Voter registration forms, living wills and waitstaff in pasties are not the sort of things you’d expect to find at a neighborhood diner. But when the diner was Florent, it seemed only natural. Florent Morellet opened his eponymous 24-hour restaurant in New York City’s Meatpacking District in 1985–long before trendy stores and high-priced lofts took over–and carved out a very special place in the hearts of New York’s underground. Club kids, leather daddies, drag queens, celebrities like Julianne Moore, Madonna, Isaac Mizrahi, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, and Calvin Klein, all ate and frolicked at restaurant where individuality, life and loves were celebrated.
Meatpacking District grew in its fabulousness–due in a large part to the presence of the goofy, glittering oasis of Florent–transforming over the decades from an area seeped in the stench of blood and animal fat to a trendy neighborhood; the prostitutes, butchers, and gay bars replaced first by hipsters, and in due time, the super-wealthy. And then Morellet’s landlord foisted him out, hoping to attract a higher paying tenant. Within the story of Florent is the story of New York from the the mid-1980s onwards, a story mirrored in the changes of gentrified urban neighborhoods across the country. I see it here in Los Angeles with the arrival of cupcake bakeries and ironic baby clothing shops in Silver Lake and Echo Park, rents rising, old businesses and pioneering establishments closing, to be replaced by vegan fusion microbreweries, and thrift shops becoming high-priced vintage boutiques or designer boites.
High camp prevailed around the clock at Florent with full-blown drag extravaganzas on major holidays while the wait staff regularly balanced trays of dishes and the crazies–like the customer who stripped down and covered himself with jelly as a family with a small child sat down for breakfast.
Florent was an extension of its owner’s caring, vibrant, artistic personality. Clever, tongue in cheek ads reflected Morellet’s sensibilities and activism. As Sean Strub, founder of POZ, says in the film:
People in business can also be agents for social change.
And Morellet was: When he was diagnosed HIV-positive, the menu board was updated to include his daily T-cell count along with the soup du jour, and for the 10th anniversary cover of POZ magazine, Florent posed with over 80 other HIV+ customers, all naked in the restaurant’s dining room.
For a Roe v Wade march on Washington DC, Morellet hired six buses and filled them with friends/customers, like members of the B-52s, Talking Heads and Cyndi Lauper for the rally. A year later for the LGBT march in DC, ten busloads came down from Florent.
The activist/businessman–for Morellet was always aware of the promotional value of doing good deeds, which also lead him to be a honorary grand marshal “Queen of the Parade” in the 37th annual NY Pride Parade marching with Hillary Clinton and Mayor Bloomberg who declined to be kissed by the charming Frenchman–was also preservationist. In 1999 he invested in the restoration of the John J. Harvey, the largest fireboat on the East Coast. The boat, with a fresh coat of paint, pumps fully operational, provided tours for school children who delighted in seeing the eight cannons shooting water.
On September 11, 2001 those cannons became vital. The John J. Harvey was called into service by the NYFD when the Twin Towers exploded. The water mains were destroyed in the blast and the only only way to get water to the fire was from the pumps and cannons of the fireboats.
Florent then began a campaign to preserve the Meatpacking District –officially “Gansevoort Market Historic District“– as an historic district, but when his landlord delivered the news that his rent would skyrocket, Florent made the decision to close his eponymous restaurant, staging a five week party reflecting the five stages of grief. Director David Sigal filmed during those five weeks, as the extended family of employees and customers reminisced about their experiences in one of the most unique dining halls in the world.
Times change, places change. Florent had stayed vital despite the shifting neighborhood, as Madonna’s visits were replaced by the cast of Sex and the City which filmed there for two episodes; as bohemians were edged out by the burghers and bankers. Thankfully, Sigal was able to capture the excitement and wonder of those 23 years through interviews and archival footage to show that it is possible to create a community by making activism a cornerstone and fun the foundation.