Friday, January 24, 2014

The Golden Age of Big Apple Manufacturing

Given our latest topics of discussion, I thought this was an interesting find:
This map, printed by the Merchants’ Association of New York in 1922, shows industrial activity in the city, as reported to the 1919 Census of Manufactures. The map was meant as a promotional tool—beige areas represent areas “available for industrial development”—and to boost the city’s profile in the larger business community.
In the upper right-hand corner of the map, a box lists the “lines” (or types of manufactured goods) in which New York’s factories competed. In 1919, this list shows, New York produced more than 50 percent of total national output in 12 lines of manufacture, and was competitive in many more.
Geographer Richard Harris, writing about industry in the city between 1900-40 in the Journal of Historical Geography, points out that because of the particular products New York was known for (lapidary work, women’s clothing, millinery), many industrial workers were women. In 1939, they represented 36 percent of the total workforce. Workers in Lower Manhattan, where many garment factories were located, were particularly female. 
Harris points out that although factories tended to move outward into the boroughs after 1919, before WWII the city did retain many factories in its central core, bucking the nationwide trend of suburbanization of industry. In 1940, 60 percent of New York workers had manufacturing jobs.
In the midcentury period, however, development trends turned toward offices and corporate headquarters. Zoning regulations made building more factories difficult...In recent years, the city’s economy has rested on the service and financial industries. While manufacturers still do set up shop in the city, the scope of their activities is specialized. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, industry now provides just 16% of private-sector jobs. 
1919 Map of New York City's Manufacturers Shows a Bygone Industrial Landscape (Slate)  Interesting year. Note that when workers made the stuff they consumed, we had steadily rising living standards (though still terrible poverty). This led to the roaring twenties (along with Henry Ford paying his workers five dollars a day). then it came crashing down in the 1930's - a period which coincided with the mass industrialization of agriculture. Coincidence?


  1. A book that is quite relevant to this situation is Robert Fitch's "The Assassination of New York", published in 1993. It outlines how New York's vibrant manufacturing base and port were demolished, in favor of FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and high-rent housing.

    Describing pre-1960s New York (Chapter 1 , page 26):

    "In retrospect, New York can be seen not only as a pioneer in flexible manufacturing, it was also an incubator of industrial innovation - generating not only a disproportionate number of U.S. patents, but also a constant flow of new products, new industrial methods and new firms. The city's unique industrial culture of diversity and innovation has to be understood in terms of the scale and interdependence of its firms. Unlike Detroit, which rose to strength in the midwest on the basis of a few great automobile companies, New York had more than 70,000 firms at various stages of the product cycle. So the city was constantly benefitting from the explosive growth of new, successful firms. New York's small companies, unlike giant, vertically integrated firms, needed each other's products and services. They needed a New York location for three primary reasons: to buy and sell to each other; to share facilities; and to be in the center of the world's greatest consumer market, with over 20 million people located within 25 miles of Columbus Circle."

    Describing the goal of the Regional Planning Authority (RPA) in 1929 (Chap. 2, p. 38):

    "A New York City purged of its manufacturing, and stripped of its port, was the dream of the Regional Plan's directors - Morgan Bankers, Rockefeller Foundation executives, New York Central and Jersey Central railroad directors, outer borough real estate developers. Residential housing in the outer boroughs would replace manufacturing. Industry would loose its disturbing proximity to Wall Street. The port, the prime source of the disturbance, with its truck, cargo, and longshoremen would be transferred to Elizabeth, New Jersey. And thus the railroad interests on the RPA board would have the best possible of all worlds. The New York Central could concentrate on collecting rent on its west side property rather than freight cars. While the Jersey Central, represented by Jersey Central director and RPA chairman Robert De Forest, would get the benefit of increased traffic at its terminal in Elizabeth."

    The book describes in detail how this vision essentially happened. As someone with roots in New York City and concerned about our steady deindustrialization, I was shocked to see how orchestrated this change was.

    - John Atwood

  2. Shows ya. Even locally, special interests run everything. And have for a long time. Some political scientists speak of the Growth Coalitions, but this shows that even that's an oversimplification. The rentiers win. Interesting that this was happening in the days when Keynes was speaking of the euthanasia of rentiers... was that just smoke screen for the rentier takeover? Creating fake hope while the real action goes completely the opposite?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.