By Tina Irgang
In 2010, Lauren Danziger was part of a small group of people who formed the Meatpacking Improvement Association (MPIA). As MPIA’s founding executive director, she led the effort to grow the organization and start an officially recognized business improvement district (BID). She accomplished that in 2015, and today, her job is to promote the Meatpacking District to locals and visitors alike. In doing so, she battles preconceived notions about the neighborhood, but also the fact that it’s mainly a commercial and industrial area. Here, Danziger shares how the BID has helped the Meatpacking District grow its sense of community.
How did you first encounter the Meatpacking District as a neighborhood?
Danziger: I’m from Long Island originally, but not from the city. My earliest memories of Meatpacking are definitely post-college. I went to school in New York state, but I moved to the city after college. One of my first apartments was seven blocks north of the Meatpacking District, but I didn’t become intimate with the neighborhood until I took this job. I always knew it, had my own perceptions of it, but getting to know the neighborhood and its truth started about six years ago.
How did you come to start the BID?
Danziger: I was a corporate global meeting planner for many years, and when the market crashed in 2008, I left my job. No one needs a corporate meting planner when their industry is a mess, so I knew I didn’t want to go back to that. Because I’d been travelling so much and spent little time in the city, I knew that what I did next, I wanted it to have a local feel and really build a life in the city where I was living. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. I just thought I’d do a job that didn’t have so much travel. So I was figuring it out for a while. I had a culinary background as well, so I did some baking and catering, but it wasn’t enjoyable and it wasn’t paying the rent. I applied for a job on Craiglist to run a small chamber of commerce in the Village and Chelsea. The organization itself wasn’t really set up to be very successful. But through that work, I realized I loved working with businesses one on one, because if they do what they do well, they can really effect change. So my work was to support these businesses in one way or another. … I was equipped with these skills that most people have to go through an MBA program for.
A friend of mine [told me] there was an interesting group of people trying to build community in the Meatpacking District. My impression of the district was that it was completely a nightlife zone. I didn’t understand what it really was, but I interviewed for the job and, amazingly, I got it.
I was able to build a program with the city around public plazas in the neighborhood and create spaces and interaction. We’d had the public spaces before, but they were covered in graffiti. We were able to create these spaces where you could engage in community. And then we were creating programming and economic development initiatives that were really to the benefit of the people working here every day and living in the surrounding district. The district is zoned for commercial and manufacturing use, so there are, like, 11 tenants. There’s almost no residential in the neighborhood. Most people, when they think about community, they think about residential neighborhoods, … and in the Meatpacking District, I had this opportunity to build community strictly around business. If you want people to come back and patronize stores, it’ll be the ones who are here every day, and those are going to be the business next door to you.
What are your plans for the future of the neighborhood?
Danziger: If you’d told me seven years ago that I’d sing this place’s praises on every level, I wouldn’t have believed you because I had my own prejudgment about it. It’s a special place, but it’s challenged because there’s so much construction. What I want to do is support the community through that time and celebrate the businesses and the work they’re doing now. We do that through a series of unique event programming. Each year, we approach it differently, so we’ll continue to do some of those initiatives. Last year, we underwent a whole branding exercise on behalf of the neighborhood, and we built out a digital neighborhood. We don’t refer to it as a website. It’s not about the organization, it’s about the neighborhood, and we’re creating original content as well as repurposing content from our businesses. … So we continue to build on that and make it even more robust.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in promoting the Meatpacking District?
Danziger: I think that, like any brand or product, a neighborhood is no different, particularly one that’s a global destination. You can know what a neighborhood or product is. You can have associations that are positive or negative, and for me, as the ultimate promoter of the neighborhood, I’m working against the preconceived notions. In any sort of brand exercise or marketing exercise, we’re working against that. It’s the people who don’t necessarily know the depth of creativity and sort of interesting businesses and people who work and operate here. I think my biggest challenge is against those ideas that are preconceived, and being consistent in our messaging about the truth that is the neighborhood. So it is an uphill battle.
What surprised you about running this business?
Danziger: The people, the neighborhood. Which is strange — I’m coming in to run a neighborhood and be its advocate and I’m surprised by it. I was very young when I started here, and I think a lot of people in their youth do jobs because they need to jump ship or want to make more money. It’s not generally because it’s the ultimate best fit. So when I got here, I didn’t know it was going to be a great fit. Then I learned that the property owners are so invested in the success of this neighborhood and the store owners love the neighborhood so much. When they decide it’s time for them to leave one brand, 90 percent of the time, they go to another brand in the same neighborhood. It’s a true neighborhood because when people come here and are open to it, they have a similar, shared authentic experience.
Obviously, the Meatpacking District is your favorite place in the world. What comes in second?
Danziger: I lived in Melbourne, Australia, many years ago and I think the reason I’d say that’s my second favorite is the same reason I love it here. It’s cosmopolitan, yet it feels accessible.
What has been your biggest achievement in your tenure with the organization?
Danziger: There are so many things I’m really proud of here, which is a wonderful thing to recognize. I’m really proud of the creation of the BID. It was very difficult. We went from being strictly a business association to working with all elements of the community. So the creation of the BID sort of signifies the successful integration of not just the businesses in the neighborhood at the heart, but also the residential and other elements in the neighborhood — nonprofits, cultural institutions, schools. I think the BID symbolizes that we were really all able to come together as a community, not just a business community.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.