Monday, 7 September 2009

At What Price Progress?

Today an editorial by Nanette Lepore and Robert Savage appeared in The New York Times, championing the Garment District and its presence in New York City's economic fabric. (Sorry, pun not intended.) This editorial follows an earlier article that discusses Mayor Bloomberg's proposed plans for the beleaguered manufacturing area. Basically, thanks to outsourcing, the Garment District in New York--once the place where almost every article of clothing in the United States was made--now only takes up five blocks in the heart of Midtown. Now the Bloomberg administration wants to put every single garment factory in one or two buildings in the area, taking up a measly 280,000 square feet (currently, factories take up about a million square feet). The empty spaces previously occupied by the factories would be turned into offices, apartments, and cheap hotels, a move that would be to the landlords' advantage.

Putting all of the factories into one building just spells the death knell of the local industry. Confined to only a building or two, there would be no way for the district to expand. Factories would have to be small and specialized. Most manufacturing in New York is boutique anyway (and thus expensive), none of which helps new designers with little start-up money. Lepore and Savage propose that the city create a board to approve prospective tenants in Garment District buildings, rejecting anyone but manufacturers. Meanwhile, the unions Unite Here and Workers United--with the backing of the CFDA and city officials, among others--have proposed to create a non-profit organization that would maintain the designated buildings and offer manufacturers a significantly discounted rent for the space.

Lepore and Savage's concern must be taken seriously. Unite Here and Workers United's proposal is a decent compromise, but we must remember that a strong Garment District is the sign of a healthy economy. A quick study of any industrial revolution from the 16th century to the 21st will show that textile production and manufacturing has always been the key to growth and success. The textile industry requires relatively little capital and very little skill. To continue down our current path--designating mass production to developing countries and keeping small but technically difficult processes in industrialized nations--smacks of imperialism at best and racism at worst. Bringing mass production back to the States will bring back jobs and jump-start entreprenuerism. None of that can happen if we trap our factories in two small buildings.

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