The True Story of New York’s Meatpacking District
History gets rewritten as time passes, and those who record it often do so from a different lens than those who actually experienced it. And in almost no place on Earth does that kind of gentrifying, rapid-change history creation happen like in New York City.
This phenomenon is perhaps the central source of tension in HBOMax’s newly-released documentary The Stroll.
The Stroll, told by Kristen Lovell and co-directed by Zackary Drucker, platforms the predominantly Black Trans sex workers of NYC’s once-notorious Meatpacking District. Now sporting high-end restaurants, shopping boutiques, the High Line Park and the Whitney museum, this area of NYC bustles with tourists and shoppers, giving off the vibration of wealth and success. But the Meatpacking District was a very different place for those who worked its streets through the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Once a tucked-away enclave on the West Side of Manhattan where people took care of the kinds of “dirty” business that make the world go round - its landscape has been changed in ways that actively sought to erase the realities of hardship, poverty and systemic racism that many New York residents, and particularly those who worked the stroll on 14th St, experienced. The world is obsessed with NYC storytelling, but there are few stories that account for the lives of sex workers in general and trans sex workers specifically.
Co-Directors Lovell and Drucker, both Trans people who lived and worked in the area, unearthed loads of archival footage and images that bring this lost world to life, centering the subset of the Trans community that is often left out and includes an ignored chapter of Trans history. What makes this film different are the filmmakers’ personal knowledge of the goings on in the area and direct connections to the lovely souls that lived there.
Ceyenne Doroshow is one of the featured characters in the film and the context she lends to the film is inspiring, both because of her lived experience and because of how it inspired her to create an organization, GLITSINC, that caters to this very specific population.
Ceyenne reported constant fighting and violence on the stroll being the primary reason she struggled to leave, but the added burden of being on the brink of homelessness, poverty and systemic racism was a constant threat to her ability to survive, much less thrive. This potentially lethal combination of circumstances made her realize early on that getting off the stroll was going to be a critical factor and she started to participate in the Ballroom culture at the direction of Mother Flawless Sabrina, a well known performer in the area. They met at a midtown Manhattan club called Bentley's when Ceyenne was a homeless teenager, and Sabrina helped her get control of her life. Ceyenne continued to struggle but had found her passion, both for advocacy and for fashion. For Ceyenne, there was no turning back.
The Stroll is both inspiring and a cautionary tale. Many of the transwomen that worked this district were victims of violence who simply disappeared, never to be heard from again. A precious few escaped but the reminiscence of the filmmakers and participants make us abandon the desire to lament over their lives but rather to celebrate their time to live their personal truths. It begs us not to feel sorry for them but to lament our own forgetfulness and lack of accountability for caring for those who need us most and it reminds us that we are all part of the shared experiences of those who came before us.
The Stroll is a story told with care and affection and often bites sharply at the viewer who knows how difficult it is to be a sex worker, a trans woman or a person of color, and the devastating consequences when these discriminations and marginalizations converge. It is a memorial and a celebration. It is unapologetic in its portrayal of both the hardships and the blessing, the adversity and the delight and the shared affection of the inhabitants of the Meatpacking District in the days before the gentrification took place. And it pulls no punches when impugning the broader Queer community for its internal struggles when it came to including and caring for the Trans (and even moreso, Black Trans) community. For example, The Stroll tells the story of Amanda Milan, a 25-year-old trans sex worker who was stabbed to death in front of crowds of people at Port Authority in 2000, yet received none of the mainstream news attention that Matthew Shepard’s murder received two years earlier. If you’ve never heard of Amanda Milan, well, that’s exactly why The Stroll exists.
While it can be heartrending to see such vulnerable, thorough portrayals of how bad policing, apathetic “civilian” communities and mainstream politics abandon populations like the sex workers from the Meatpacking Days of yore, then abuse them with “reforms'' and gentrification, stripping and replacing their existence with those deemed to be more palatable, not all change is solely sad. Our culture, for instance, is only just beginning to grasp the power of what people can accomplish when they’re elevated and empowered to tell their own stories. The Stroll’s storytelling elicits a deep sense of nostalgia even for those who’ve never spent time in NYC. It humanizes and celebrates without asking for pity or romanticizing. It is honest, thoughtful, diligent and created very much for the people who lived it while remaining welcoming to the curious outsider. The Stroll can be viewed on HBOMAX and we hope you watch it!