Journalist Robin Shulman, author of Eat the City, will lead a unique walking tour of the High Line’s fascinating food history on Wednesday, June 5. To whet your appetite for Robin’s tour, we’ve included an excerpt from her book below. Learn more about ‘Eat the City’ High Line Meat Tour and purchase tickets today.
In the 1870s, the Chicago clearinghouses shipping beef and pork to East Coast cities realized it would be cheaper to send dead meat than live steers. They built massive stockyards and slaughterhouses where they could “disassemble” cows and pack the carcasses to travel efficiently. In a leap of technology, they harvested ice from the Great Lakes and stored it in stations along the train routes to cool the meat they sent in rail cars all the way to eastern cities. Prices went down, and Harper’s Weekly heralded a new “era of cheap beef.”
Yet in New York, local demand for kosher meat sustained independent slaughterhouses, meatpackers, and butchers, and the city remained the largest meat processing center on the East Coast until World War II. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 17 million immigrants landed at the port of New York. Many had lost family farms or had seen their artisanal trades disappear. They were hungry. In the old counties, they had barely enough food to survive, and if meat was available, it was the animal’s least appealing and cheapest parts, used to flavor broths and stews.
In New York, they found a rich, meaty city where the easy access to beef and pork and mutton symbolized achievement. In America, the higher the salary, the more meat people ate—a fleshly standard of success. One man recalled that his grandfather would put a toothpick in his mouth as he left home “to give the impression that he had eaten meat.”
Look at old records of the businesses along cobblestoned Fourteenth Street and you can see the fourteen-block wholesale meat market take shape, soon the dominate the northeast. The Centennial Brewery converted to meat in 1901; the Merchants’ Print Works turned over to poultry distributors in 1911; a row of stores became a cold storage warehouse for meat in 1921. A big brick building on Thirteenth Street became a vocational high school for food trades, including butchery, complete with a walk-in cooler, a sawdust floor, and deliveries of whole animals for students to break down.
Freight trains sped down Tenth Avenue to deliver meat to the Fourteenth Street Market. Men known as West Side cowboys would wave a red flag or swing a lantern at the head of the train to clear the way. There were still so many train accidents that the street became known as Death Avenue. The High Line, an elevated freight line, had to be constructed from Thirty-Fourth Street down to Spring Street, cutting right inside of warehouses to make second-story meat deliveries. The butchers moved the animal carcasses from hooks in railcars to overhead meat tracks or elevators down to the cutting rooms, shedding fat and blood.
From EAT THE CITY: A TALE OF THE FISHERS, FORAGERS, BUTCHERS, FARMERS, POULTRY MINDERS, SUGAR REFINERS, CANE CUTTERS, BEEKEEPERS, WINEMAKERS, AND BREWERS WHO BUILT NEW YORK by Robin Shulman, copyright © 2012 by Robin Shulman. Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.