By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Look how clean my building is! But you know how stupid they are? When they cleaned it, they ruined the old sign on the wall. It was for paper boxes. Something like Allied paper boxes," Coco tells me as we stand in front of her building, a former factory converted into lofts on the corner of 14th Street and Ninth Avenue in the meatpacking district, where she's lived for 18 years.
Coco is a very chic woman, but she hates the changes in the neighborhoodthe precious boutiques, the fashionable restaurants, the new high-rise apartment buildings. When she moved into this part of town the streets literally ran with blood, which was just the way she liked things. Now the slaughterhouses have pretty much vanished.
Coco looks mournfully at an empty building next to her house. "Dizzy Izzy is dead," she says of her old neighbor, the all-night bagel shop. "It was a home for hookers looking to hide from the police. The rumor is they're turning it into a motorcycle showroom." She snorts derisively as she looks up and down 14th. "What's that up therea Pilates studio? I'm glad at least Western Beef is still here."
These days, Western Beef is situated between a Belgian restaurant called Markt and Bodum, an upscale Scandinavian housewares store. I'm surprised when Coco says she's never been inside BodumI mean, it's right across the street from her housebut then she tells me that, actually, she's never been in any of the swanky stores on her street.
This state of virginity is about to end. We enter Bodum, a store big enough for a hundred cow carcasses, now fully accoutered with tea towels and fondue pots and tape dispensers. Coco is muttering, "I think this used to be Plymouth Beef," but two seconds later she softens at the sight of a cache of little brown café crème cups that are $6.95 each. "Oh these are sweet!" she allows. "I hate that they're here, but at least they're cheap." Genuine enthusiasm greets a $39.95 art deco French coffee press called the Eileen after the early-20th-century industrial designer Eileen Gray. "I like the way the coffee tastes when you make it with these things. It's so strong, it's like an acid trip."
Bodum may not have the charms of a meat-processing plant, but at least it's inexpensive and unintimidating. The same cannot be said for the new Alexander McQueen store, a pale green- and oyster-colored emporium where Coco and I immediately feel like a pair of klutzy Romy and Michelles. Though it's all curved walls, there is something sharp-edged about the place. A minuscule young woman is trying on a leather jacket full of laces and fringe that is none too big on her. (Who's it supposed to fit? Stuart Little?) It's hard to find price tags on the clothes, but I do locate a ticket on a flared, topstitched, studded denim skirt$345, which is how much the cheapest designer clothes cost these days. It's an OK skirt, but it's nothing like the item we really want, a ballet pink chiffon and leather evening gown that apparently jiggles sexily when you walk, since, according to a salesman with a European accent, it is called the jellyfish dress. In any case, it's $7090, which is a lot of jellyfish.
A few doors down from McQueen, a row of Castle Demolition metal bins marks the site where Stella McCartney is preparing to open her flagship. "Did I tell you I saw Paul looking around down here the other day?" Coco asks me. "I mean it was Paul. Paul!" Our next stop is Jeffrey at 449 West 14th, a store that is just about as pricey as McQueen, though with its live DJ and burbling fountain, it's a lot less daunting.
"This is like Macy's compared to that other place," Coco whispers. For the minute, her distress about the arrival of Jeffrey and its ilk appears to have evaporated entirely. "Oh, I love these!" she cries, fondling a pair of strappy, spiky $640 Michel Perry boots. "They're a nice height, aren't they?" When I ask Rodney, a super-friendly salesman, how business is going, in view of 9-11 and the stock market and all that, he swears things are just great. "Honey, they all still come to Jeffrey! They come with their Hermès Birkin bags and their Cartier Pasha watches and their Manolos, and they buy." There's even something here for the rare Birkin-less, Pasha-less visitor: a rack of greeting cards featuring famous photos from vintage Vogues, including a sprightly Twiggy, circa 1967, for only $2.25.
Coco's opinion of Hogs & Heifers, the area's notorious sleaze bar, more or less sums up her feelings about the entire neighborhood these days. "I hate it! But I like it. It's one big room for drinking, and there's usually a dog standing on the bar." She's forced to admit, too, that she kind of likes the row of life-size fiberglass pigs loitering outside Destination, a fancy accessories shop at 32-36 Little West 12th. According to the woman behind the counter, the pigs are in honor of the store's one-year anniversary, and they're for sale, at $700 each. If that's too much, teddy bears made of old kimono fabric are $17.50 to $40, depending on the size of the bear.
"I hope they don't paint over that sign," Coco sighs outside the Nyack Meat Co. at 16 Little West 12th, admiring a painting of a cow that looks like a flash card. Around the corner at 9 Ninth Avenue, virtually inside the Olympia Garage, is a tiny shop that Coco refers to as the bead store, though it's actually called Boucher Jewelry. Hanging drop earrings in turquoise and coralthis summer's big stonesare only $60, though prices ascend steeply from there.
"See that ivy?" Coco says suddenly, as we hit the street in search of still more shops. "There's a garden back there." Indeed, a door on Gansevoort Street is open and reveals a secret enclave, where, believe it or not, a flock of baby chickens is hanging out. Coco is nearly beside herself that this remnant of the neighborhood's eccentricity still exists. There's a spring in her step as we walk along Washington Street, where two gallery-like shops, Auto and Move Lab, share a backyard and the casual custodianship of two dogs, both named Lucy. At Auto there are $65 Pyrex rings and $15 Cosabella thongs and a $55 pink leather wrist cuff, the same color as McQueen's ballet dress; Move Lab offers $98 blue suede pillows and a weird seven-legged human-insect doll for $320. Coco isn't tempted by any of the merch; she's busy playing with the Lucys.
Back outside, she points out the High Line, an abandoned elevated freight line that is the subject of a fierce fight between builders and preservationists. "You know, I walked the High Line!" she says, looking with affection at the corroded iron trestle bisecting the sunset over the Hudson. "I snuck on at 31st Street and walked down here. Oh my Godthe view. I was afraid of being mistaken for a terrorist by sharpshooters. So I wore a skirt."