Meatpaper zero

by Nicholas de Monchaux
MARCH, 2007

THIS ARTICLE ABOUT MEAT IN THE CITY will start between the most superficial of resemblances; on the left, a diagram of cuts of meat, of the type often exhibited at state fairs and in (vanishing) butcher’s shops. On the right, a diagram of Manhattan neighborhoods, of the type exhibited in guidebooks for tourists or (proliferating) apartment brokers’ offices. These are two very different things that merely look the same, aren’t they?

An initial objection to any other similarity between these similarly shaped things would be (for the cow especially) a crucial one. While the carcass, first designated and then carved into round, flank, brisket and rump, is dead, the city today seems very much alive.

Just as we need arbitrary designations to govern the path of a knife, or palate, around and through the body of the cow, so we need neighborhoods to negotiate the dense tissue of the city. 

And, traditionally, it is the language of living, not dead flesh, that has dominated urban talk. Adrian Forty, among others, has charted the way in which the language of 19th-century biology came to dominate the architectural and urban conversations of the next century. Organs were important—the “lungs” of parks and beaches, the “brain” of a financial district, the “heart” of a commercial core—but even more so the “circulation” that kept them alive, bathed them in (presumably) life-giving commerce and flow. And so the vascularly inclined architects and planners of the early 20th century came to propose, and then construct, such a rationally circulating body. As articulated by Robert Moses, one of the century’s most infamous urban architects, the principle was simple: “Cities are created by and for traffic.”1

In his half century as head of New York’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Moses oversaw the creation of more than 24 highways, 13 in the fabric of New York City itself. In Chapter 36 of his epic biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro points out how—unlike the highway builders of old, or the planners of entirely new planned cities—Moses was one of the first in the 20th century to propose constructing highways through dense, living urban tissue.

From the language of the living organism, however, we here move to the language of meat. In a speech quoted by Caro, the great builder opines:

You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.2

Moses’ assertion that the “city is made by and for traffic” came from discussions surrounding the Lower Manhattan Expressway, an eight-lane highway along Canal Street which would have resulted in the demolition of what is now SoHo and the West Village. His successful opponent in this endeavor was the neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities used the language of the butcher to debate the then-unquestioned worth of urban highways. The exclusive pursuit of alleviating traffic congestion, and the resulting creation of enormous elevated highways, not only “carved” but “cleaved” the city, preventing it from “sustaining life.”3

Caro’s 1974 biography echoes Jacobs’ language; in 1970, for example, Moses is “carving four more lanes of expressway” out of Queens.4 Yet Moses’ “meat ax,” Caro points out, cut not just into the physical fabric of the city—as in the legion of utility lines, subway tunnels, rivers, and most of all neighborhoods altered or relocated to build urban expressways—but even more into its institutional and social meat. Moses’ projects depended on his “carving out within the state and city governments … a unique, independent niche,”5 removing himself from democratic accountability just as surely as he grasped the handle of power.

Here we return to a vision of the city proposed by Jacobs in 1961: not just a physical body, but a complex web of social, economic and physical relationships. In the final chapter of Death and Life, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” Jacobs quotes the 1958 report of the Rockefeller Foundation, a call to the natural sciences to see beyond a mechanistic model of the living world, and to see bodies, organisms, and ecosystems as examples of “organized complexity.”

So back to meat and Manhattan. To return to our illustrations, both images represent a system of commonly understood distinctions, rendered in order to negotiate the body of a complex system: the city, the (bovine) body. Just as we need arbitrary designations to govern the path of a knife, or palate, around and through the body of the cow, so we need neighborhoods to negotiate the dense tissue of the city. And just as cuts of beef change to suit custom and fashion (who remembers the silverside, striploin, or clod?), so do neighborhood boundaries and designations. An alley named for Dashiell Hammett in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, whose Maltese Falcon was set in and around the neighborhood, now lies inside tony Nob Hill. Manhattan’s own Tenderloin, once the area between 23rd and 57th street and 5th and 7th avenues, lost its name after its mostly black population moved to Harlem in the early 20th century.

But while a new fashion in meat cutting doesn’t actually change the cow, urban neighborhoods exist in constant interplay with the city’s living flesh. The negotiable boundaries of neighborhoods are necessary divisions for the city’s self-reflection, even self-organization, but they connect as well as divide.

It is fashionable today to talk about this interconnectedness of the city, the nexus of physical, social, and natural systems. “Green” is the term most often applied, and it is a hue that speaks, fascinatingly, not to meat, but to salad. To see ourselves as part of a connected web is trauma enough, it would seem; far easier to see such a web in the lacy fingers of branches and roots, or a vinagretted friseé, than in the lacy veins of meat.

Yet the green, interdependent city is also, perforce, the red. When journalist Upton Sinclair began his expose of slum life in 1905, he sought out the meat packing industry of Chicago as his urban subject. The fact that the book inspired the regulation of meat, with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and not urban work life, was rued by Sinclair in his own meat metaphor: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”6

The infrastructure of animal consumption is marbled through urban development today as in the 19th century. It continues to shape Manhattan itself. What is most remarkable about the fashionable renovation of New York’s Highline into a “green” park for people is that it will be a human takeover of an infrastructure previously designed for animals, to connect the Hudson railway tunnels of 34th street with the meat-packing plants now constituting the city’s latest fashionable district. Yet as strollers and sunbathers displace cow and cattle-car, one wonders if our association of interdependence with the part of our diet most unlike ourselves—the vegetable—reflects an unease, or an unwillingness, to reflect the natural connections, and complications, of that part of our diet with the largest ecological hoofprint of all. The most arbitrary line in both illustrations might be the outline separating organism from ecology. In this light, our two maps, Meat and Manhattan, are not so different after all.


1 “… A city without traffic is a ghost town” Robert Moses Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970) p. 308
2 Robert Caro The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974) p. 849
3 Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage, 1961). See for instance p. 264 “…city-carving borders” and 265 “facilities that cleave cities with borders”
4 Caro, 950
5 Caro, 631
6 In his 1920 book on American journalism, Sinclair reiterated this quote and went on to explain “I realized with some bitterness that I had been made into a ‘celebrity,’ not because the public cared anything about the sufferings of these [Chicago] workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p. 47


Nicholas de Monchaux focuses his design practice and research on the intersection of organizational thinking and the built environment. His interdisciplinary design work and writings on cities, networks, and objects have been the subject of numerous articles, invited lectures, and symposia. Currently an assistant professor of architecture at UC Berkeley, he is the author of the forthcoming Spacesuit: 21 Essays on Technology, Complexity, and Design (Princeton Architectural Press).

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Zero.

Left: adapted from the Department of Animal Science, Meat Science Laboratory, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Right: adapted from the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Illustration by Nicholas de Monchaux.