Tour Recap: Martin Greenfield Clothiers

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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.

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Martin Greenfield Clothiers, founded as GGG Clothes, has been producing garments on Varet Street ‘the old fashioned way’ since 1917. (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.

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An employee works on a suit jacket. Throughout the tour, Tod described the garments as being “engineered,” rather than simply “made.” (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.

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“If money were the only motivation, we wouldn’t be here,” says Tod Greenfield (left) in explaining why MGC has fought to remain in East Williamsburg. (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.

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The garments themselves are almost like living documents; temporary seams are added and removed, marking and then erasing different phases of the production process. (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.”

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A busy morning on the factory floor. (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.”

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“My background, it is working,” says Martin Greenfield, who has owned the company since 1977 after working his way up from floor boy. “I love what I do.” (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.

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Manufacturers 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. (Photo: NYCEDC)

“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.

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The factory floor is a maze of work stations and rack upon rack of suit jackets in every imaginable stage of construction. (Photo: NYCEDC)

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.

Tour Recap: Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center

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A dignified old brick structure in the long-time industrial stronghold of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tells an interesting—and hopeful—story about the transformation of urban manufacturing over the course of New York City’s history. Built as a rope factory in the mid-19th century (and subsequently expanded a number of times), the building at 221 McKibbin Street came to house a furniture manufacturer in the latter half of the 20th. After that business moved its offices to Long Island and sent a hundred manufacturing jobs to Asia, the building was purchased by the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a non-profit industrial developer best known for its flagship facility further north along the Newtown Creek, which renovated and re-opened the space in 2009. Since then, the GMDC has used its unique development model to revitalize the facility, sub-dividing the 72,000 square feet of usable space for a dozen smaller manufacturers. Today, once again, the site hosts just shy of a hundred industrial jobs (95, to be exact).

On June 20th, the GMDC team hosted a tour of their McKibbin Street building as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series. GMDC’s CEO, Brian Coleman, started off by speaking with participants about how and why his organization has taken on the task of acting as a landlord for manufacturers in a city where less and less space is available for industrial activity, never mind affordable.

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“If we didn’t know that we’d be able to stay here,” explained Twoseven Inc.’s Franco Götte, “we never would have invested so much in our facility.” (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

“There are three main differences in the GMDC model,” Coleman explained. “The first is that our rents are 15-25% below market. The second is our lease terms: we have a minimum of five years, for new leases, with an option for five more, which creates real estate permanency. The third thing is that we are mission-driven; we’re here because we care about these businesses. People have a hard time wrapping their head around why a non-profit would be helping for-profit companies. The reason that GMDC is in this is that those businesses create good jobs.”

The average annual wage in GMDC’s buildings (there are five scattered across northern Brooklyn) is $47,000/year, which is considerably higher than wages in other sectors where jobs are available for people without a four-year degree. This echoes what many of the experts that have been involved in the MIH series so far have said, time and again, about the importance of manufacturers in creating living wage jobs for working class families and, by extension, supporting stable working class neighborhoods. 92% of the people who work in GMDC buildings are New York City residents, according to Coleman, and 70% walk, bike, or take transit to work. (For more information and stats on GMDC, click here to download a copy of their latest Annual Report). While the challenge of housing affordability within the city is more frequently (and loudly) discussed, in terms of preserving New York’s socioeconomic diversity, the importance of providing space for the kinds of businesses that create good-paying working class jobs can’t be understated.

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92% of the people who work in GMDC buildings are New York City residents. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

That’s exactly where GMDC comes in. When renovations were just beginning on McKibbin Street, for example, a woman from the neighboring NYCHA development stopped by and spoke with Coleman about the building, and the recent changes in the neighborhood. East Williamsburg and neighboring Bushwick, which begins a just few blocks south of the GMDC building, went from a relatively unknown industrial corner of the city to a white-hot hub of Brooklyn’s exploding arts and cultural scene in just a couple of years, as the development of Williamsburg-proper has pushed artists to move a few stops further down on the L-train. Changes along McKibbin Street have been particularly intense, as the GMDC building sits on the line where the area’s Industrial Business Zone ends, and residential zoning begins, allowing as-of-right conversions of older industrial buildings into lofts for new residents.

“‘Another condo?’ she asked me, sounding kind of sad about it,” Coleman said, relating the story. “And I said, ‘Nope, it’s still going to be manufacturing space.’ She was thrilled. ‘You mean my brother can get a job here?’ I told her I couldn’t promise he would get a job here, but that it was going to be a place where he could, potentially, depending on what the tenants needed. That’s not an uncommon reaction. When we develop new buildings, we voluntarily go to the Community Boards to tell them what we’re doing, and people generally welcome us with open arms because we’re bringing jobs into the community, or keeping jobs in the community, which is not the norm these days.”

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On the day of the tour, workers at Twoseven Inc. could be seen fabricating pieces of a new window display bound for a Manhattan department store. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Indeed, many of the businesses in the GMDC’s McKibbin Street building take on seasonal and contract help depending on their workload; the number of jobs on-site goes up and down depending on the season, but there is plenty of room for more than a hundred people to work here at any given time. The largest tenant on-site is Twoseven Inc., a design/build firm that specializes in the creation of store window displays, retail interiors, and showrooms for high-profile fashion and cosmetics companies around the city. One of the co-founders, Franco Götte, led tour participants on a walk around the factory, explaining that it was a slow period, since a number of jobs had just shipped out. Even still, more than a dozen workers could be seen fabricating pieces of a new window display bound for a Manhattan department store.

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OHNY tour participants explore the Twoseven Inc. factory floor. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Twoseven signed its lease at McKibbin Street fairly soon after the building opened, at the height of the recession, in 2009. Franco noted that that the availability of adjacent space encouraged he and his partner to expand their factory space, allowing them to grow their business—all of which would have been unlikely had they not found their way to a GMDC-owned facility. “If we didn’t know that we’d be able to stay here,” he said, “we never would have invested so much in our facility.”

Still, it is not common for businesses that locate within GMDC facilities to be in expansion mode, as Coleman explained it. “We’re sort of the opposite of an incubator. The average age of one of our tenants is 16-17 years. GMDC buildings generally attract mature businesses that have trouble finding space elsewhere in the city where they know they can stay put.”

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The average age of a business in one of GMDC’s buildings is 16-17 years. “We’re sort of the opposite of an incubator,” says CEO Brian Coleman.

Upstairs, tour participants had the chance to peek inside the Woodwrights, a woodworking shop run by Wyeth Hunnable, whom the GMDC team refers to as “Tenant #1,” as he was the first to sign a lease at McKibbin Street. The high, airy space was mostly occupied by three large workstations where Wyeth was making custom wooden panels for an artist with a studio nearby. Many of the Woodwrights’ clients are artists, and Wyeth’s space reflects the adjacency of his business to the art world. Far from the sawdust-coated room one might imagine upon hearing the term “woodworking shop,” the Woodwrights space is painted in bright colors, from the yellow and green loft structure that provides additional storage space, to the pastel mural stretching across the floor, from wall to wall.

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The Woodwrights space in the McKibbin Street building reflects the adjacency of his business to the art world, with its brightly painted interior. (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

The final stop on the tour was Alchemy Paintworks, a fine art finishing business that works on paint finishing projects for metal sculpture, as well as the repair and restoration of large scale works of art. “Most people don’t realize that a lot of artists don’t actually do all of the work by hand anymore,” said Alchemy’s James Terrani, in describing what the company does. “Artists are job creators, now, as well. They employ lots of other creative workers. In the US, artists come to New York; this is where most of the talent is, so this is where the work is, for our company.

Both Alchemy and the Woodwrights are part of a robust ecosystem of manufacturing businesses that play an integral role in supporting New York’s world-renowned arts community. Like many of the niche manufacturers that pay a premium to locate and work within the five boroughs, their business models respond to unique market conditions created by New York’s exceptionally dense, diverse urban fabric. “A lot of the tenants in our buildings have arts backgrounds,” noted GMDC Senior Project Manager Cassandra Smith, near the end of the tour. “Many of their businesses exist because they were able to find commercial applications for their arts skills. We are the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and our tenants tend to do some of both of those things.”

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“Most people don’t realize that a lot of artists don’t actually do all of the work by hand anymore,” said Alchemy’s James Terrani (center). (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

Today, manufacturers in New York City tend to be smaller, more nimble, and more integrated with design, the arts, and other creative industries. Factories aren’t necessarily just places where objects are made; they are places where new products are dreamed up, prototyped, and then manufactured, all within the same facility. If the GMDC offers any indication, there is a bright future for these types of hybrid manufacturing businesses, if the city is willing to make room for them: as of the tour date, GMDC’s five buildings, which together contain almost 600,000 square feet of space, are 100% leased.

“We’ve heard the argument that, since the land our buildings are on is so valuable, we should sell it off and use the proceeds to develop new industrial properties farther out from the core,” said Smith. “But people like our tenants want to live and work in New York City, and we think it’s good economic policy to make space for manufacturing so that they’re making their money here, and spending their money here. So we like to think we’re standing on the right side of economic development policy.”

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“We like to think we’re standing on the right side of economic development policy,” explained GMDC’s Cassandra Smith (left). (Photo: Nicolas Lemery Nantel)

OHNY and NYCEDC thank the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, Twoseven Inc., Alchemy Paintworks, and the Woodwrights for welcoming participants into their spaces for this tour.