Documenting the Decline of New York City Manufacturing

November 11th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Daniel Ross, Producer, Uncertain Industry: The Decline of Manufacturing in New York City

Back in July, I began research for a short documentary series about goods manufactured in New York City. The premise was simple: when people think about New York industry, the images that come to mind are Wall Street executives, Madison Avenue ad agencies, and big media conglomerates; not blue-collar manufacturers. I wanted to find factories in the five boroughs making products most New Yorkers would never guess are made right here in the city.

What began as a profile of local producers became a document chronicling the decline of an industry.

fabricators at Milgo/Bufkin

The first company I found is a metal fabricator called Milgo/Bufkin in Greenpoint. They take flat sheets of metal and bend them into all sorts of fascinating shapes used in buildings and sculptures. Some of them you’ve undoubtedly seen around the city. As I prepared to shoot Milgo, I wondered why exactly the company operates in Brooklyn. Why haven’t they moved somewhere with cheaper real estate, where the cost of labor and insurance isn’t so high? The answer, Milgo’s President Bruce Gitlin told me, is proximity to customers – construction and architectural firms constantly building in the city – and the availability of skilled laborers (bending metal, as simple as it sounds, takes nearly a decade of training to perfect). Watch the video for more.

That got me to thinking: what about factories making products that can be easily imported, and that don’t require highly skilled workers? What keeps them in New York City? How do they stay afloat amid soaring real estate prices and stiff competition from foreign manufacturers?

After some digging, I found a Newsday profile of an umbrella manufacturer in Williamsburg that, even eight years ago when the article was written, found it difficult to make ends meet. How Embee Sunshade managed to stay in business until now fascinated me, so I gave the factory a call. It turned out the factory was in trouble. Another year or two, maybe, and it would be sold, probably to a real estate developer. See for yourself:

Uncertain Industry: Embee Sunshade from on Vimeo.

Embee’s story isn’t unique. Over the past sixty years, New York City has lost nearly a million manufacturing jobs. While other sectors of the city’s economy grow, manufacturing declines, even though it provides on average higher wages for employees without high school diplomas than any other job sector. You can see the data trends here.

The city government, to its credit, hasn’t been silent about the problem. In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg announced his plan to establish Industrial Business Zones – city land designated solely for the use of manufacturing businesses. Manufacturers in these zones are eligible for tax incentives and other benefits in the hopes that they’ll stay in the city. Some planning experts, however, take issue with the IBZ plan. I spoke to Brad Lander, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, about the plan’s pros & cons.

For my third and final shoot, I found an industrial bakery located in an IBZ, and asked its owner how the program has helped his business. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. As of September, when I shot the piece, Angel’s Bakery was facing the dilemma of paying higher rent when its lease expires in 2010 or moving out of the city and further away from its primary customers: the school district and local baked good distributors. You can watch the profile of Angel’s Bakery.

The future of New York City manufacturing remains uncertain – hence the title of this project. While jobs continue to decline, the rise in fuel and transportation prices may encourage clients to buy more local goods. Just recently, Joe Angel, owner of Angel’s Bakery, wrote to me and said September’s financial collapse may have damaged real estate prices enough to keep his rent at an affordable rate.