The explosive growth of manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an indelible mark on the five boroughs. While New York is now known for its dominance in fields like finance, media, and design, it grew up as a city of industrial districts. Back when the manufacturing sector was one of the primary forces driving the city’s economy, residential and commercial development often followed the factories. This was a time when neighborhoods were known as much for what they produced as for who lived there.
As shown in the infographic above [NYPL], which is exhibited in Vertical Urban Factory, the city’s core circa 1919 was a melange of crosshatched manufacturing clusters. Not only did many of these clusters overlap with each other, they mixed right in with the city’s residential and commercial sectors. In 1919, New York City was home to 32,590 factories in neighborhoods across the city, employing a total of 825,056 people. But while this meant that many New Yorkers were able to walk to work, the soot, smells, and clamorous sounds of the factory also followed them home. The city’s earliest zoning regulation, in part, was intended to create more distance between noxious industrial sites and the places where people lived. “Until the early twentieth century most urban areas had unrestricted uses,” explains Vertical Urban Factory‘s Nina Rappaport. “The first zoning regulations in New York were put in place in 1916 to separate noxious uses from residential areas, to provide for healthier living. This gradually placed noxious uses in low income areas, or the industrial areas that developed became sequestered. This separated industry and workers from the everyday, removing diversity from city life.”
Much of the industry that once defined neighborhoods across the city is gone. Today, more than 75,000 people are employed in the manufacturing sector in New York, less than 10% of the number from 1919; relative to population, 14.6% of New Yorkers had manufacturing jobs in 1919, while that number is now just 0.8%. Not long after World War II, the creation of the Interstate highway system, the rise of container shipping, and suburbanization all worked in tandem to decentralize industrial production across the country. Many manufacturers—in New York and nationwide—decamped from urban centers for cheaper quarters on the edge of town.
More recently, the value of the land under New York’s old industrial districts has gone through the roof as those areas have been re-zoned to make way for residential and commercial re-development. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a simple case of supply and demand: industrial businesses left the city, and the city, in turn, re-zoned its land to respond to changing needs. The truth is a bit more complicated. While some firms were happy to leave, the story on the ground within the five boroughs in 2014 is not one of manufacturers searching for exit strategies.
In fact, the opposite is true. Today, revitalized factory complexes like those explored during the first phase of Making it Here, which have been retrofitted to provide small and mid-sized spaces needed by contemporary manufacturers catering to specialized niche markets, are typically at or near 100% leased. For a variety of reasons—including, increasingly, quality of life—these manufacturing businesses want to stay in New York. The trouble is, neighborhoods that once welcomed them have changed so dramatically that the demand for usable manufacturing space is acute. Far from fleeing the city, many companies are actually being pushed out.
The second phase of Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation‘s Making it Here series will take New Yorkers into the streets of historically industrial districts with expert guides to better understand how these areas are changing, and how the city could incorporate manufacturing spaces back into mixed-use neighborhoods. This phase will also give New Yorkers a chance to walk the factory floors of legacy manufacturing companies to learn about how businesses have adapted over time in order to remain in New York—and why they chose to stay in the first place.
Why has space for manufacturing businesses disappeared so quickly that demand now exceeds supply? And what can we learn about the nature of that demand from the legacy manufacturers who have overcome so many challenges in their effort to stay put? This summer, Making it Here will visit the following sites in search of answers to these questions:
Edison Price Lighting Factory Tour
Long Island City, Queens
Wednesday, July 16 / 2:15 PM
Edison Price Lighting has designed and manufactured innovative, energy-efficient architectural lighting fixtures since 1952. Join Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport for a tour of the Edison Price factory to learn about how the company adapted its business model over time, working directly with architects and designers and specializing in highly customized lighting fixtures. Click here to purchase tickets for this tour.
National Elevator Cab & Door Factory Tour
Friday, August 1 / 9:00 AM & 11:00 AM
In an old art deco factory building off the R-train in Queens, National Elevator Cab & Door Corp builds the elevator cabs that carry millions of New Yorkers every day. Learn about how the city’s uniquely robust demand for vertical transportation has allowed this family-owned and operated manufacturing business to grow in place during its more than eighty-year history.
Red Hook Neighborhood Tour
Red Hook, Brooklyn
Friday, August 8 / 3:00 PM
Walk the streets of Red Hook with urban manufacturing experts from the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation to explore a unique mix of historic spaces and innovative businesses. This tour will focus on land use issues in an industrial neighborhood and the relationships between design and production.
Port Morris Neighborhood Tour
Port Morris, Bronx
Friday, August 15 / 12:00 PM
In response to increasing real estate speculation in industrial districts amidst the re-zonings of the mid-2000s, the Bloomberg Administration created sixteen Industrial Business Zones (IBZs) in the four outer boroughs that are preserved for industrial uses. Join Stephane Hyacinthe of SoBRO, the organization that manages all five Bronx IBZs, for a tour of three factories in the historic Port Morris area to learn more about how space for manufacturers is being safeguarded in the South Bronx.
Martin Greenfield Clothiers Factory Tour
East Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Monday, August 18 / 10:00 AM
Martin Greenfield, a Brooklyn manufacturer of hand tailored men’s clothing, founded Martin Greenfield Clothiers in 1977 when he bought the factory from his former employer, GGG Clothes, which had occupied the site since 1917. Tour the factory floor with Vice President Tod Greenfield to learn about how this family-owned and operated business has survived in New York by focusing on high-quality production, and how the company has worked with other local manufacturers to help protect industrial space in the neighborhood over the past several decades, despite mounting redevelopment pressures.
Long Island City Neighborhood Tour
Long Island City, Queens
Late Summer / Date & Time TBD
Vertical Urban Factory’s Nina Rappaport leads a walking tour of Long Island City that looks at the area’s history as an industrial powerhouse, and its evolution into a high-density, mixed-use neighborhood today. Explore a series of artisanal manufacturing spaces to see how the area’s status as a hub for the arts and design community has allowed certain types of manufacturing to thrive here despite the massive changes experienced over the past few decades.
Please visit the Schedule page for more information about registering for individual tours.