The area around Newtown Creek, according to the Newtown Creek Alliance, is the oldest continuous industrial area in the nation. Put into productive use for the transport of agricultural goods in the earliest days of European colonization, today the creek is almost completely bordered by Industrial Business Zones—areas designated by the Bloomberg administration as safe from rezoning to non-industrial uses. The surrounding neighborhoods of Long Island City, East Williamsburg, Maspeth, and Bushwick are home to hundreds of industrial businesses.
On August 18th, Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series toured a factory that has helped to define this area’s industrial community for decades: Martin Greenfield Clothiers (MGC). Established on Varet Street in 1917 as GGG Clothes, this now-legendary garment manufacturer was bought and renamed in 1977 by Martin Greenfield, who joined GGG as an entry-level floor boy in 1947.
Recently, the surrounding neighborhood has been going through a period dramatic change. Located several blocks off Newtown Creek itself, MCG’s factory sits directly on the border of the North Brooklyn IBZ. Numerous buildings within view of the factory’s front stoop have been converted for residential use within the past few years as the gentrification of nearby Bushwick has reached a feverish pace.
At a time when city officials are ever more prone to speculating about the increase of mixed-use zoning within long-time industrial strongholds, the tour of this factory, hemmed in by a growing residential population, proved particularly enlightening. Tailoring isn’t the only family business: the Greenfields are also long-time proponents for the development and retention of industrial businesses within the city. Martin worked to create EWVIDCO, one of New York’s first industrial business advocacy organizations, int he early 1980s; today, his son Tod serves as its board chair.
Despite their company’s stellar reputation, the Greenfields have faced plenty of hurdles over the years as they worked to grow a manufacturing business while remaining in Brooklyn. Backed by the hum of hundreds of sewing machines, Tod wove stories of recent frustrations into the tour of the factory floor, highlighting the inherent tension that often exists when industrial and residential uses overlap.
In one instance, a neighbor in a building that had been illegally converted from industrial to residential use (but legalized through the expansion of the Loft Law several years ago) complained to the city about the noise created by a vacuum pump essential to MGC’s factory operation. The company was hit with a fine and a hefty bill to insulate and silence the pump. Despite the factory’s location on an industrially zoned lot within a designated IBZ, when Tod appealed, a judge upheld the fine. This, according to Tod, was hardly an uncommon frustration for his and other businesses in the area.
So why stay at all? As almost every business owner who has welcomed Making it Here participants into their factories has explained, the Greenfields say that they’re willing to grapple with the challenges of urban manufacturing because their business is about more than just turning a profit. “We have different ethics than most companies, which is why we’re still manufacturing in the city,” Tod told the group. “If money were the only motivation, we wouldn’t be here. We like New York; we like living here—and our employees live here.”
Thus, out of a mixture of work ethic and determination, MGC has built an international reputation for producing suits and uniforms of the highest quality—garments that last a lifetime—in the heart of a city better known today for the design and marketing of clothing than its production. The patina of heavy use covers every surface of MGC’s factory, from the rounded edges of wooden tables to the mottled, streamlined swoops of well-loved sewing machines whose own manufacturers have long since discontinued their production. The machines take on lives of their own, and employees learn their individual quirks and habits. One gets the sense that, whenever a machine finally gives out, its passing is mourned by the people who knew it.
The garments themselves are almost like living documents; they move from worker to worker; along the way, temporary seams are added to and removed from each garment, marking and then erasing different phases of the production process. “With the modern automated process of manufacturing,” Tod explained, “there is only 15-20 minutes of direct labor. By comparison our garments live with [our employees] for over a month. Our burden is to make garments look fresh after 14-16 hours of handwork—but then our garments, over time, look better and better. Garments engineered to be made with automated assembly processes look the best they’ll ever look when you pick them off the rack that first time.”
Martin, himself, remains active in the day-to-day operations of the factory that bears his name. Popping up here and there across the floor throughout the morning, he took time at the end of the tour to speak with participants about his own story, and the history of his company. An Auschwitz survivor, Martin immigrated to the United States after WWII and spent the rest of his life in the garment industry. “My background, it is working,” he stated. “I love what I do. If a person finds a job in America and doesn’t like it, never stay in that job. Find something that you love.”
The Greenfields’ dedication—to their business, to their employees, and to the industrial community in North Brooklyn—is a key attribute shared by many of the manufacturers that remain in New York City today. The title of the Making it Here series is, of course, a riff on one of the city’s most iconic boasts: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Today, this is especially true for manufacturers, though ironically so. They can often “make it anywhere” with a lot less hassle. Those who stay endeavor to do so for the same reasons that any New Yorker does: they love it here, and their employees do, too. This is where they’ve built their businesses, and their lives.
“The more you automate, the less you’re able to adapt to change,” Tod noted, in explaining why MGC remains dedicated to labor-intensive production at a time when most Americans buy their clothes off the rack. In considering the future of industrial districts like those along Newtown Creek and the role of manufacturing in the city’s economy, we should keep those words of wisdom in mind.
OHNY and NYCEDC thank Martin Greenfield Clothiers for welcoming participants into their space for this tour. To learn more about Martin Greenfield, check out the legendary tailor’s new book, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor.