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)