Tour Recap: Port Morris & Mott Haven

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In the Bronx, the point at which East 149th Street intersects with three major avenues (Melrose, Willis, and Third) is known, very appropriately, as The Hub. More than a quarter of a million pedestrians pass through this bustling commercial center every day, making it one of the most important retail and entertainment hubs in the city’s northernmost borough. The residential neighborhoods that encircle the Hub are, in turn, hemmed in by a series of manufacturing districts along the waterways that define the South Bronx. Mott Haven has its own pockets of industry along the Harlem River; this mixed-use, working-class neighborhood is named for Jordan Mott, who purchased the land from the Morris family and built an ironworks in 1849. (The iron structures of the Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol dome were built here). Further south, along the East River, is Port Morris. Industrial development here began just before the Revolutionary War, when the aforementioned Morrises began exporting produce from their farm.

On Friday, August 15th, Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here visited Port Morris for a tour hosted by SoBRO, an economic development organization that has played a fundamental role in the South Bronx’s turnaround. In addition to facilitating new commercial and residential development, SoBRO is also the industrial business service provider for five of the city’s Industrial Business Zones in the borough.

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Bill Morrow, who has led SoBRO as its President for the past 18 years, spoke about the transformation of the South Bronx during the trolley ride from the Hub to Port Morris. (Photo: OHNY)

On the day of the tour, participants met at SoBRO’s headquarters in the Hub, where they learned about the organization’s 40-year history before boarding the Bronx Trolley to head down to Port Morris. Several SoBRO employees talked about many of the organization’s projects that the trolley passed on its route, from an incubator in the historic Commerce Building that now houses 53 small businesses, to a slew of new mixed-use housing developments. “The Bronx has the most affordable housing in the city,” President Bill Morrow told the group. “4,700 new affordable units have been built here in just the past five years.

The co-location of this high concentration of housing for working-class families alongside several IBZs is smart, as the industrial sector is well suited to provide living wage jobs for the people who live nearby. Wages are considerably higher in this sector than in other sectors with employment options for people without a college education—to wit, a recent report from the City Council shows the average annual wage in the industrial sector as roughly twice that of the number for the retail, restaurant, and hotel sector.

When the trolley reached the IBZ, SoBro’s Industrial Business Zone Coordinator, Stephane Hyacinthe, took over. “When the industrial revolution came to the US,” Hyacinthe told the group, “it was initially the Bronx that led the way.”

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SoBRO’s Stephane Hyacinthe (center-left) and Chris Tooher (center) lead the group into Miller-Blaker’s factory through the loading dock. (Photo: OHNY)

The walking portion of the tour was to include three stops at factories around the area, where participants could get a better sense of how the jobs here supported the local population. The first stop was Miller-Blaker, a company that has been producing architectural woodwork and custom furniture since 1967. Chris Tooher, an account manager, took the group on “the same walk a product would take through the shop,” moving participants through the process of producing high-quality wood veneers.

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A worker mans a machine that Chris described as “basically a router on steroids.” The blue tubes above are part of a system that vacuums up sawdust throughout the factory, keeping the air clear while also saving the material for re-use as particleboard. (Photo: OHNY)

Huge, complex machinery lined the walkways traversed during the tour; participants learned about everything from massive CNC routers to the factory-wide suction system that collected sawdust in order to re-purpose it as particleboard to which valuable veneers are later affixed. “Making veneer is very expensive work, because it goes through a lot of hands,” Chris noted, presenting Miller-Blaker’s as a high value-added product. “You can get $100,000 for a big enough tree depending on how you slice the wood.”

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“If anything,” Chris claimed, “the woodworking industry is preserving the rainforest because we’re putting value on something would have otherwise been slashed and burned.” (Photo: OHNY)

The next stop on the tour was Panorama Windows. Located in a low-slung building that once housed a city sanitation garage, this window factory employs 87 people—mostly Bronx residents. Panorama’s president, Peter Folsom, greeted the group and started off with a nod to SoBro, which helped the company relocate to its current facility more than two decades ago. “The Bronx is a good place to work, today,” he told the group, in describing the dramatic transformation that the area has undergone. “The change here—I mean, when I came here, people were ripping up the street at night to steal the old cobblestones under the asphalt.”

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Plant manager Fabian Marichal (center) leads participants into Panorama Windows, which was once a city sanitation garage before the company and SoBRO worked together to convert it for use as a factory in the early 1980s. (Photo: OHNY)

From there, participants were led around Panorama’s factory floor by plant manager Fabian Marichal, who spoke about the diversity and quality of the company’s people as much as that of its products. “We have people from Ecuador, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, people born here in the US—there’s a lot of diversity,” Fabian explained. “People here are hard workers; they want to do a good job. They do what they do because they love it.”

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Superman keeps watch over employees as they produce Panorama’s aluminum and fiberglass window frames. (Photo: OHNY)

A 2010 report showed that more than half of the New Yorkers employed in manufacturing jobs are immigrants, highlighting the sector’s importance to supporting New York City’s role as a global melting pot. And manufacturing is critical not just to supporting socioeconomic diversity, but to fostering the city’s rich diversity of cultural opportunities as well. When people move to New York from elsewhere, they bring with them a host of ideas, customs, and objects of material culture that further enrich the city’s dynamism.

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Panorama sources its glass from Staten Island, and its aluminum from upstate New York. “We’re moving from gray to green,” Fabian told the group. “All of our aluminum is recycled.” (Photo: OHNY)

One of the areas where this is most obvious, at least within the world of urban manufacturing, is in the food and beverage sub-sector, which has been flourishing in recent years, with new firms sprouting up across the five boroughs. The third and final stop on the tour was one of these companies: the Port Morris Distillery (PMD), located just around the corner from Panorama Windows. PMD makes pitorro, which co-founder William Valentin described as “Puerto Rican moonshine.”

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The Port Morris Distillery is located in the center of the Port Morris Industrial Business Zone, one of 21 IBZs located across all four of the city’s outer boroughs. (Photo: OHNY)

“Pitorro is still made illegally in Puerto Rico,” Valentin explained. “We’re actually the first people to make and bottle it legally. The area around Port Morris has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York City, and [we located here because] we wanted to be close to our roots.”

Following local trends, PMD sources almost all of their ingredients locally, with 75% of the produce used to make their different varieties of pitorro coming from farms within New York state. The company is one of just eight micro-distilleries in New York City, and it currently only sells within the five boroughs, though Valentin noted that they were working on expanding to new markets within the next year.

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“Pitorro is Puerto Rican moonshine,” says PMD’s William Valentin (center). “In terms of flavor, it’s closest to rum…but we don’t like to say that, because it’s actually much better!” (Photo: OHNY)

The South Bronx riverfront, with its mix of industrial businesses adjacent to diverse, working-class neighborhoods, illustrates how manufacturing continues to make significant contributions to the city’s economy today even if the sector has declined substantially from its peak years. The firms that choose to stay in the city aren’t merely producing physical objects, they are helping to build stronger neighborhoods. Asked by a tour participant about whether increased policing or community activism was the more important factor in the area’s turnaround, Panorama’s Peter Folsom answered by broadening the scope: “Policing, pressure from [private citizens and businesses]—they go hand in hand. Everyone does their bit. This is a community.”

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The Port Morris Distillery is one of only eight micro-distilleries in New York City. (Photo: OHNY)

 

Tour Recap: Red Hook’s Industrial Waterfront

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The construction of the Erie, Atlantic and Brooklyn boat basins, along with the development of pier and dock infrastructure in the 1840s, set the stage for the peninsular enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn, to develop rapidly into one of the United States’ most important maritime hubs, shipping and unloading cargo from all over the world. But by World War II, Red Hook began to experience a decline in maritime use due to inadequate infrastructure. This began a domino effect of changes in industrial activity as many of the businesses opted to relocate to New Jersey for more space. Abandonment and degradation eventually led to the demolition of many industrial buildings under the Urban Renewal Act, while the development of the Gowanus Expressway in the 1960s magnified the area’s sense of isolation. By 1990, high crime, drug violence, poverty, illegal dumping, and overall decay of the built environment became the new character of Red Hook.

Today, Red Hook is experiencing a remarkable resurgence. Notably, the industrial business community—which shrank (following citywide and national trends) but never abandoned Red Hook entirely— is playing a significant role in the area’s revitalization and lending it a distinct sense of place. Red Hook is still home to a significant Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), managed by the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC), but non-conforming uses are starting to chip away at available industrial land, leaving less and less room for the activities that have shaped Red Hook’s identity as a center of creative production.

On Friday, August 8th, SBIDC Executive Director David Meade and the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Josh Eichnen led a walking tour of Red Hook as part of Open House New York’s and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series. The tour took participants through a range of different types of industrial spaces, illustrating how areas like Red Hook—longtime industrial strongholds with a diverse building stock directly adjacent to mixed-use working class neighborhoods—can support diversified, resilient economic ecosystems.

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Linda Tool manufactures precision machine components for clients like NASA and Boeing, just blocks from Gowanus Bay. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

The tour started off at Linda Tool, a factory that makes precision machine components. Founder and owner Mike Di Marino took a break from moving heavy machinery via forklift to show the group around; the largest and most expensive piece of machinery that he’d ever bought was to be delivered at 6 AM the following morning. Right away, participants were able to see why the city’s IBZs have been so important in recent years: at a time when huge chunks of the city’s stock of industrial land have been rezoned for different uses, the IBZs have provided the stability that manufacturers need to make significant investments in (often very large, expensive) equipment in order to incorporate new technologies and grow their businesses.

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Our guides, left to right: Josh Eichen (Pratt Center), David Meade (SBIDC), and Mike Di Marino (Linda Tool). (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Of course, Mike was quick to point out one of the main challenges of the IBZs: they aren’t permanent, which can allow an industrial area’s patterns of use to shift despite their designation. In fact, Industrial Business “Zones” are not a form of zoning at all—they essentially represent a promise from the city that an area already zoned for industrial uses won’t be rezoned. And while that promise has generally been kept since the IBZs were created in 2005, industrially zoned land still permits a whole host of non-industrial uses, including commercial facilities like hotels, big box retail, and restaurants. As these types of businesses become more prevalent in changing neighborhoods (see: Greenpoint-Williamsburg), it makes it easier for developers proposing “non-conforming uses” to chip away, bit by bit, at the available land within industrial districts.

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Loopholes in industrial zoning make it ever more possible for non-conforming uses, like the new private school being built in the heart of Red Hook’s IBZ, to chip away, bit by bit, at the available land within industrial districts. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Case in point: just around the corner from Linda Tool, a new private school (with tuition well above the level affordable to the average family in Red Hook, which is home to the largest NYCHA project in the borough) is going up. The school’s developers had to appeal to the Board of Standards & Appeals for a special permit. While SBIDC and many local business owners fought it, the permit was approved, and construction was already well underway on the day of the tour. “The school is absolutely going to change the use of the area,” Josh explained. “On top of that, that new building is also taking up space that would have been used by an industrial business. Every time there’s a special permit or variance within an IBZ, land for industry shrinks. There’s no new space for industrial businesses being created.”

The new school won’t just change the use of its lot and immediate environs, but has the potential to throw off the rhythm of the entire industrial community in Red Hook. The influx of children into the heart of an IBZ will inevitably create new political struggles for businesses like Linda Tool, impacting delivery times, truck routes, safety regulations, and a whole host of other factors.

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Tour participants learn about the distilling process at the Van Brunt Stillhouse. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

After exploring Linda Tool, the participants had a chance to visit the nearby Van Brunt Stillhouse, located on the same block as the non-conforming school, and learn about the distilling process while sampling some locally produced whiskeys and rums. From there, it was time to head down to the waterfront. Along the way, David and Josh pointed out many of the area’s historic industrial buildings (including a century-old ship repair facility that now houses a scene shop producing sets for film and theater), helping participants to get a sense of the uniquely diverse building stock that the area’s history of industrial and commercial uses had created.

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The Van Brunt Stillhouse has been producing whiskey, grappa, and rum at its current location for two years. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

One of the neighborhood’s most distinctive landmarks is undoubtedly the O’Connell Organization’s historic Red Hook Stores complex, a cluster of Civil War-era warehouses that are now home to a mix of small-scale craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses. “Greg O’Connell is a prime example of a private developer investing in industrial space and preserving space for legacy manufacturers while also making space for newer craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses and other supportive industrial uses,” Josh told the group.

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“It’s amazing to see and realize how much you’re saving, that would have been just thrown into a landfill otherwise,” says Amber Lasciak of her company’s work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

The first stop in the Stores was REDU NY, a business run by designer Amber Lasciak, whose flexible team of 6-12 employees (depending on the production schedule) produces one-of-a-kind furniture from materials from across the New York metropolitan area, often designing and building entire interiors for restaurants, bars, and the like. Occupying one of the top levels of a building off Van Brunt Street, REDU NY has subdivided their space into a series of fabrication areas, rooms for material and fabric storage, studio spaces, and a “design loft” in a small glass room perched up on the roof, with sweeping views out over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The loft is where the team meets regularly to brainstorm design concepts, and turn salvage into inspiration.

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REDU NY’s “design loft” looks out over New York Harbor. To the upper-left, you can just make out the base of the Statue of Liberty and imagine the inspiring view from those windows. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In a similar building nearby called the Liberty Warehouse (still part of the O’Connell complex) is the Red Hook Winery. On the day of our visit, the winery’s proprietors were in the midst of the first bottling since Hurricane Sandy, which devastated many waterfront businesses like theirs a year and a half before. Several of the other businesses visited, including REDU NY (then located in a ground-floor space) and the final stop, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie, had also taken on significant water during the storm. But rather than wipe out the industrial community in this fast-changing area, Sandy helped to prove the resilience of Red Hook’s finely grained economic ecosystem. “I think it speaks volumes about this community that after Sandy, 90% of businesses have stayed,” David told the group.

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The barrel room at Red Hook Winery, the only winery in all of NYC that is focused on New York grapes. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Steve, of Authentic Key Lime Pies fame, highlighted a unique strength that allowed a production-oriented business like his to get back up and running (and contributing to the local economy) more quickly after the storm. “The good news for us after Sandy,” he explained, was that “a lot of food related businesses [restaurants, bars, et al] relied on people coming into the neighborhood. We had a lot of customers outside of the neighborhood that we’ve been selling to for 15, 16 years that were waiting with their orders as soon as we were back up and running.”

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Red Hook Winery’s founders, Mark and Sandra, pass around samples in the tasting room, which is fitted out in many places with wood salvaged from wine barrels destroyed by the flooding cause by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

While Red Hook may never again be the hotbed of industrial activity that it was a century ago, the neighborhood’s strength as a manufacturing center today is more about quality than quantity. The businesses that opened their doors for the Making it Here tour all emphasized that they choose to do business in Red Hook because it is a place that they love, and a community that they are proud to be a part of. This is a common refrain amongst manufacturers in neighborhoods across the city: that manufacturing in New York today isn’t just about making a living, but about making a life.

“Red Hook is all about crafting a product that you believe in,” explained Sandra, one of Red Hook Winery’s founders. “We’re so fortunate to be able to be here.”

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Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies is a family business with about eight employees. (Photo: Daniella Shin)