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When the Meatpacking District Lived Up to Its Name

When the Meatpacking District Lived Up to Its Name

The New York Times 6/14/2011

By JAMES BARRON

Ozier Muhammad/The New York TimesRichard K. Lieberman, a historian and director of the La Guardia and Wagner archives, revisits the meatpacking district. He worked in his father’s processing plant when he was a boy.

Down the block from the photo-snapping tourists and the chic-looking locals — and the just-extended High Line park — Richard K. Lieberman was having a Proustian moment. Think meat, not madeleines.

“I started here when I was 8 years old, making boxes,” said Mr. Lieberman, who grew up to be a professor of history at LaGuardia Community College and the director of the La Guardia and Wagner Archives.

In 1953, “here” — a spot on West 13th Street, west of Ninth Avenue — was his father’s meatpacking plant. Now it is a construction site. The building his father leased was torn down a couple of years ago after the Landmarks Preservation Commission concluded that it “does not contribute” to the Gansevoort Market Historic District, commonly known as the meatpacking district, and that “its demolition will not detract from the special historic and architectural character” of the neighborhood.

But to Mr. Lieberman, 65, it was a personal landmark. So off he went on a nostalgia tour.

It had begun with an e-mail to a reporter who had met Mr. Lieberman at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives. “I used to work on the High Line, unloading cattle from the Midwest,” the e-mail said. “Glad to take a walk in the area and show you how to flip a rail.”

It turned out that the rail Mr. Lieberman was talking about was not on the High Line, but it was up in the air — about seven feet off the ground, on a building half a block from where his father’s plant was. As he explained it, the rail was part of a complicated conveyor system used to move a shipment, piece by piece, from freight cars on the High Line to trucks at ground level. The trucks shuttled back and forth to plants like his father’s, where the butchers were blacks from the South or Jews who had survived the Holocaust.

Unloading the freight cars on the High Line “was a total ballet,” he said. “You do your move too soon and you have 50 to 85 pounds of dead calf on your shoulder” — instead of on a hook attached to the overhead rail. And there were other pitfalls that the youngest guy on a crew of five or six — Mr. Lieberman — had to learn to avoid.

His father had other worries. Mr. Lieberman explained one as he described a photograph of his father in a jacket with wider-than-wide lapels. Mr. Lieberman said it was taken outside the plant in May 1954, probably over the Memorial Day weekend.

“We had just bought a new camera,” he said. “We took that camera everywhere. Most of the time, and certainly on a three-day weekend, he’d go and check the plant.”

The concern was the refrigeration system. “All those plants were refrigerated by ammonia pipes,” he said. “The problem was, ice would build up.” There were valves to divert the ammonia and let the too-cold pipes warm up. Long sleeves of ice would fall to the floor, but only if the right valves were closed and others were opened.

“He didn’t trust the engineer who was supposed to check,” Mr. Lieberman said.

So he would go to the plant to check the pipes himself, and take his son along. “He’d feel he’d done what the owner should do,” Mr. Lieberman said.

In the photograph was the back of the family car, a 1953 Cadillac. His parents traded that Cadillac a few years later for brand-new one — when big tail fins were the rage — because suddenly their Cadillac seemed old and short on status. “For the children of immigrants aspiring to be nouveau riche,” he said, “that was the last thing you wanted. And they had to hire carpenters to put an extension on the garage because the new car wouldn’t fit.”

His father went bankrupt in the 1960s. “It was a combination of his personality — he was abrasive, he didn’t get along with people — and the unions were gaining in power, he held out too long and the unions beat him on a couple of strikes,” he said. “And the Mafia moved in to control the source of the cattle. It wasn’t that the union was mobbed up. They came in and said, ‘If you want cattle from upstate, we’re your new partners.’ My mother basically said, ‘If you deal with the Mafia, I’ll take the children and leave.’ And she would have. She wasn’t kidding.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“I wonder if they ran across the old pipes,” he said.

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