Garment manufacturing has been part of NYC’s economy since the 1820s. Like all U.S. manufacturing, it has diminished as more production has moved overseas. But the Garment District, several blocks in the West 30s, remains one of NYC’s most productive neighborhoods, still employing tens of thousands of New Yorkers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing to change that. He’s rolled out a rezoning plan for the area that would eliminate a 1987 protection for the industry requiring developers to build an equivalent amount of factory and warehouse space when they create office space. He also proposes to relocate much of the industry to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, a less central location where the city is promoting a new manufacturing hub.
Save the Garment Center — a coalition of unions, fashion designers, factory and shop owners and others — argues that the mayor’s proposal would devastate the area and the industry. It’s clear that the zoning change would cost many hardworking people their jobs. For the many workers who commute from the Bronx or Queens, it would be onerous to travel to Brooklyn. Moreover, the fashion industry bestows the kind of pride and glamour on NYC that another raft of office buildings or luxury hotels cannot.
In his 1993 book “The Assassination of New York,” the late . . . Robert Fitch detailed how Manhattan’s elites had tried to rid the city of its factories for much of the 20th century. He discovered plans by NYC’s moneyed class — represented by the Regional Plan Association — from as far back as 1929 to cleanse the city of blue-collar industry and make room for offices, high-end apartments and retail. Those 1929 planners would no doubt be happy with today’s NYC.
Changes of the sort de Blasio proposes are often understood as inevitable, almost “natural” consequences of progress. But there is nothing natural about them. The process of ridding Manhattan of manufacturing has been a series of choices often by governments in thrall to elite — especially real estate — interests.
De Blasio — and the rest of us — should make a different political choice this time, and consider the needs of the working class and some of the city’s most creative people.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.