to local businesses.
“L.A. has an arts district, Miami has an arts district. So why not New York? And this is the perfect location between the Village and Chelsea,” he said.
Artists agree. There is always plenty of foot traffic and it’s in the center of New York’s art scene, they said.
“Between the Whitney and Chelsea galleries, it’s great. The location is fabulous,” said Peter Gerakaris, a local artist.
Gerakaris came to New York from New Hampshire to study Cornell University’s College of Art, Architect and Planning.
He pursued his career as an artist in the city, attracted to its energy and diversity.
“There are microcosms from every part of the globe in New York,” he said. “It’s such a pluralistic scene.”
As an emerging artist, however, it was difficult for Gerakaris to find a studio that he could stay-put in. He moved around the boroughs, planting shallow roots in Crown Heights, Long Island City and other parts of Queens. Gerakaris now feels a little more settled in a brand new Red Hook studio, but he admits that it took a while for him to get to this point.
“Artists go where the space is available and affordable,” he said. “I’m at a point now where I’m at a studio I probably couldn’t be at when I was a younger artist.” Gerakaris is familiar with Monticello’s proposal, and it has sparked some interest for him. But he senses that the challenge will be getting city officials to buy in, and ensure that artists and galleries are being shielded from the voracious real estate interests that have descended on the district.
“If it’s not really designated as an artist’s space, it’s easy for tech companies to move in and squeeze out artists,” Gerakaris said. “Tech companies are still crucial to the growth and development of New York, but it’s important for them to coexist with artists.”
Monticello’s proposal is still in the planning stages. But he’s intent on building a strong network of supporters and then approach city officials. His hope is to preserve the art culture and protect it from overdevelopment.
“We want to recruit as soon as possible so the developers do not move too quick,” Monticello said. “Otherwise they are going to take every building, and they are going to put glass towers everywhere.”
Monticello’s passion is palpable. He doesn’t want to see the character of his neighborhood disappear any further.
“The artists in the area are really suffering because of gentrification,” he said. “Let’s give them a break,” he said.