GANSEVOORT STREET 'It is probably the only street
in Manhattan where you could procure, in one easy trip, a side of beef
and a 1970's sectional sofa in pristine condition'
Street, a dark and melancholy beauty, runs its modest course from east
to west in downtown Manhattan's desolate riverfront neighborhood and
empties into the opaque waters of the Hudson. It was, for most of its
like, merely remote and sinister; it is now remote, sinister and fashionable.
In that regard, it could probably exist nowhere else.
is in the meatpacking district- the Les Halles of New York, more or
less- on the far West Side, several blocks below 14th Street. It is
where the carcasses of animals who undergo their progress from slaughterhouses
(discreetly located elsewhere) to the tables of Manhattan. Having gone
so long without reform, it is older-looking thank most of the rest of
New York. Its cobbled surface has swelled and dipped with the ongoing,
restless little movements of the earth its four brick warehouses have
not changed much since before the days of Upton Sinclair.
dowager queen of Gansevoort, the one enterprise common to its disreputable
past and its more presentable present, is a diner called Florent. For
years it was a standard-issue diner, catering to the meatpackers. Then,
in 1985, a restaurateur named Florent Morellet, who had come to New
York from Paris, took it over. He started serving French bistro fare,
but otherwise made only minimal changes. The Formica counter and chrome
stools remained, as did its 24-hour status. A modest pink neon sign
that said, simply, "Florent" appeared in the window, and strings
of multicolored light bulbs, like the ones favored by used-car dealers,
were strung rather haphazardly over the entry.
was, and remains, a haven for artists, performers, club habitués
and assorted creatures of the night The clientele, in its early days,
was restricted to those who knew it existed, which was not knowledge
easily obtained, since Florent barely advertised and was on a street
likely to produce only blank looks from cabdrivers. You could go there
for breakfast at 4 a.m., after you've been, say, to the "Night
of a Thousand Stevies" (an annual event attended by hundreds of
men and women, all dressed as Stevie Nicks) at Jackie 60, a nightclub
two blocks north of Gansevoort. If you went at that hour, as the first
trucks were arriving with their cargoes of cold flesh, you might have
found yourself seated at the counter with David Byrne on your right
and, on your left, a man in a full beard, a merry widow and fishnet
has mellowed a bit with age (who among us hasn't?), has taken to closing
for a couple hours in the deep dead of the night, but has lost none
of its soul. The staff is still charming and raucous, the food is still
cheap and good. I make a particular point of going there whenever I
return from a trip to a kinder, gentler place (be it Paris or Pittsburgh)
and need to be reminded of the particular, voluble mix of eccentricity,
intellect and sleaze that makes New York worth the trouble.