Urban Manufacturing Q&A: Jen Becker, Pratt Center for Community Development

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Last February, the Pratt Center for Community Development—one of the leading research organizations focusing on manufacturing in New York City—published a detailed report analyzing the success of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, located along the East River waterfront just a stone’s throw from the Pratt Institute campus, where the Pratt Center is based. The report also identifies and analyzes potential sites in other cities around the US where a similar type of campus could be developed. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between OHNY and Jen Becker, a Senior Fellow for Economic Development at the Pratt Center and the lead author of the Navy Yard report, looking at the trends impacting urban manufacturing in the US today and, specifically, how those trends are changing the shape of manufacturing in New York City.

Let’s start off by taking stock of how the public understands manufacturing: what is the biggest gap you’ve observed between the public perception of urban manufacturing and the reality on the ground, today?

There’s a myth that manufacturing doesn’t exist in a lot of cities—certainly in New York City—because people just don’t see it anymore. Obviously, manufacturing has declined; we have a lot of old sites that aren’t used for manufacturing anymore, and a lot of old industrial buildings that have been converted to residential. And as our economy has changed to more of a service economy, people are not as personally connected to the manufacturing sector as they once were, so it’s become a lot less visible.

In actuality, there’s still a tremendous amount of manufacturing going on in New York. It’s really diverse, it’s very vibrant, and it’s tied to a lot of the more high profile industries that NYC has become known for, like finance and design. Manufacturing is part of [the city’s overall economic] system, but it’s not as visible, so people just aren’t aware that it’s happening and that things are still being made here.

 

There’s also the perception that manufacturing is part of the ‘old economy,’ and the ‘new economy’ is all about creativity, innovation—brain work, as opposed to manual work. But that’s changed a lot, hasn’t it? A lot of the manufacturing that’s happening in NYC today is pretty creative.

In the past few years there’s been a resurgence in the way we value the making of things. I don’t think the public perception has shifted completely, but I think there is more of an acknowledgement of this field than there was a few years ago. I think people still think it’s more of a hobbyist thing, like “Oh, I can take a class,” and the focus is on the Maker Movement, but people aren’t yet aware of the breadth of companies that are here that are creating jobs and employing people.

 

A number of the manufacturers visited so far through Making it Here tours have cited quality of life as a big issue for why they choose to operate here: when people ask, “Why on earth do you want to manufacture things in New York?”, manufacturers respond they want to live in New York and to be here for many of the reasons that anyone else does.

The manufacturers that are here today, in large part, are of a different type than what was here fifty years ago. The vast majority of these companies are not competing just on price or volume. The companies that want to be here, and that are thriving here, are the ones that are more custom oriented. There’s a real benefit to them being close to their market, and being close to designers, to other innovators, and being part of that network.

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In the Navy Yard report, you mention the dynamic clusters that have formed within that campus; can you talk about co-location and some of the benefits of having manufacturing in urban neighborhoods?

The value of clustering is not new. New York City is actually built on that: think of the Garment District, the Flower District. In many cases today that’s dissipated, and a lot of those districts have now become more diverse, in terms of the industries that are there. But companies still find a strong value in being near other similar companies. It doesn’t have to be in terms of ‘we’re making the same product,’ but that there’s a sort of shared, creative energy. Especially for companies that are smaller, or just starting up, I think there are a lot of benefits to being in close proximity to others. They can share resources such as equipment, or work together on particular projects, and that kind of collaboration is really useful, especially for the smaller companies.

 

It used to be that the city had these huge companies doing a lot of manufacturing on one site. As the companies doing manufacturing have gotten smaller, how has that changed the demands for industrial space?

Older industrial real estate often consists of multi-story buildings that people think can’t accommodate manufacturing anymore, and that since we don’t have the space for giant, single-story industrial buildings [like those found in suburban industrial parks], manufacturing can’t fit into contemporary New York City. And that’s true, we don’t have that kind of space, and those companies aren’t going to stay in the city.

But there’s still a way to re-use older, multi-story buildings to meet the needs of these smaller industrial firms that are looking for around 5,000 square feet, by breaking up those spaces. That’s what the Navy Yard has done, and we’re seeing this all across the city. What we’re looking at is that there are going to be a lot more of these smaller manufacturing companies in the future, rather than a few bigger companies. We still need to make sure that we have room for these companies to grow. We need flexible real estate.

 

Why should the average New Yorker care about manufacturing in their city? How does it affect the future of their neighborhoods?

Manufacturing has been, and still remains, one of the best job opportunities for people with limited educational attainment, or limited English-speaking skills; manufacturing pays more on average than jobs at similar skill levels, like retail or hospitality. Entry-level jobs in manufacturing tend to pay better and provide better access to career ladders, so it’s a really important sector to maintain just in terms of economic diversity. From an environmental perspective, we don’t want to just be a city of consumers that’s importing all of our goods. There’s an environmental impact to transporting all of the goods that we consume into the city. It would be unrealistic to say that everything we need is going to be made in New York City, but having some of those goods made here cuts down on transportation and carbon emissions.

Lastly, and this ties into both of those things, is the economic vitality of the city as a whole. Manufacturing has a really significant economic impact, and manufacturing jobs have a really high multiplier effect. The economic impact of a manufacturing job is quite high, and bolsters the economy in a positive way. Having a diverse economy is just really important to the overall health of our city.

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How will manufacturing fit into New York City in the coming years? Will we see more manufacturing integrated back into our neighborhoods? Or is the campus model of something like the Navy Yard more desirable?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution; we need to have a mix of tools at our disposal. There is a real need to have areas like the Navy Yard that are universally acknowledged as places for job creation, not for residential development. Underlying all of this is the real estate pressure facing manufacturing; that’s the number one challenge for maintaining manufacturing in New York. Residential and commercial uses are always going to be able to pay more than manufacturers for real estate, so it’s important for there to be areas in the city where manufacturers know that they can invest in their companies and facilities, to buy new equipment, and to know they aren’t going to get priced out.

Also important are mixed use areas; there are some manufacturing companies that really want to be in those kinds of areas, which have a different kind of vibrancy. It’s really critical that we develop tools to be able to maintain that mix, though. Saying that anybody can be in a given area without some kind of mechanism to balance that mix out over time will lead to the loss of that manufacturing space.

And one concluding thing, for people who haven’t been in a factory before, is that it’s one of the coolest things you can see: watching people make things, either by hand or even by machine. [Manufacturing is something we often] take for granted, and one of the things that I love about my job is being able to go into factories and see how things are made, and to acknowledge that work, and reinforce its value in our community.