Every neighborhood has its characters. There’s the Green Lady in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, who only dresses in grassy colors. The elf girl on the Lower East Side. The Tree Man. But not every neighborhood has their own mayor, or at least not a wonderfully alliterative one like Robert Monticello, “the Mayor of Meatpacking.” Monticello, a writer, director, and humanitarian, has lived in the area for 37 years and watched it morph from a bloody meat locker to a chic cultural center—and a favorite shoot location for fashion photographers. He’s written or directed more than 26 films, many of them documentaries shining a light on injustices across the globe. But he’s shining a light on his neighborhood, too, with one of his current projects: Little West 12th Street, a television series (featuring Sean Young!) about a real-life–inspired group of friends who live in the Meatpacking District. The Mayor made time for What Should We Do?!.
You weren’t born in New York. When did you move here? I grew up in Cuba and came to New York back in 1978 when I was 16. But my parents aren’t Cuban. My father was born in Italy and my mother was born in Granada, Spain. My father’s family fought against Mussolini in World War II, so they had to go to Cuba. My mother’s family fought against Franco and they had to flee to Cuba, too. That’s where they met. My mom was a flamenco dancer and my father was a trapeze flyer with his family’s circus, so they were both performers.
Wow! Did you ever perform in the circus? No, I mostly stayed with my grandparents when my parents went on tour. But when I was a kid, my goal was always to be in the circus and perform like my father. But then we had a sudden [circus-related] death in the family and my grandfather, who was the patriarch, said, “okay, no more of this.” And the circus ended. But I’ve been attracted to the performing arts my whole life.
Did you go to school when you moved here? No, I never went to official school in Cuba or here. And I lied about my age when I came because I was trying to avoid the military draft in Cuba. Officially I was 21, but in reality I was only 16. So I started looking for work right away. My first job was with Amnesty International. But I have written and directed plays and documentaries, all with a social conscience, since the beginning. I’ve done okay. I made a living. I mean, I haven’t made a lot of money or become famous, but fame is not something I’m looking for. I fight for justice and duty, not money and ego. Right now, I’m working on a documentary about child trafficking. And in a month, I’m going to Syria with the Red Cross and I also lobby to end the embargo with Cuba.
Well, you’ve certainly earned a measure of fame in your neighborhood. How did you get named the “Mayor of Meatpacking”? I lived with relatives in SoHo when I first arrived in the city, but in 1980 I moved to the Meatpacking District—and I’ve been here ever since. I knew immediately that New York was my home, my adopted home. The energy, the diversity! You live so fast here and you experience everything. I feel right here. It’s a struggle, but at the same time I find it to be worth it. So one day, April 9 in 1992—I remember the date because it was the day my French girlfriend broke up with me—I was sitting in Florent [iconic restaurant in the Meatpacking District run by Florent Morellet, an AIDS activist and restaurateur, that closed in 2008] when this film crew from NYU comes in. And they asked Florent, “are you like the mayor of the Meatpacking?” And Florent said, “No, I just work here!” because he lived on Crosby Street. He said, “The real mayor is Roberto here. He lives and works here.” And ever since, I’ve been the Mayor of Meatpacking. It’s funny, of all the work I’ve done in human rights and disaster relief, I’m best known as the Mayor of Meatpacking. Even today, whenever I sit at a sidewalk café, 10 people will go by and say “Hi, Mayor!”
Do you have any responsibilities as the mayor? Not really, but I get contacted every time something happens in the neighborhood. It gives me a little platform to push my causes. I would like to declare the Meatpacking District an official art district. Seventy percent of the real estate here is empty because no one can afford the rent. I want the Meatpacking District to be a place where galleries and performing spaces could rent affordably and the landlords would get tax breaks. We’d call it MAD, for Meatpacking Arts District.
What are some of your favorite neighborhood spots? Well, the new Whitney Museum is my favorite and I love the High Line. To eat, I go to a place called Hector’s. It was opened by a Puerto Rican meatpacker and has been here longer than me. It’s a diner where the locals eat because it’s a third of the cost of the other places around here. There’s also a little place called Subrosa on Gansevoort. Four or five nights a week they have a different jazz band, mostly Latin jazz. It’s owned by the people who own Blue Note Jazz Club and B.B. King Blues Club, but it’s much smaller and they don’t publicize it as much. And there’s a new arrival in the neighborhood, sweetgreen, that has great salads.
Get in touch with Monticello to talk about MAD or his other work here.