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Made in Brooklyn: a 1993 warning about the loss of manufacturing for housing, more poignant today; is real estate really economic development?

The documentary Made in Brooklyn, about the importance of manufacturing and the shortsightedness of trading industrial space for housing and offices, was made in 1993, but the message remains valid, if ever more poignant.

(The filmmaker is Isabel Hill, known for her subsequent Brooklyn Matters documentary on Atlantic Yards.)

After all, Made in Brooklyn was filmed before this decade's real estate boom, and some of the manufacturers featured in the documentary, notably the Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg (right), have closed, and the Domino site is slated to become the New Domino, a development second in size to Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.

The reviews and comments were mostly laudatory, though one critic pointed out Hill could have asked about salaries and benefits, and noted that some small manufacturers are sweatshops. Still, manufacturing has long been a source of good jobs for immigrants and others who may lack book learning but can use their skills.

There's an argument for local manufacturing, one that remains for such things as immigrant food services, the garment industry, and support for live theater: Brooklyn offers proximity to consumer markets and access to a large pool of labor.

Author Pete Hamill, who rose from manufacturing work to a writing career, gets some zingers in on the value of labor.

The conventional wisdom

Academic Mitchell Moss offers the standard, not implausible, explanation about the loss of manufacturing: factories left for land designed for mass assembly, access to highways, and locations with low-cost labor.

What's the future for low-skilled workers? Building services and building maintenance.

But you can't build yourself out of a recession, right?

Old buildings, new uses

In placing so much attention on the loss, suggests the narrator, policymakers may have overlooked "the retooling of old industrial buildings for new industrial uses."

That's an essentially (Jane) Jacobsian quote, though even today there have been evolutions in the locations cited in the film: one firm, S&F Pleating, featured in the old Eberhard Faber building in Greenpoint, has since gone, while the lighting business Lights Up is no longer at the Gair Building in DUMBO but rather in Cypress Hills. And isn't the Gair Building now condos?

Then again, the Brooklyn Navy Yard has revived as an industrial park, and has grown even since, and firms like Scott Jordan Furniture and Ares Printing, featured in the film, are still there.

City officials offer little encouragement in the film, with a Department of City Planning representative suggesting that the Navy Yard has obsolete structures. Not anymore.

From the ground up

Those who work on a grassroots level get their say. A member of the family behind H. Fox & Co., makers of U-Bet Chocolate syrup, still in Brownsville, reflects on the city's one-track urban renewal policies, demolishing a mixed-use neighborhood for housing projects.

"It's unrealistic of the city not to be able to say we need jobs first," he says, an echo of a character in The Civilians' In the Footprint--I'm pretty sure it's Bob Law, though he's not identified--about the need for is not for affordable housing but for jobs so people can afford housing.

When city neighborhoods are rezoned from manufacturing to residential, you can't ever go back, warns Joan Bartolomeo in the film; she'ss still at the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation

The film points to a 6/3/90 New York Times article, headlined Waterfront Renewal Turns to Greenpoint, described a grand plan for the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse.

The zoning proposed by City Planning was withdrawn, but, as we know, a rezoning was finally enacted in 2005. And the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse was fatally damaged in 2006 in a suspicious fire.

Indeed, the anticipation of rezoning fuels speculation, according to the film, and such speculation seems to have been behind the fire.

If you rezone land to build housing, without talking to industry, says Bartolomeo, "because it's going to get on cover of some urban planning magazine... you're doing it for the wrong reasons."

Richard Aneiro of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation gets the final word, criticizing the city's deliberate choice to emphasize a back office economy for Wall Street: "You don't follow the economy. You lead it."

It doesn't quite look that way.

In 2005, some warnings

Such warnings were echoed in a 6/19/05 article by Joel Kotkin, headlined The Next Act, part of a special issue of the Times's City section on Brooklyn:
Some New York boosters celebrate the "new" Brooklyn as an expansion of Manhattan's sophisto culture, manifest in the proliferation of galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants, and the growing number of high-end professionals. At the same time, the borough has seen an erosion of middle-class professionals, as well as the restaurants, bars and shops that have historically served them. During the 1990's, the census showed increases of more than 20 percent in Brooklyn's corps of dancers, choreographers, authors, writers, actors, producers, architects, college teachers, designers, veterinarians and psychologists. In the same period, the census showed similar drops in the numbers of firefighters, cabinetmakers and police officers.

By contrast, until the middle of the last century, Brooklyn served several roles simultaneously. It was a middle- and working-class bedroom for Manhattan, a bustling port, a manufacturing center and a secondary center of local business services. Over the past half-century, much of Brooklyn's indigenous economy has dissipated, with manufacturing jobs falling by roughly 20 percent since 1995. The loss of this long-critical sector has left the borough largely dependent on a single source of new jobs - finance and business service jobs from Manhattan - and its real estate market tethered to the exodus of professionals from that borough.

Brooklyn's wealth is now seen as a product of closeness to Manhattan, rather than a byproduct of improved indigenous industries in growth areas like health. "There's a tendency to think of economic development as real estate development," says Joan Bartolomeo, president of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation. "We have to start thinking about human development, about what we can do here."


  1. For other arguments in favor of manufacturing, and against real estate development as an alternative, study the Pratt-MAS study "Making it in New York" and read Mike Wallace's book "A New Deal for New York."

    Here's part of my review of Wallace's book in The Nation, 6 January 2003, pp. 25-32. He has more to say than Blogger will let me tell you. I've given the URL for my whole review at the end of this post.


    The economy of New York City still reels from the attack on September 11, to which has been added the economic effect of global recession and Wall Street's sharp decline.

    Official estimates of what the World Trade Center attack alone may have cost the city economy run as high as $100 billion. For many New Yorkers, however, the attack on the World Trade Center was a new wound at exactly the spot where an old wound, going back nearly half a century, had not yet healed. They felt again their grief for the bustling, gritty harbor culture of the old Lower West Side that planning for the World Trade Center, completed in 1974, had bulldozed under. They mourned the century-old redbrick Washington Market, Radio Row with its hundreds of small businesses, and the throbbing West Side docks, which were moved to New Jersey. They missed the hundreds of ships that crowded the harbor and the swarms of blue-collar workers and shopkeepers that had animated the streets of lower Manhattan, along with the bankers and traders of Wall Street. They wondered how New York City could recapture all the jobs it had lost, going back fifty years.


    New York, [Wallace] points out, is cripplingly dependent on the fragile Wall Street monoculture, which has accounted for 5 percent of the city's total employment, but provided 19 percent of New York's wages and salaries and, between 1992 and 1999, some 50 percent of the growth in gross state product.

    Wallace argues that the city must diversify and, in particular, protect and foster manufacturing, now an invaluable but neglected corner of our economic garden. Making shrewd use of data from the seminal report "Making It in New York," by the Pratt Institute
    Center for Community and Environmental Development and the Municipal Art Society, Wallace argues a brilliant brief.

    Fifty years ago, New York was the leading manufacturing city in the United States. Garment manufacturing and printing, among other industries, were centered in the city. Since World War II, however, New York has lost some 750,000 industrial jobs. Wallace argues that this happened mainly because of wrong ideas. "Many civic and corporate leaders," he says, "actively dismissed the production of things as a grungy leftover from the archaic old days." "Free-marketeers chimed in with claims that the plummeting number of industrial positions represented nought but the inevitable (and inevitably benign) consequences of globalization." Those theories did not account for the fact that New York lost manufacturing jobs at six times the national rate. Thus unmourned, half a million jobs slid into oblivion.

    Read on:


    * * *
    © Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 2003. All rights reserved.
    Mary Campbell Gallagher writes frequently about city planning, architecture and education.


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