Hector’s Place is packed. It’s four o’clock on a freezing March morning, but outside the restaurant, the corner of Washington and Little West 12th streets is a traffic jam of delivery vans and semis and 18-wheelers with license plates from heavy-hitting livestock states—Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska. Cuts of meat, boxed or vacuum-sealed in plastic, are being loaded into trucks idling on the sidewalks. At this hour, the meat district’s overhanging metal tracks are loaded with hundreds of pink carcasses. The moon is out. The street is lit like a sound stage.
The men and women who eat at Hector’s work in the meat market. They wear white coats with layers of clothing piled underneath or jean jackets and hooded sweatshirts and gimme caps. Even at the height of summer, meat coolers are chilled to 40 degrees. Drivers sit at the restaurant’s blue linoleum tables with calculators and piles of purchase orders. Pancakes are $3.25, a cup of coffee 65 cents. The restaurant opens at 2:30 in the morning for coffee and doughnuts. By 4 a.m., you can get a good steak.
In its predictions for 2001, the New York Post proclaimed that the meat market, once hot, is now out because it “still smells like meat.” Meanwhile, most tourists, if they venture west of Ninth Avenue, tend to look at the district’s roughly six blocks as a kind of theater, where actors dress up as meat packers to process cows and chickens in the dead of night. The reality is that meatpacking is grueling work.
“I hated this business,” says Joe Nemecek, who bought Adolf Kusy Co., Fine Pork and Provisions from his father in 1985. “I came back from Vietnam and drove an 18-wheeler. I loved to cook and wanted to be a chef. I’d been accepted at the Culinary Institute, when a bunch of guys quit on my father. He was in trouble, but it took him a month to call me. Finally he talked to my mother, and she called my ex-wife. I got into it completely against my will. That was 25 years ago.”
Adolf Kusy, who died in 1996 at the age of 105, started in the lamb business in 1934, and Nemecek’s father joined him a number of years later. Maintaining the original wooden-floored cooler, Joe Nemecek branched out from lamb to include rabbits, suckling pigs, and seafood. The company’s old signature wooden signs advertised over 50 types of cheese.
A morning in the market is everyone else’s middle of the night. Steve Brooks, who owns Diamond Meats, opens his doors at 4 a.m. After 10 years on Ninth Avenue, Brooks’s company was recently priced out of that space, and he moved the business around the corner to 843 Washington Street, a building he now shares with approximately seven other lamb and pork businesses. “I went to school to learn electrical work, but in 1975, I got a job in a veal house, Berliner & Marks,” says Brooks. “The pay was great. I’d gone to butcher school in Toledo just for the hell of it, but when I got here, the guys in the market didn’t care about my diploma, they just wanted to see if I could cut. I started my own business on Ninth Avenue, putting it together from scratch. It’s good money, but it’s very labor intensive. Older guys stayed in it forever, but the younger guys don’t want to work that hard. I can’t afford to take a day off. You have no idea how busy it gets.”
A hundred and fifty years ago, New York City was the country’s largest center of beef production. At the turn of the century, the city maintained nearly 250 sites for slaughtering livestock, and as late as the 1930s, it was producing the nation’s third largest volume of dressed meats. Gansevoort Market opened in 1882, originally a two-acre open-air market bounded by Little West 12th, Gansevoort, Washington, and West streets. Named for Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort (Herman Melville’s grandfather), the area later evolved into a produce market. By 1949 it had become a wholesale meat market, housing as many as 120 meat companies. Many of the meat houses have since closed or have been bought up by larger packers. Several others have moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx, joining that borough’s lively 50-company cooperative. Still, according to John Calcagno, president of the Greater New York Meat Trade Institute, as many as 50 meat packers remain in and around the original Gansevoort Market site, operating their businesses out of the district’s 19th-century buildings.
A single city block divides Hector’s Place from Pastis, the Parisian brasserie at Little West 12th Street and Ninth Avenue. When celebrity restaurateur Keith McNally opened Pastis, he dreamed that local meat packers would rub elbows with limousined patrons at lunchtime, that his bistro would become a mythical piece of working-class Paris sandwiched between Chelsea and the West Village. Onoufrios Argyros, who with his brother, Costa, and brother-in-law, Denny, owns Hector’s, is not as well known as McNally, but so far, his is the restaurant the meat packers prefer.
Hector’s closes with the meat market at 4 p.m., just as Pastis is getting ready for dinner. “I used to eat at Hector’s every day when I owned a wholesale meat place called Ereikousa, named after my home in Greece. I bought Hector’s from a Spanish guy. I was tired of being in the meat business. I was all alone, I couldn’t take a vacation. Monday to Friday you’d do deliveries; two days a week you’d go around and try to get paid. Here, I have partners, and my son, Spiro, wants to take over the business. I spend a part of each year in Greece. I come in at 7 a.m., have breakfast at 9. Of course I buy my meat from the market. It’s my neighborhood too.”
It’s also the neighborhood of many newly arrived out-of-town investors. Last year, Joe Nemecek’s building—an edifice that also houses the Page Six favorite Hogs & Heifers—was bought up by Starwood Urban Investments, a development group based in Washington, D.C. Starwood told The New York Times it wanted to preserve the neighborhood’s edginess and said they were happy to have purchased a building where tenants had no leases or paid month to month. According to Nemecek, Starwood gave Adolf Kusy Co. six months to vacate. Nemecek sued for defamation, a stalling tactic, he says, after the company’s representative told Nemecek, “We don’t want your type of people in our building.” On New Year’s weekend, after 75 years at 861 Washington Street, Joe Nemecek moved Adolf Kusy Co. into Sam Farelle’s Weichsel Beef Co. building on West Street. “I fought Starwood for the extra time because I didn’t want to lose the Christmas business,” he says.
“You’re a Puerto Rican living on Fifth Avenue” is the way Nemecek’s Russian girlfriend describes the neighborhood’s sudden status. Nemecek says Starwood raised his rent from $10,000 to $40,000. “Now I’m working as part of Weichsel, but in a separate division. I still own the Kusy name. I’m trying to catch my breath and figure out what to do next.” For his part, Sam Farelle, Weichsel’s owner, says, “I’ve been here 35 years. I called Joe because I wanted to keep him in the neighborhood. I was here when Hogs & Heifers was Howley’s, a bar that was a nice place to get a sandwich.”
Howley’s, the meat market’s legendary saloon, operated for 50 years at the corner of Washington and West 13th streets. Joe Nemecek’s father first took him to Howley’s when he was five. “Cops would bring their horses in and tie them up to the bar and drink. My dad smoked Chesterfields all his life, lost a lung. He could walk into Howley’s and drink all night and still be at work on time the next morning.”
Hard drinking isn’t the only thing that characterized the old days in the meat market. Until recently, the neighborhood was home to a raffish sex industry. Across from Hector’s Place sits a Deco-ish pink building, empty now, that was once home to the celebrated gay club, the Mine Shaft.
The current level of tolerance is not so high. Neighboring block associations have initiated an aggressive campaign to drive drag queen prostitutes and their cruising johns out of the genteel West Village. “Prostitutes and Drug Dealers, Get Out!” shout flyers glued to the neighborhood’s lampposts. Overnight, the posters were obscured with neatly printed stickers that snapped back “We Were Here First!”
Because of the meat market’s real estate heat, the Sixth Precinct is making its presence felt, and a six-foot beauty flashing both naked breasts and penis from the middle of the street at two in the morning is a rare sight. Asked where the ladies have gone, a local drag queen says simply, “Locked up or dead.” Jimmy, a white transvestite from the South, hasn’t been seen in at least a year. Though his drag friends were all African American, he would proclaim, “I don’t do shade,” as he paraded up West 13th Street in a floor-length gown and platinum wig. Joe Nemecek recalls the drag queen who nightly used the Kusy delivery truck mirrors to put on his makeup. “Hi Joe,” he’d say, one eye done, one not, his deep voice belying his thigh-high skirt and heels. “Frankly, I felt safe when they were around,” says Nemecek. “They always knew what was going on.”
By three in the afternoon, Washington Street is nearly deserted. The barrels of animal ribs, their remaining flesh “denatured” with green dye to indicate they’re unfit for consumption, have been hauled away. Steve Brooks is hosing down the sidewalk. The alarm on his white delivery truck goes off angrily about every 20 minutes. The Diamond Meats sign he promised Grace Jones the day she shot a music video in the neighborhood is hanging above his door. She still hasn’t come to pick it up. “Eventually, the market’s going to disappear,” says Brooks. “There’s just too much money involved. Rents will double, then triple.” Companies that have closed or moved to the Bronx include Plymouth Beef, Endicott Meat & Poultry, Schuster, Lowe Avenue Beef, Royal Veal, and Emerald Food Corp. Still standing are Barry, JT Jobbagy, Louis Zucker & Co., De Bragga & Spitler Inc., Long Island Beef, Lamb Unlimited, Premier Veal, T&M Meat Co., Maggio Beef Corp., R&W, Diamond Meats, Weichsel Beef, and Adolf Kusy Co., Fine Pork and Provisions—but who knows for how long?
Brooks remains philosophical. “If I can’t stay here, I’ll take the business to Fort Greene. It’s still different there. I can’t move to Hunts Point, because I like to be on the fringes of things.” He pauses. “Adolf Kusy was a very nice guy. I think I owe him money. I’ll get it to him on Monday.”