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)

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: National Elevator Cab and Door Corp. Factory

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If you’ve ever taken a train out of the city to the north or east, you’ve ridden right past the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. factory. Located on a side street in Queens tucked into the split where the elevated tracks for Amtrak’s Acela line and the LIRR part ways, this unassuming brick building produces hundreds of elevator cabs every year, serving New York City’s uniquely robust market for vertical transportation. The factory is surrounded by a mix of warehouse and factory buildings—many of which still contain industrial businesses—and tightly packed single family homes and apartment buildings housing a diverse, working class community.

On August 1st, 2014, National provided a rare glimpse inside of its facility through two tours organized as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series. Led by the family-owned business’ third-generation owner, Jeff Friedman, participants learned about how elevator cabs are produced here in the city, within view of the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan.

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This massive press bends metal panels with an ease that is almost startling to see in person. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“If your elevator is broken,” Jeff started off, “we’re useless. If it’s ugly, we can help.” While a few very large companies like Otis manufacture elevators all over the world, custom cabs, entrances, and fixtures are often contracted out to firms like National. Otis provides customers with a catalog of options; if you want something distinctive, or even something simple that the larger firms don’t already make, you go to National. In a city like New York, where elevator rides are a fact of daily life for people across the socioeconomic spectrum, a large market exists for this kind of work.

According to Jeff, there are around 100,000 elevator cabs operating in New York City today, with the majority located in Manhattan, the borough where National does most of their annual business. National produces hundreds of cabs each year. The average job calls for 10 cabs, though the company will often work on skyscraping landmarks that require a much heavier lift. On the morning of the tour, Jeff noted that the company was just wrapping up a job building 72 cabs for 1WTC; work was just getting underway for the refurbishment of the high rise cabs in the Empire State Building, and had just finished the refurbishment of 31 cabs in 10 and 30 Rockefeller Center not long before.

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Several mammoth pieces of machinery are clustered in the factory’s westernmost area, clanking and clomping away. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

National’s factory is actually made up of several industrial buildings that have been cobbled together over time as the company has grown. It started out in Midtown Manhattan in 1929, and moved from the east side to the west before heading out to Queens in 1965. Entering the factory from the loading dock on the westernmost side, the tour led participants through a maze of shearing machines and punch presses where huge sheets of metal are cut, bent, and shaped to create the hundreds of interlocking pieces of elevator cabs and doors. Jeff paused at the welding station to talk about one of the key reasons his company stays in the city: access to skilled labor.

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“These guys have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“It takes talent to weld well,” Jeff told the group. “That’s a skill that not everybody has. These guys don’t just have to weld, either; they have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in. Their work has to be structurally sound, yes, but because of the nature of our business, it also has to look architecturally sound.”

Because National does custom jobs, its production process is far from a traditional assembly line. Aesthetics are important, since the cabs, doors, and fixtures are the “face” of the larger elevator structures, the parts that the public actually sees. A company like Otis doesn’t need to worry about how the inside of an elevator shaft that it produces looks, so long as it can safely do its job. National’s work, by contrast, requires a high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail.

This cab, the 73rd and last cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

This cab, the 72nd and final cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In the next section of the factory, participants had the opportunity to see the last cab built for 1WTC, a glass box that will be installed in the lobby atrium to facilitate wheelchair accessibility. National assembles each cab that it produces on-site to make sure that everything fits together and to test the different working components. Pre-assembly also gives architects the chance to visit the site and work directly with Jeff and his staff as custom cabs are produced to ensure that everything looks right. Once the cabs have been tested and given the architect’s stamp of approval, they are disassembled and shipped in pieces out, before being re-assembled on-site at their final destination. Between cutting, drilling, polishing, assembling, and many other steps involved along the way, Jeff estimated that the single 1WTC cab the group was looking at was the result of nearly 1,000 hours worth of work.

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The red and gold panel in the foreground will eventually be installed at the Helmsley Building as part of a restoration of the building’s landmarked elevator cabs. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Participants saw a variety of cabs in various states of construction. A standard NYCHA elevator cab stood, fully assembled, across from the 1WTC cab. NYCHA has around 7,000 elevators across the city, and is a large and reliable customer for National (as well as a number of its competitors). A gleaming cab for 7 Bryant Park, designed by Pei Partners, was in the process of being assembled, while just across the aisle workers were producing meticulously crafted replicas of the red and gold wall panels for the elevators in Park Avenue’s iconic Helmsley Building, one of only two buildings in New York City with landmarked elevator cabs.

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Panels hang in a row, awaiting the day when they’ll be shipped off to a job site. “Generally,” Jeff explained, “the time between when an architect approves a drawing to when we can ship the cabs is about 12 weeks.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Notably, National has a number of repeat clients. The average age of a commercial office building in the city is 75 years, according to Jeff, and elevator cabs need to be refurbished every two to three decades. The company refurbished the cabs in the Twin Towers in the 1990s, and did the previous refurbishment for Helmsley back in the late 1970s. National has built a reputation for quality work over time, encouraging repeat business that gives the company a competitive edge that helps to offset the added costs of doing business in the city, where real estate is at a premium.

“It’s actually a strategic advantage for us to be right here,” said Jeff. “When you consider the transit access, the proximity to the Queensboro Bridge and the BQE, we’re in the transportation hub of the city. And our factory is like the United Nations; we have people working here from all over the world. We’re proud of that, and quality of life for our employees is important to us. It’s important for us to be near transportation for them, and important to be near our suppliers, our clients, our market.”

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National’s Jeff Friedman, center, led the tour as part of OHNY and NYCEDC’s Making it Here series. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

While urban real estate is more expensive for manufacturers, New York’s distinctive form—its density and verticality, as well as the physical diversity of its neighborhoods and its appetite for quality architecture—has created sizable niche markets for businesses like the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. that have historically made the benefits of an in-city location worth the higher costs. As a result, when manufacturers with less direct ties to the city headed out to suburban industrial parks or new factories overseas, National made the very deliberate decision to stay in New York.

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A laser cutter is used to create many of the smaller components that are used in elevator fixtures. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

But if space for manufacturing continues to shrink, the cost benefit balance will eventually tip. And beyond the pressures of real estate, there is the desire to grow. National has been able to expand to adjacent buildings several times, but with a limited (and shrinking) amount of industrial land, at a certain point the very same dense and diverse urban fabric that makes National’s business possible becomes a constraint, limiting the company’s ability to expand. While new, nimble manufacturers are generating a lot of excitement right now, the question as to whether New York can still find space for its legacy manufacturers remains. In order for these companies to continue to grow and add the stable, well-paid jobs that they are valued for creating, they need room.

“Frankly, this is not the cheapest place to be,” Jeff admitted. “We would love to have more space, but it’s hard to come by. We’ve looked at other areas where you can get more square footage, but they just don’t have the transportation access. So, here we are.”

(Photo: Daniella Shin)

National is the only manufacturer of its kind to make cabs, doors (or “entrances” in industry terminology), and fixtures all in the same factory. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Tour Recap: Edison Price Lighting Factory

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“Our niche is people who want quality lighting that will last a long time,” explained Emma Price, the President of Edison Price Lighting, when asked about her company’s specialty. “You have to do high-quality [if you want to manufacture things] in New York City. You can’t just make cheap stuff, here.”

Established in 1952, Edison Price has over 60 years of experience designing and manufacturing high-quality energy-efficient lighting fixtures at their factory in Long Island City, Queens, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. The company has completed many high-profile projects, including the refurbishment of the lighting fixtures for the United Nations, and lighting the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. Emma’s father was a friend and frequent collaborator of legendary Modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly, and the company worked with him to light the Yale Art Gallery, the Seagram Building, and other architectural landmarks.

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Nina Rappaport (left) and Emma Price (right) welcome tour participants to Edison Price Lighting’s Long Island City factory (Photo: OHNY)

In that time, the company has witnessed the city’s economic and technological landscape transform dramatically, and its physical surroundings are now following suit. On July 16th, Emma and her team hosted a factory tour, organized and presented by Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport, as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series.

In the 1900s, Long Island City was a vibrant manufacturing center, thanks to the area’s efficient transportation networks and large skilled labor pool. But as technology advanced and outsourced labor became more economically strategic for many manufacturing firms, the area’s industrial community took a huge blow. “After NAFTA, a many cities simply let the manufacturers go,” Nina noted in her introduction. “Many planners thought that manufacturing wasn’t something that was needed in cities anymore. As a result, we wound up with land zoned for manufacturing sitting empty, which was an impetus for rezoning to other uses.”

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Just outside, glittering new residential buildings are on the rise. (Photo: OHNY)

More recently, large sections of New York’s manufacturing districts have been rezoned for residential and commercial uses as the land values of waterfront property in the city have soared due to the increased interest in urban living. This is especially true of LIC, but despite mounting pressure to leave the area, Edison Price has chosen to stay right where they are. The area’s transit access, still important to attracting skilled workers, also makes it easy for architects and lighting designers—the company’s core clients—to get to the factory themselves.

By specializing in the production of high value added goods, companies like Edison Price provide essential services to the more glamorous, high-profile sectors of the city’s economy, architecture and design among them. The symbiotic relationship between design industries and manufacturers that specialize in creating unique products is one of the mainstays of urban economies. For Edison Price, that means working directly with the people who design the lighting for the buildings in which we live, work, and play. Both architect and manufacturer are able to fine-tune what they do in order to produce better results based on their collaborative work, and are thus better off for being near each other, Nina noted.

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The factory tour was led by factory manager George Closs (left). (Photo: OHNY)

After Emma’s and Nina’s introductions, factory manager George Closs led tour participants through the almost 50,000-square-foot facility to learn more about how custom lighting fixtures are made. On average, Edison Price manufactures $20 million in product per year. George emphasized that Edison Price is “made in New York City,” and that its products are American to the core. For the past 60 years, Edison Price has done all design, research, and production work within its LIC facility. Furthermore, every material and machine used to produce light fixtures at Edison price is made in the United States.

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Bins of metal shavings are collected and sold to metal recycling firms. (Photo: OHNY)

During the tour, the factory floor buzzed with the rhythmic sounds of dozens of machines drilling and making calculated cuts and punches. George pointed out an impressive group of machines that cut and shaped metal into light fixtures, and a laser-cutting machine larger than most New York City bedrooms. “We have zero inventory,” he told the group, explaining that the factory manufactures its products using just-in-time scheduling to send out orders as soon as they’re finished being made. This cuts back on the space that the company needs to occupy, allowing for the more efficient use of space.

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A large punch press makes precise, rapid cuts through metal sheeting. (Photo: OHNY)

Edison Price also stands out for a unique factory layout that allows the company to take advantage of the city’s aforementioned skilled labor pool. The company utilizes small teams of workers who are cross-trained to be able to work on fixtures at any step in the production process, rather than using the more common assembly line model, where workers specialize in a single monotonous step. Here, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine.

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At Edison Price, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine. (Photo: OHNY)

Afterward, Nina discussed her Vertical Urban Factory project, explaining that she is working directly with manufacturers like Edison Price to think through how they might be able to continue growing in place while also taking advantage of changing trends in urban real estate like those affecting Long Island City. “Could you have a situation where Edison Price is able to develop a residential project above its factory, have mixed uses in place, which is something rarely considered, and stay in its building in the long term?” Nina asked, before hinting that she’s working with the city’s planning department to think through potential future scenarios.

A visit to a facility like Edison Price Lighting’s is an eye-opening experience. It illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. Creative types benefit greatly from being able to work directly with the people who make their ideas work, and vice versa. In order for the city’s creative industries to thrive, both sides of the coin have to be considered.

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A visit to a factory like Edison Price’s illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. (Photo: OHNY)


OHNY and NYCEDC thank Nina and Edison Price Lighting for welcoming participants into the factory for this tour.

Announcing Phase 2 of Making it Here: Learning from New York’s Industrial Legacy

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Industrial map of New York City : showing manufacturing industries, concentration, distribution, character / prepared by the Industrial Bureau of the Merchants' Association of New York. Via NYPL: http://maps.nypl.org/warper/maps/14895 

The explosive growth of manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an indelible mark on the five boroughs. While New York is now known for its dominance in fields like finance, media, and design, it grew up as a city of industrial districts. Back when the manufacturing sector was one of the primary forces driving the city’s economy, residential and commercial development often followed the factories. This was a time when neighborhoods were known as much for what they produced as for who lived there.

As shown in the infographic above [NYPL], which is exhibited in Vertical Urban Factory, the city’s core circa 1919 was a melange of crosshatched manufacturing clusters. Not only did many of these clusters overlap with each other, they mixed right in with the city’s residential and commercial sectors. In 1919, New York City was home to 32,590 factories in neighborhoods across the city, employing a total of 825,056 people. But while this meant that many New Yorkers were able to walk to work, the soot, smells, and clamorous sounds of the factory also followed them home. The city’s earliest zoning regulation, in part, was intended to create more distance between noxious industrial sites and the places where people lived. “Until the early twentieth century most urban areas had unrestricted uses,” explains Vertical Urban Factory‘s Nina Rappaport. “The first zoning regulations in New York were put in place in 1916 to separate noxious uses from residential areas, to provide for healthier living. This gradually placed noxious uses in low income areas, or the industrial areas that developed became sequestered. This separated industry and workers from the everyday, removing diversity from city life.”

Much of the industry that once defined neighborhoods across the city is gone. Today, more than 75,000 people are employed in the manufacturing sector in New York, less than 10% of the number from 1919; relative to population, 14.6% of New Yorkers had manufacturing jobs in 1919, while that number is now just 0.8%. Not long after World War II, the creation of the Interstate highway system, the rise of container shipping, and suburbanization all worked in tandem to decentralize industrial production across the country. Many manufacturers—in New York and nationwide—decamped from urban centers for cheaper quarters on the edge of town.

More recently, the value of the land under New York’s old industrial districts has gone through the roof as those areas have been re-zoned to make way for residential and commercial re-development. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a simple case of supply and demand: industrial businesses left the city, and the city, in turn, re-zoned its land to respond to changing needs. The truth is a bit more complicated. While some firms were happy to leave, the story on the ground within the five boroughs in 2014 is not one of manufacturers searching for exit strategies.

In fact, the opposite is true. Today, revitalized factory complexes like those explored during the first phase of Making it Here, which have been retrofitted to provide small and mid-sized spaces needed by contemporary manufacturers catering to specialized niche markets, are typically at or near 100% leased. For a variety of reasons—including, increasingly, quality of life—these manufacturing businesses want to stay in New York. The trouble is, neighborhoods that once welcomed them have changed so dramatically that the demand for usable manufacturing space is acute. Far from fleeing the city, many companies are actually being pushed out.

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The second phase of Open House New York and New York City Economic Development Corporation‘s Making it Here series will take New Yorkers into the streets of historically industrial districts with expert guides to better understand how these areas are changing, and how the city could incorporate manufacturing spaces back into mixed-use neighborhoods. This phase will also give New Yorkers a chance to walk the factory floors of legacy manufacturing companies to learn about how businesses have adapted over time in order to remain in New York—and why they chose to stay in the first place.

Why has space for manufacturing businesses disappeared so quickly that demand now exceeds supply? And what can we learn about the nature of that demand from the legacy manufacturers who have overcome so many challenges in their effort to stay put? This summer, Making it Here will visit the following sites in search of answers to these questions:

Edison Price Lighting Factory Tour
Long Island City, Queens

Wednesday, July 16 / 2:15 PM
Edison Price Lighting has designed and manufactured innovative, energy-efficient architectural lighting fixtures since 1952. Join Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport for a tour of the Edison Price factory to learn about how the company adapted its business model over time, working directly with architects and designers and specializing in highly customized lighting fixtures. Click here to purchase tickets for this tour.

National Elevator Cab & Door Factory Tour
Woodside, Queens
Friday, August 1 / 9:00 AM & 11:00 AM
In an old art deco factory building off the R-train in Queens, National Elevator Cab & Door Corp builds the elevator cabs that carry millions of New Yorkers every day. Learn about how the city’s uniquely robust demand for vertical transportation has allowed this family-owned and operated manufacturing business to grow in place during its more than eighty-year history.

Red Hook Neighborhood Tour
Red Hook, Brooklyn

Friday, August 8 / 3:00 PM
Walk the streets of Red Hook with urban manufacturing experts from the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation to explore a unique mix of historic spaces and innovative businesses.  This tour will focus on land use issues in an industrial neighborhood and the relationships between design and production.

Port Morris Neighborhood Tour
Port Morris, Bronx

Friday, August 15 / 12:00 PM
In response to increasing real estate speculation in industrial districts amidst the re-zonings of the mid-2000s, the Bloomberg Administration created sixteen Industrial Business Zones (IBZs) in the four outer boroughs that are preserved for industrial uses. Join Stephane Hyacinthe of SoBRO, the organization that manages all five Bronx IBZs, for a tour of three factories in the historic Port Morris area to learn more about how space for manufacturers is being safeguarded in the South Bronx.

Martin Greenfield Clothiers Factory Tour
East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Monday, August 18 / 10:00 AM
Martin Greenfield, a Brooklyn manufacturer of hand tailored men’s clothing, founded Martin Greenfield Clothiers in 1977 when he bought the factory from his former employer, GGG Clothes, which had occupied the site since 1917. Tour the factory floor with Vice President Tod Greenfield to learn about how this family-owned and operated business has survived in New York by focusing on high-quality production, and how the company has worked with other local manufacturers to help protect industrial space in the neighborhood over the past several decades, despite mounting redevelopment pressures.

Long Island City Neighborhood Tour
Long Island City, Queens

Late Summer / Date & Time TBD
Vertical Urban Factory’s Nina Rappaport leads a walking tour of Long Island City that looks at the area’s history as an industrial powerhouse, and its evolution into a high-density, mixed-use neighborhood today. Explore a series of artisanal manufacturing spaces to see how the area’s status as a hub for the arts and design community has allowed certain types of manufacturing to thrive here despite the massive changes experienced over the past few decades.

Please visit the Schedule page for more information about registering for individual tours.