NYC’s Meatpacking District Used Design to Drop Its Seedy Rep
Like much of Manhattan, the Meatpacking District was once a very different place. Go there now, and its cobblestone streets are flanked by some of the city’s shiniest boutiques and priciest hotels. The tech heavyweights are there too; Google, Palantir, and Betaworks have opened up shop in the westside neighborhood.
But for much of the 20th century, the Meatpacking District was a gritty place. In the early 1900s, the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the neighborhood’s namesake opened in droves. By the time the city officially zoned the area for the industry, it was the country’s third-largest producer of dressed meats. Business stayed steady until the 1960s, when the rise of supermarkets and frozen foods started chiping away at the need for local meat production. Throughout the 1980s, industrial activity gave way to drug dealing, sex clubs, and prostitution. Big nightclubs arrived in the ’90s, and with them an especially sloppy breed of partygoer.
Much of downtown Manhattan has undergone a similar transformation, but the Meatpacking District has struggled to shed its seedy reputation. To help rehabilitate its image, the neighborhood just got its first visual identify, complete with a website, logo, and advertisements, in the form of banners flying in the air.
“This is obvious once someone tells you this, but it isn’t self-evident on its own: the Meatpacking District is 80 percent commercial,” says Geoff Cook, whose firm, Base Design, created the branding. “There’s this matrix of businesses and cultural institutions ranging from the Whitney [Museum] and the Highline, to the hotels, to the tech companies. That is the meatpacking industry today. But it’s still kind of maintained this certain perception from ten years ago.”
About a year ago, the Meatpacking Business Improvement District hired Base to figure out how to change public perception. Cook responded by proposing a graphic identity as glossy as the neighborhood itself: The website, which is the communications hub for the area, looks like it belongs to a fashion magazine. The wordmark is a split between two fonts, one a bold sans serif (a typeface called Platform), the other a newspaper-like serif (Romana). The contrast is a nod to the Meatpacking District’s past and present. “That was at the core of the identity that we developed, that it is, more than almost any other neighborhood, this study in contrast,” Cook says.
If the Meatpacking District’s rebranding sounds like a new coat of paint, it absolutely is. But it’s also a case study in placemaking, a discipline that seeks to improve neighborhoods or regions by designing them to be as user-friendly as possible. Other cities have launched similar initiatives as a means of directing people’s attention. Take the St. James neighborhood of London: it was once a mercantile hub, but had lost commercial tenants to other up-and-coming areas. A recent branding effort led by design firm dn&co seeks to lure back storeowners and shoppers alike.
When it comes to the Meatpacking District, Cook says placemaking boils down to building a trustworthy communications system. Like a well-made map, or a brochure for a museum, the branding establishes a sense of trust for visitors by giving them a cohesive set of visual cues. You can trust the website, because it looks like the signs seen in the Meatpacking District’s streets, and vice versa. “It’s purely about making people feel better about their neighborhoods. And that’s really interesting, as a basis of analysis of success,” he says. “But if you are delivering information better, if you’re making people feel emotionally better, then you are attracting more investment in the neighborhood.”