Industrial Bushwick

Jacob Silberberg

Bushwick was once home to breweries and a thriving garment trade. Now industrial jobs are disappearing.

This is the third chapter of City Limits’ 2009 magazine issue on Bushwick, a community at the center of New York City’s map and the epicenter of 21st Century change.

On a weekday afternoon along Metropolitan Avenue, it’s loud, but not just one kind of loud. It’s loud in a mosaic of noise.

The sharp sounds of metal being cut blend with the whine of a forklift. Tractor-trailer trunks diesel their way around corners, their frames colliding with their axles as they roll over bumps in the streets. A front-loader in reverse beeps as a conveyer belt showers a spray of gravel into a concrete factory. In the northern end of ZIP code 11237, there seem to be as many machines as people, and there are far more factories and plants than houses. On a weekday, industry is heard more than seen.

But in the past eight years, the sound of industry has changed. Today, the tone is different—perhaps softer.

There’s been a steep falloff in industrial employment—the jobs associated with the screeching, roaring, banging and beeping that 11237 hosts in the blue-collar triangle of Grand Street, Flushing Avenue and Morgan Avenue. From the end of 2001 to the end of 2008, industrial employment declined 9 percent to about 3,800. But since jobs in industrial sectors like warehousing and trucking increased, the loss in true-manufacturing sectors was steeper. Textile mills shed 83 percent of their workers. Food manufacturing employment shrank nearly a quarter, while paper-product jobs shrank more than a third.

Father Kelly recalls when the garment industry was a giant force in Bushwick and Ridgewood, the neighboring community across the Queens border. Decades back, Ridgewood was the knitting capital of New York, he says. There and in Bushwick, waves of Germans, Italians, Romanians and Yugoslavs found work in what Kelly calls the “rag trade.” The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was a force in the neighborhood. Everyone read its newspaper, Justice.

Even 10 years ago, garment-making was still an important source of work for Kelly’s congregation. But then it began to disappear. According to the Labor Department data, the number of apparel-manufacturing jobs in 11237 dropped from 1,200 in 2002 to 200 last year. “NAFTA,” is Kelly’s one-word explanation.

Leah Archibald, executive director of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corp., or Ewvidco, a nonprofit that aids industry in 11237 and the surrounding area, also blames world trade patterns for some of the changes wracking Bushwick’s industrial base. “I won’t blame just NAFTA, but globalization,” she says. “You can blame Walmart. It’s a total race to the bottom.”

But there also are other forces at play. Real estate prices, federal and city policies, national economic trends and migration patterns also have reshaped what work is done in Bushwick, how many people are working at all and what support is available for people whose income (or lack thereof) makes them too poor to live unassisted.

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A quarter of a century ago, New York City created industrial parks like the one in East Williamsburg—which covers part of 11237—to try to revitalize manufacturing neighborhoods by battling crime and resisting the abandonment of the city by residents and businesses. Today the nonprofits that run many of the city’s 16 industrial business zones, or IBZs, face a different set of challenges.

“Things have changed, frankly, very drastically over the past 30 years. This particular corner of Brooklyn, it went from being a crime-ridden, disinvested community to being unfathomably desirable for residential development,” Archibald says. She oversees not only an IBZ but also an ombudsman zone. Businesses in both areas get support from Ewvidco. But those in the IBZ have an added weapon: If a developer tries to convert space in the zone from industrial to residential, the city will oppose it. Those in the ombudsman zone cannot count on that kind of regulatory backup.

According to the Pratt Center for Community Development, some 1,800 of the city’s 12,000 acres of manufacturing land were rezoned to residential by Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning from 2002 to 2007, with more acreage slated for a similar shift. Brooklyn lost 14 percent of its manufacturing territory.

“Every building we lose to housing now is harmful to the manufacturing base. It drives up the rent of commercial real estate. You can get many, many, many times more dollars per square foot for residential use,” Archibald says.

What’s more, “When we lose buildings to market-rate residents, there’s frequently very little organic connection between individuals that live in those properties and the work that occurs in those manufacturing establishments nearby.” It used to be that people who lived near factories worked in them, so they knew what went on inside and why it was important. They had a vested interest—their own paycheck—in coexisting. “That’s not the case between folks who are gentrifying this neighborhood now,” Archibald adds. “They think of those factories as a nuisance. There’s trucks there idling. They don’t know what goes on in there. They consider these buildings to be abandoned. So they feel no compunction about getting on the phone and complaining.”

She recalls one body shop that had a city contract to tow cars. A resident complained about a sidewalk stained by the dripping oil from the wrecks, and the business was fined. “If over time it becomes such an aggravation to be here—its fines, its dwindling profits, losing a big customer—and all of a sudden, your real estate is worth more than your business, then it’s difficult to compel businesses to want to stay open.”

Last fall, the city considered approving the conversion of a building at 70 Wyckoff Avenue in 11237 from manufacturing to residential. The 10-lot site included an old factory building that had already—and illegally—been converted to lofts. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, citing the loss of manufacturing space and a desire not to reward owners who do illegal conversions, blocked final approval—but only after the mayor’s City Planning Commission approved it.

Carl Hum, the executive director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, says the loss of manufacturing jobs in 11237 is a result of a long history of neglect of blue-collar New York. “The Bloomberg administration probably had the most visible articulation of what its policy toward Indus businesses were,” says Hum, who served as the first director of the Office of Industrial and Manufacturing Businesses, which Bloomberg created in 2005. “They definitely appreciated the fact that it contributed to the economy and helped provide jobs to less-skilled or less-educated New Yorkers.”

But when the local industrial zone was set up, there was a battle over whether more of 11237 should be protected from residential encroachment, according to Anne Seifried, the executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network. Several blocks were eventually removed from the protective zone. Her organization found in a 2003 study that some 500,000 square feet of industrial space in the area had been illegally converted to residences over just a few years. “The rumors of a residential rezoning only served to encourage illegal conversions,” Seifried says. “Moreover, the eventual rezoning of parts of the wider neighborhood to residential by the Bloomberg Administration in 2005 only exacerbated the loss of industrial jobs.”

Seifried gives the mayor credit, however, for signing Local Law 37, a 2007 measure sponsored by Reyna that beefed up penalties against illegal conversions. And, she says, the recession has slowed down the pace of conversion and reduced the pressure of rising commercial rents.

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Out of the mix of changes that 11237 business owners have confronted over the past eight years, winners and losers emerge. Not everyone is complaining. Steve Packin, who runs D&M Lumber on Varick Avenue, sees change for the better. “It’s definitely a lot cleaner. There’s less prostitution around here. It’s safer. It’s definitely something we have to thank Mayor Bloomberg for,” he says, pointing particularly to 311, which has allowed him to complain about problems in the neighborhood and get quick responses from the city.

Packin says businesses like the 11237 area for its proximity to Manhattan and the Long Island Expressway. He’s noticed recently that “most of the manufacturing has moved away from here because of the higher rents.” But D&M, which Packin’s grandfather started, owns its space—an entire block—so it doesn’t have to worry about the rent.

One Bushwick business that had to worry was Brave Space, a five-employee custom furniture maker that recently left the area. The decision wasn’t purely economic; owners Sam Kraigel and Nikki Frazier wanted to start a family in Florida and be near their relatives. But costs helped trigger the move. “The overhead there is pretty high, and when the economy slowed down, we took that opportunity to move,” says Kraigel.

Despite the losses in industrial jobs, on an average weekday, the factory area in 11237 is literally humming with activity, with construction companies, concrete plants, tile manufacturers, specialty metal manufacturers, oil companies, iron companies and at least one major bakery. Even as some industrial job lines have largely disappeared, others—like printers and specialty contractors—have increased in number.

The area has also seen growth in nonindustrial jobs. Sister Elizabeth Nickels came to Bushwick in 1958 to run a Catholic school. In the late 1970s, she opened a residence for homeless teens. Then 12 years ago, members of her board started to tell her that the emerging problem in the area was unlicensed child-care providers. So Nickels launched T.O.P.S. for You Inc. (T.O.P.S. stands for Time, Opportunity, Peace and Services) to train and license day-care providers. Their network now includes 100 providers, including both family and group day-care centers. Nickels runs an orientation once a month, usually with around 15 people in the audience. Nine will stick with the process and apply for their license, which takes six to nine months. If one gets up and running, the provider can make around $30,000 a year. “We generate about $3 million a year in economic development,” Nickels says.

Thirty grand might be an adequate salary, especially for an entrepreneur without much education. But as service employment like day care has grown in Bushwick and manufacturing jobs have vanished, the neighborhood’s earning power has flatlined. From 2001 to 2007, census data say, total annual payroll for businesses in 11237 was basically flat. Median income in the broader Bushwick community district increased about 6 percent from 2000 to 2007, after inflation.

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The erosion of the manufacturing base wasn’t the only force reshaping Bushwick over the past eight years. While Bushwick has been overwhelmingly Latino for decades, a succession of nationalities have populated that ethnic base. First came Puerto Ricans, who are natural-born U.S. citizens. Then Dominicans arrived; Kelly notes that they tended to have long-standing family roots in the city, and many were legal residents if not citizens. But recently, Bushwick has seen an influx of immigrants mostly from Mexico and Ecuador. The foreign-born population is now 39 percent of the total, up from 33 percent in 2000. Along with legal immigrants from those countries have come undocumented residents.

No statistics confirm this trend, but it is almost uniformly reported by people in the area. Among the many effects of that increase in nonlegal residents, says Kelly, is that a growing part of Bushwick’s labor force is at risk of losing their jobs through federal enforcement actions.

President Obama’s immigration enforcement strategy differs from the Bush administration’s: Rather than target individual undocumented workers, as was the style under Bush, the feds are squeezing employers who hire them. In Kelly’s experience, however, both approaches produce the same result, and Obama’s policy poses the secondary problem of looking kinder to workers than it really is. Kelly tells the story of a group of church members who came to see him during the summer after immigration agents visited their factory. “The feds came in. They wanted all the paperwork. Obviously, [the boss] doesn’t have it, so he has to let them go,” Kelly says. “These people are out of a job. And they’re worse off than before because there isn’t the sympathy.”

Some law enforcement efforts, however, do help workers. Last October, state attorney general Andrew Cuomo had two executives from an Associated Supermarket on Knickerbocker Avenue arrested on charges that they filed false records and defrauded their employees. Cuomo alleged that workers were paid less than $30 for 11-hour days, with some deliverymen earning less than $300 for a 70-hour week. In July, Cuomo announced that he’d settled with the Associated store and a nearby Pioneer supermarket that had also cheated its workers. The stores would pay may more than $1 million in back wages to 50 employees. The two executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. In 2005, then AG Eliot Spitzer won back pay and time off for workers at three discount stores along Knickerbocker Avenue.

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Global competition’s erosion of 11237’s apparel industry, as well as the effect of real estate market and city zoning policies on manufacturing, are long-term trends. In 11237 in the summer of 2009, a more immediate concern is the recession. Neither the state nor federal departments of labor track unemployment data by ZIP code, so it’s hard to say what local impact the downturn has had. But with unemployment surging to 10.6 percent for July in Brooklyn as a whole (from 6.3 percent last July), it’s safe to assume that Bushwick has not been spared the recession’s impact. “My people are under pressure right now because of the economy and the fact that they are undocumented,” Kelly says.

A question hanging over the downturn is whether the social safety net, woven with thinner thread after federal welfare reform, will catch people on the way down. From 2002 to 2009, the number of people on welfare in 11237 dropped 40 percent to about 5,200 recipients. The number of people receiving food stamps but not welfare, however, doubled to 13,000.

Both trends mirror what’s happened elsewhere in the city, where a combination of rising hunger and easier enrollment under the Bloomberg administration has increased food stamp usage even as federal and local welfare reform efforts continue to reduce the cash assistance caseload. Medicaid enrollment in the area has more than doubled during the Bloomberg years. At the welfare office serving 11237, the city wins 83 percent of the hearings in which applicants contest benefit decisions—below average in the borough, testifying to the area’s genuine need.

The last time detailed poverty data were collected in 11237 was for the 2000 Census, when 37 percent of people there lived below the poverty line, compared with 21 percent for the city as a whole. Bushwick’s poor lived in deeper poverty than those citywide. And of those families who were not poor, one in three lived on income less than twice the poverty level—the usual cutoff for the designation “low income.”

In 2006, Bloomberg undertook an initiative to reduce poverty in the city with a raft of new programs, most of them small-scale pilots. One, the Young Adult Internship Program, targeted 15 neighborhoods, including Bushwick. The idea was to give youths paid employment to try to connect them to the world of work. An evaluation published last year found that while providers in 14 of the 15 neighborhoods were failing to meet the threshold for attracting local residents to the program, the initiative was largely meeting its goals. In each neighborhood, the program runs three sessions a year, each one serving 30 kids.

Another Bloomberg initiative, the Out of School Time Program, has increased the availability of early-dropoff and after-school programs in 11237. The Coalition for Hispanic Family Services runs such programs in three local schools; they serve 240 kids until 6 p.m. That gives parents a chance to square their workday with the school schedule, which is often decidedly unfriendly to people who punch a clock.

Read the next chapter, or return to the series page.