Key Question in Garment District Debate: Where do the Workers Come From?

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From the Economic Development Corporation's Fashion Manufacturing and Garment Center Strategy Presentation, March 2017

As City Limits reported last week, the de Blasio administration’s proposed plan for the garment district has become the subject of considerable controversy. The administration has promised a suite of investments in the garment industry and in new manufacturing hubs in Sunset Park, but has also proposed removing a zoning text protection for garment manufacturing businesses in Midtown. In the ongoing debate about the plan, one reoccurring question is whether or not it would be feasible for garment manufacturing firms in Midtown to relocate to Sunset Park.

Of course, the city says it’s not requiring anyone move anywhere; the Sunset Park hubs, with cheaper rents and longer leases, are just an option for those seeking more affordable spaces. But some manufacturing representatives say removing the zoning protection will force them out. While these critics admit the zoning protection has had limited effectiveness, they argue this is in part due to uneven enforcement and they note that landlords in the garment center are refusing to give manufacturers long-term leases because they know the lifting of the protective requirement is coming.

Whatever one believes, the question about whether it’s feasible or not for firms to move to Sunset Park is important enough that all sides are spending some energy arguing for their position. What’s clear is that more study is needed before anyone can claim to fully understand whether firms could take that option.

City diagram shows workers live in Brooklyn

Critics of the mayor’s plan say that if firms moved to the waterfront of Sunset Park, that would double the commute of many workers. The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) counters that the largest portion of workers already live in Brooklyn.

A map provided by the Economic Development Corporation to City Limits shows the neighborhoods where 14,146 garment manufacturing workers who work in Manhattan go to lay their heads at night. According to 2015 census data gathered by EDC, roughly 35 percent live in Brooklyn, 26 percent in Queens, 9 percent in the Bronx, 28 percent in Manhattan and two percent in Staten Island.

An EDC map of where workers at Manhattan-based garment manufacturing firms live

Garment manufacturing workers are here defined as anyone belonging to a garment manufacturing firm—including, for instance, owners, designers, and sales people, which EDC says explains the surprisingly high percentage of workers who live in the Upper East Side.

In the map, “Garment manufacturing” is defined as firms in six industry categories selected by EDC: Textile Mills, Apparel Manufacturing, Leather and Allied Product Manufacturing, Textile Bag and Canvas Mills, Jewelry and Silverware Manufacturing, and Fastener, Button, Needle and Pin Manufacturing.

Joseph Ferrera, head of the Garment Suppliers Manufacturing Association, is concerned that because the dataset applies to all of Manhattan and to so many industry categories, it may not give a good picture of where Midtown garment workers actually live.

By EDC’s own estimation, the Midtown district has about 5,000 garment manufacturing workers—well below the 14,000 people included in the data. Those extra 9,000 workers are either people working in other parts of Manhattan, or people in industries that EDC doesn’t usually classify as garment manufacturing. For instance, the data would include the 227 jewelry and silverware firms located in the ZIP code north of the garment center, home to the legendary Diamond District on 47th Street.

EDC says they selected this range of categories to represent the full ecosystem that exists between many different kinds of manufacturers in the garment district. And it says that apparel manufacturers make up the vast majority of firms included in the study, so that taking out the other industry categories would still not make a huge difference to the overall picture of where workers live.

But Andrew Ward, also of the Garment Suppliers Manufacturing Association, is conducting his own door-to-door study of the area to justify an alternative plan. So far he’s getting different results, though the survey is not yet complete.

“We have workers from Brooklyn but most of the workers come from Queens, from Flushing,” he says.

Furthermore, Edgar Romney of Workers United notes that the data excludes New Jersey residents, who he guesses make up about 15 percent of workers in the garment district.

Both Romney and Ferrera argue that Manhattan serves as a good midway point for all the boroughs—and is even more convenient for some Brooklyn residents. By train, Williamsburg is half an hour from the garment district and an hour to Sunset Park.

Ferrera says that within the garment industry, each specialty tends to be dominated by a different ethnic group, and each group tends to live in a different part of the city. Sewers, for instance, often come from Asian communities in Queens, while embroiders are often Eastern European Brooklynites.

“The industry is balanced among all the capabilities, not just one—so pressers without sewers, without handy workers, without drapers mean nothing,” he says.

In other words, because worker specialties are not distributed evenly throughout the city, it would be a bad idea to move the garment cluster someplace far from one ethnic community.

Of course, it’s not certain that workers, even if deeply inconvenienced, will necessarily call it quits if their firms move to Sunset Park. But Ward says that during his door-to-door survey he’s spoken to several firm owners who say they will simply close their factories for good if they get priced out of Midtown after the zoning protection is lifted.

In other words, the inconvenient commute for workers is just one issue firms will consider when deciding whether it’s feasible to move to Sunset Park.

It’s a different kind of industry

In an e-mail to City Limits on April 15, EDC noted that already they’ve spoken to 10 firms interested in a tour of Sunset Park. The city also notes that Sunset Park already has 100 garment manufacturing firms, the second largest cluster in the city, meaning that Midtown businesses that decide to relocate to Sunset Park will still enjoy the benefits of an “ecosystem” that they do in Midtown.

Critics, however, say that the garment firms in Midtown are simply not the same kind of firms as in Sunset Park, and that they need their own ecosystem preserved.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics* provided by the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the average salary of a Manhattan garment manufacturing worker (defined as people working in apparel manufacturing firms) is about $68,000 a year, while the average salary of a Brooklyn garment manufacturing worker is about $22,000 a year.

The difference in wage, critics say, is in indication of the difference between the Sunset Park and Midtown clusters: Midtown workers are people who work for highly specialized firms making designer clothing or costumes for the Theater District and need to be located where they are, the argument goes.

In the end, it might be silly to generalize for all Midtown firms whether the move to Sunset Park is feasible. The question then becomes if the de Blasio administration is doing enough to allow those who can’t move to stay in Midtown. Some argue that providing investments in technology, as EDC is doing through Fashion Manufacturing 2.0, will be enough to allow them to do just that. Others insist it will take some sort of zoning mechanism—or some sort of mission-driven building—to keep them in place.

*Correction: We originally stated that the wage data is from the Census. It is actually from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Riana Shah and Tejas Atreja assisted with data research.

One thought on “Key Question in Garment District Debate: Where do the Workers Come From?

  1. I probably missed this, but why exactly is de Blasio lifting the zoning protection?
    (Wild guess – so his developer friends can get their hands on prime Manhattan real estate?)

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