June 1, 2003

A Glimpse of the Tricolor

Florent Morellet discovered the Gansevoort meatpacking district the same way that many other people who did not happen to be meat cutters or wholesalers found it back in the 1970's, through the gay bars.
There was Jay's, the Vault, Cellblock, the Mineshaft, Alex in Wonderland, the Anvil and the Lure, the last to close only six weeks ago.
"Coming out of the gay bars in the middle of the night, at 3 or 4 in the morning, I loved the activity," said Florent, who is the son of one of France's best-known Conceptual artists and who, like Charlot or Cher, has all but shed his last name. "I loved finding the city full of life. These few blocks reminded me very much of Les Halles in Paris."
Like an old Parisian market, Gansevoort had low buildings, metal shed awnings, plenty of open sky and meandering cobblestone streets, which ran with livestock blood, sticky in summer.
In those days, dressing up for the meat market meant competing with stiletto-heeled transvestites, many of them prostitutes. The triangular building nestled in the vertex of Ninth Avenue and Hudson Street, its brick painted a dribbly pink, looked sleazy, as much Melville, once a nearby customs inspector, as "The Hours," the movie that used the building as home to Richard, the ravaged writer.
This collection of a dozen irregular blocks mainly south of 14th Street and west of Ninth Avenue was off the Manhattan grid, isolated both geographically and psychologically. Perhaps it took someone with a European understanding of the lure of the city's underbelly, not to mention a first-class mailing list, to detect in it a future refuge of the bohemian and creative.
Now, as everyone knows, it's the most happening place in town.
Florent, who is going on 50, is an optimist. The other day, he sauntered out into a gray drizzle and with Vreelandesque authority, pronounced in his hoarse, heavily accented voice, that the rain was "good for the skin."
When he was in his early 20's, he ran a restaurant in Paris that was a social success but a financial failure. He wanted to try again. In 1985, he threw a party at the Brooklyn Museum for a retrospective for his father, François Morellet. When the event was over, he recalls, "I had 2,500 names of the coolest people in New York."
About the same time, a saleswoman for Long Island Beef told him about a Greek diner for sale on Gansevoort Street. Florent put in a banquette, piled newspapers on the counter, and turned the diner into Florent, a bistro open round the clock. Hurt by AIDS, the hard-core gay bars were shutting down, but he had his mailing list, and he bet on location.
His bet worked. "When somebody says to you, I know this restaurant on 48th Street and Broadway, people don't really listen," he says. "When somebody says, I know this restaurant, it's impossible to find, that captures the imagination."
Faddish as it may be post-Iraq war to have contempt for all things French, the meat market and the Frenchman who helped make it chic are a reminder of what the New World owes the Old. Eighteen years later, Florent is defending the past.
Already, the hookers have moved south, street style yielding to the high style of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Yigal Azrouel, still glamorous, maybe, but more reminiscent of the ritzy Champs Elysees than the working-class decay of the old Les Halles. SoHo galleries have sprouted on the side streets. Commercial rents have tripled.
Florent, though, still keeps watch over his restaurant as if it were a salon. By day, he holds court at the round table near the door, greeting the gallery goers. Toward midnight, the lights dim, the taped music mellows, and the late-night crowd arrives, young, beautiful and serious.
Eric David, dark with a buzz cut and Marshall Urist, blond, share a chocolate dessert and talk women. Clubbers? Slummers? No; cancer research doctors, with M.D.'s and Ph.D's. "We're in the lab, working late," Mr. Urist explained.
Mr. David comes to Florent for what he describes as "good food, good vibe." But unprovoked, he raises a complaint. "Lately it's being ruined by bad urban renewal. Up the street used to be a tool and die factory. Now it's a gigantic faux French bistro.''
At last count, nearly 700 people still worked in the meatpacking trade by night. Truckers still unload beef carcasses at dawn.
But Florent worries this will all end in a rush of incompatible development.
A decision on designating the district as a landmark is expected in a few months,, and he hopes a positive vote would preserve this little piece of the Left Bank in New York.
The Mineshaft is gone. The shades of Les Halles are fading, but not gone.