Monticello’s story doesn’t come close to meeting the expected narrative. We’re accustomed to neighborhood eccentrics who dress funny and draw attention to themselves, benign characters news stories gloss over lightly.
Banish that stereotype, and learn about Roberto Monticello.
On a chilly, spring evening my wife and I paused in the glass-walled lobby of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Chelsea. It’s near the Hudson in the far west section of the Meatpacking District.
A wrinkled overcast crept slowly up over the river and New Jersey.
While we sipped wine before a walk through the Biennial, a man in a brightly colored jacket and wearing a bright red hat stood nearby. He wondered out loud about a friend who was late. In a casual aside, he told my wife that he was “the Mayor of Meatpacking.”
You can look it up…
He pointed toward my wife’s smartphone. “Look it up. ‘Mayor of Meatpacking.’ It takes eleven seconds to come up.
“There it is,” she said.
“I’m a filmmaker,” he told us. “I made three films about this area.”
That understates his work by about the same margin as if you described Michael Moore as a guy from Flint who made a movie about General Motors and some other stuff.
I didn’t even get his name until I pulled his business card out of my pocket at home that night, and when I dug deeper, I discovered that Roberto Monticello is lot more than the Mayor of Meatpacking, the title being little more than a tool for his more serious efforts to do good without, it seems, getting his values lost in hopes of doing well.
Who is Mayor of Meatpacking?
About New York, a City Made from Water
Let’s get this part of the story out of the way.
It was accidental. After living in the Meatpacking District for a dozen years, Monticello broke up with his girlfriend at Florent, the legendary, now closed restaurant on Gansevoort Street, a half block from where the Whitney would rise twenty years later. It was April 9th, 1992, a date he remembers, because his suddenly ex-girlfriend threatened to kill herself and/or him.
An NYU film crew happened to walk in and asked Florent Morellet, the AIDS activist who owned the restaurant, if he was “like the Mayor of Meatpacking.”
Morellet, who worked but didn’t live in the district, declined the title.
“The real Mayor is Roberto here. He works and lives in the district.”
“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,” reflects Monticello.
“I never wanted to become a public figure,” he told the website, Guest of a Guest. “But now I see the good it may do for the causes I’m working on. To create films that bring to light the realities of the suffering going on in the world it takes funding.”
Being recognized as Mayor of this once crime-ridden area, then known as “The Wild West,” carries no official duties, but it has privileges. It gives Roberto Monticello a frequent platform for the humanitarian causes he’s pursued throughout his adult life.
“I get contacted every time something happens in the neighborhood. It gives me a little platform to push my causes,” he told the website What Should We Do?
Refugee Child of Refugees
In 1978, Roberto Monticello was sixteen, landing in New York after fleeing Cuba. Both his parents were refugees, his father from Spain, his mother from Italy, who fled to Cuba after fighting Franco and Mussolini. He has it in his blood. His devotion to the used and abused of the world is unceasing.
In an astonishingly underplayed summary of his current activities, Monticello wrote me, “Currently working on two films; a pro-immigration feature and my third documentary about human trafficking, where we rescue the children involved, 126 so far. Just finished a doc about the war in Aleppo, Syria, called ‘hell.’ And finished shooting the pilot for a tv series, ‘little west 12 street’ about finding your purpose in life in the meatpacking district, where as the mayor I am trying to turn it into an arts district.”
Rarely has so much been said with so little ego or self-promotion.
You can get a 10,000 foot level view on his profile at the Internet Movie Database, although it hasn’t been kept current. But what this man has done includes not just involvement in 56 plays and 28 films but working to end the embargo of Cuba, where he delivers needed medicines each year; documenting human rights abuses in Afghanistan, going back to the Russians; being shot while investigating Native Indian killings in Guatemala; suffering a beating while pursuing Nazi war criminals; directing a refugee camp in Ethiopia and more.
But the state of the media is such that you might never know we have an international hero who cheerfully waves back at tourists hailing him as the Mayor of Meatpacking. Not one of the big three New York City newspapers seems to have noticed him, although the Village Voice acknowledged his efforts in getting the embargo and travel ban lifted.
Update: What’s up with Roberto Monticello in 2019
Last week, I ran into the Mayor of Meatpacking at the Whitney Museum in Chelsea, his regular hangout. He sat in a small cafe with a friend. Reluctant to interfere, I promised an email.
I wanted an update. Here’s what he told me in an email conversation.
“Finishing my third documentary about human trafficking of children,” he wrote. This is a major focus for him.
“Should start screenings in October,” he said.
“Have new script ready about The Statue of Liberty and Immigration called “The Torch” – as part of it we follow the arrival of an Irish, a Italian, a Jew, etc etc as they arrive in America.”
Monticello’s interests are broad.
“Also, starting to push ‘Cafe Resistance’ —-in response to the ever-growing anti-semitism In Paris and elsewhere. Takes place in a Montmartre Cabaret during WW2 with 8 very strong women characters.”
“My French Producers/Investors are now scared, so moving the production to NY.
“Showed another Cuban Film at the Festival Of Cinema NYC for a huge audience and called for the end of the the US embargo of Cuba.”
The odds on Roberto Monticello, the Mayor of Meatpacking, slowing down are slim.
Some have recognized Roberto Monticello for his work:
- UNICEF Relief Dag Hammarskjold Metal
- The Film Humanitarian Award at the Queens International Film Festival for his work in Darfur, Cuba, Serbia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.
- Best Director at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival for The Stand-In
You never know what you’ll find when you’re looking for something else. I thought I was going to enjoy some of America’s finest modern art, and I did that. But I also met an unforgettable international hero who just happens to be the Mayor of Meatpacking.
An earlier version of this story appeared in the Roosevelt Island Daily.