Dubbed “The Mayor of the Meatpacking District,” long-time resident, Roberto Monticello, shared some crazy stories with DwellingsNYC about things he has witnessed in the neighborhood.
A writer and director, Roberto also discussed his most recent project, a highly disturbing documentary expose about the hundreds of children that are trafficked annually from overseas to the tri-state areas of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
How did you get the name, “The Mayor of the Meatpacking District”?
I was breaking up with my French girlfriend at the restaurant, Florent* in April 1992. She got really upset and ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife and started threatening to kill herself and then to kill me. I finally got her calmed down and then the owner of the restaurant, Florent Morellet, came and sat down next to me. Then a NYU film crew came in and they see Florent and say “Oh, you’re Florent! You’re famous with your restaurant. You are the pioneer of the area, you’re like the mayor of the Meatpacking!”
And Florant says to them, “No, I’m not the mayor of the Meatpacking. I don’t live here. I live on Crosby Street. But Roberto here, he lives and works in the area and HE is the mayor of the Meatpacking.”
So after that, the name stuck and everyone started calling me the Mayor of the Meatpacking District.
How long have you lived in the Meatpacking District?
I’ve lived in the Meatpacking 22 years and in New York, 38 years. I’m originally from Cuba. From 1978 to 1980 I was in Soho. In 1980, I moved to 15 Abington Square in the Village and then in 1994 I bought my apartment on Hudson Street in the Meatpacking. I had money at the time because I had just done some Hollywood projects and they paid me a lot of money. And I said to myself, okay, I don’t want to leave New York; this is home to me. And so I knew I wanted to buy an apartment.
Why did you choose to buy an apartment the Meatpacking District?
Most of my friends, they were artists, and they all lived in the Village. I really wanted to live in the Village but I couldn’t afford it so I bought an apartment that was as close to the Village that I could find, and it was in the Meatpacking District.
All my friends were going, “Oh my God, why do you want to be there?! You’re going to get killed!” Because at the time, the Meatpacking was a very dangerous area. The people who worked in the Meatpacking, were only here during the day. They would come and work and then before night fell they would run away—they would get out of here! Now look at it—the Meatpacking District is the trendiest neighborhood in New York!
Why was the Meatpacking District so dangerous back then?
There was a lot of mafia and criminals that hung out in the Meatpacking. People used to get killed here all of the time. You would find a lot of dead bodies around here. So many bodies that the Italian mafia was running out of cement!
I’ll never forget this one time I met a guy in the Meatpacking who had just fled from Chicago after killing five people. He was upset that the cops were chasing him and trying to find him. He said, “Goes to show you, you shoot a few people and you never hear the end of it!”
“Yes,” I said, “but you did kill five people!”
“I know,” he said, “but they were just gangsters. It was a turf war. What was I supposed to do?!”
What is your most memorable experience in the Meatpacking District?
Well, there are many, but in the 80’s and early 90’s there were a lot of S & M and sex clubs in the Meatpacking District. In 1984, outside of the Manhole on Ninth Avenue, I saw a guy sitting on the curb at 6:00 in the morning. His shirt was off and he was slumped over bloodied and bruised. The guy looked like he had been run over by a truck or a train. I ran up to him and said, “Oh my God, my friend! Don’t worry! I’m going to help you! I’m going to get an ambulance for you.”
And the guy looks up and goes, “No, no, I’ve had a wonderful night!”
He was actually in bliss!
I also remember this one woman who used to hang around here a lot. She was always dressed very prim and proper, like a schoolmarm. In fact, the woman was a teacher in the area at PS 3. She always carried this big bag over her shoulder and one day she opened the bag and I thought there would be books inside but instead there was this big whip! And then I learned she was a dominatrix! She was a teacher by day and a dominatrix by night.
You’ve been an advocate for the Meatpacking District for a long time. You were part of a group that helped get the area landmarked. Now you’re trying to get the Meatpacking designated as an art district.
Yes. Los Angeles, Miami, Asheville…they all have art districts. There are art districts all across the country. New York is the cultural capital of the world and we don’t have an art district. Meatpacking is the perfect place for one.
A lot of people are leaving the area because they can’t afford the rent. About 60% of the storefronts are empty now and I know several other businesses that are leaving once their leases expire.
We would like galleries, performance spaces and cultural institutions to move into the vacancies. This can happen by giving tax breaks—tax breaks for the tenants and the landlords. We need to make it affordable
What do you do for a living?
I produce, write, and direct films. I was 20 when I did my first film and that is how I’ve made my living ever since. I’ve done 29 films; for five of them, I used the Meatpacking as a backdrop.
I only do a film if I think it can help someone. My motto is, “I fight for justice and beauty. I do not fight for ego and money.”
What is your most recent film project?
I’m in mid-production of a film called, Children of the Night, which is a documentary expose of the trafficking of children from Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines to the U.S.
How did you come to do this project?
There was a guy who saw another film that I did about human trafficking in Africa and he contacted me and said, “Roberto, do you know that this is happening here in New York?”
Trafficking of children is happening in the tri-state area—New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. So now pedophiles don’t have to go to Thailand. The children are brought here.
When he told me, I thought maybe a dozen, two-dozen children, but it’s hundreds, probably in the thousands, annually.
A lot of these children, after they are bought and abused by the pedophiles they are resold for their organs. In the U.S., the last count was that there were about 8,722 kids waiting for transplants—heart, lungs, kidneys–whatever. Well, kids don’t die often and the few that do, rarely donate their organs. Now if you are a parent, and if you’ve got the money, you can get them.
When I was undercover, I spoke with a trafficker who was complaining that he had only gotten $10,000 for the $30,000 sale of a child’s lungs. He was upset that his cut was so small because he had to pay off so many people.
Due to the attention that the making of this documentary has already created, you’ve said that you have been able to rescue some of the children. How many?
So far, 129 children. Actually, 127. Two of them didn’t make it. They were in bad shape.
These people that do this, they are soulless. You look into their eyes and you see right through them, there is nothing there.
I did not know what I had come upon as I stood in front of an eight-foot-tall, 1,000-pound, human-sculptured candle at the Whitney Museum.
“What is this?” I asked a friend who was with me.
“It’s Julian Schnabel,” a voice said behind us, “see, there’s his head.”
My friend and I turned to see a man sitting on a couch. He was dashingly dressed with a red, felt hat, red shoes and a red vest and he was pointing to a head on the floor that was laying in a pool of melted wax.
I was immediately intrigued and captivated by the man in fashionable red accents. I would quickly learn that his name was Roberto Monticello, aka “The Mayor of the Meatpacking District”.
I asked Roberto if I could interview him and we met again at the Whitney. As I sat and listened to Roberto’s stories, I marveled at what a remarkable person he was.
In addition to writing and directing, Roberto has devoted much of his life to human rights and environmental causes. From bringing medicine to Syrian refugee camps, to earning a UNICEF Relief Dag Hammarshjold Medal for his work in Ethiopia, Roberto’s tireless contributions at home and across the globe are a testament to his character.
Roberto Monticello is one of the people who make New York City so great. Roberto is not only the Mayor of the Meatpacking District, he is a hero.
Some of Roberto Monticello’s Awards
<>UNICEF Relief Dag Hammarshjold Metal
<>The Film Humanitarian Award at the Queens International Film Festival for his work in Darfur, Cuba, Serbia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.
<>Best Director at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival for “The Stand-In”
*Florent was a well-know restaurant at 69 Gansevoort Street. Owned by renowned Florent Morellet from 1985 to 2008, the restaurant had many notable celebrity guests including Madonna, David Bowie, Prince and Bono.