A chapter is about to end in the Meatpacking District with the final days of a popular restaurant called Florent. The restaurant has quite a history. So, too, does its creator. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 report.
"I was born American in the middle of nowhere in France," said Florent Morellet. "It was a geographical accident."
For 23 years, Florent, the man, and Florent, the diner, have been pretty much once and the same.
Florent is in its final days, the diner, that is, the victim of rising rents.
The spate of publicity about the restaurant that presaged the change in the Meatpacking District has turned Florent, the man, into a New York Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, present at his own funeral.
"It's like having a chance to like, to read your obituary," said Morellet. "I mean, you know, it's done. I can die in peace."
Long before the Meatpacking District buzzed with new restaurants and shops and hotels, there was Florent, one 24-hour diner among the meatpackers, prostitutes, and drug dealers who frequented the neighborhood. And it became much more than a place to eat.
"A community center, a non-stop, 24 hours, 23 years long home of politics, of things happening, of culture, of insanity, of life and death, of constant re-thinking," said Morellet of his restaurant.
There is no need to look at the board for the day's specials. The board is for the headline of the day, the forecast, comings and goings, and at the bottom, a series of numbers, representing various T-cell counts for the HIV-positive Morellet; the higher the number, the healthier the man.
"A number must have fallen here. Sometimes it happens and people come to me and say, 'Florent, I saw 59.' No, the number dropped, gravity, only gravity," he said.
The last days of Florent have brought back a flood of memories, like his Marie Antoinette costume on Bastille Day, his stint as co-marshall of the Gay Pride Parade with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Cyndi Lauper, and serving as tour guide through New Jersey on a bus headed to an anti-war protest in Washington.
But not all of the memories have been so sweet, particularly the late 1980s.
"There was a time when it was really awful," said Morellet. "We had to leave the restaurant late at night in group of three because otherwise we were attacked. We were seriously attacked. People, you know, a lot of people stopped coming to the restaurant because they were scared."
There are even more painful memories. The restaurant was born in 1985, as the AIDS crisis was raging. Morellet was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987. His partner died in 1994.
"Suddenly there's a picture with, I'm the only one in the picture and everyone is dead and you just go, you cry," he said. "I was very lucky because, in my family, dying was part of the conversation. That's why I had a leg up on my other friends who, people started dying in the mid-80s. My grandmother died in my arms when I was 24 and it was a beautiful experience."
Perhaps it's that experience that has given Morellet some perspective on the end of a restaurant.
"The loss of the restaurant Florent is, for so many people, the end of an era. I can't have on my shoulders the whole, a whole era."
Morellet has been credited with putting the Meatpacking District on the map. Appropriate, because ever since he was a kid, maps have been his passion.
Long before his life in restaurants, Morellet considered a career in urban planning. He loves to create maps of imaginary places using existing cities.
"It's a relief from our own mortality and the end of ourselves to see that we are like a, you know, a bit like coral reefs," he said. "Coral reefs keep fueling. Each plants dies, but there is something left, that is somewhat immortal. It's our cities."
Morellet grew up in a small town in the west of France, his father a famous artist. The family traveled and Florent saw the world.
"I've hitchhiked from New York to Mexico City," he said. "I mean I've had to jump out of trucks because people were drunk driving their trucks. I've hitch hiked across the Middle East. I'm a tough queen, trust me."
After living in London and San Francisco and Paris, where a restaurant he opened flopped, Morellet came to New York in 1978.
On his second night here, he met some men in the Meatpacking District. He thought they were picking him up. Instead, he was mugged.
"It's not like you were mugged because you were doing your shopping or something like that," said Morellet. "No, I was mugged because I was, you know, a sex addict doing something crazy."
After working at a restaurant in SoHo, he decided to buy a place in the Meatpacking District and put his name on the front. It caught on, surviving the rough scene outside.
Eventually the Meatpacking District cleaned up and became hip. And Morellet became a community organizer, helping the neighborhood attain landmark status.
"People get annoyed at tourism, but this is the New York you know," he said. "Smoke stack industry, without smoke stack. This is where you have, you know, the jobs for the working class here in New York that we lost."
But the restaurant and neighborhood's good fortune didn't always translate into good times for Morellet. He's gone to Overeaters Anonymous and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. After a major depression in 2002, Morellet says he checked into rehab in a mental institution.
"I was not accepting the changes of the neighborhood then, and the changes of getting old," he said. "This is where the, the sexual addiction was very strong. It's that I wanted to be desired and I was not being desired anymore and for me my life was over."
Last year, he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous after an incident at his weekend home in New Jersey.
"I was gardening at one o'clock in the morning and my garden is on the incline and I fell on the wheel barrow and really knocked myself out, really bad," he recalled. "And I could have, I could have died. And I call it, you know, GWI, gardening while intoxicated."
Morellet says he is not interested in opening another restaurant and may write a book about this experience. After some initial resistance, he now seems at peace with the decision to close Florent, a decision which has helped him analyze not only the diner's history, but his own.
"Addictions are really often excuses to not be present and also away from intimacy," he said. "I've come, in my 50s, to realize that I want to be more, you know, that I have these obsessive qualities. They're not really qualities, but that I want to have a more sober life and I want to be more in the present."
- Budd Mishkin