Considering NYC's Garment District, and all those on the "Make"

I spent last week in New York City. I'm still processing what I found. Since returning to Seattle, one overarching question has grown in importance for the story I'm telling. Namely - what can be said about the historical arc of that part of Midtown Manhattan generally known as the Garment District. Or Garment Center. Puh-tay-toe, poh-tah-toh. This part of NYC has tried re-branding for a while now, with no apparent luck. But that's merely semantic - calling a duck say, "a mud ballerina" only gets a debate over the future flight of a thing so far. The Garment District in my consideration exists as a place with more history than present or future - no offense meant to anyone with a stake in this debate. I'm just saying that the more time I've spent trying to understand the Garment District, the more I'm intrigued by what I find looking backward.

One group that is very much looking in the opposite direction got some press this week for their efforts. Including an enigmatic little piece in Thursday's NYTimes. If you have any interest in this part of NYC's history, a few clicks through are certainly worth the energy and time. Especially as their efforts to build an economic engine in the Garment District comes up against the high-end condos I saw springing in the midst of that largely bland and low-rise part of Manhattan.

A thumbnail of history might be in order for those who are still with me at this point in the summary. Boundaries for the Garment District creep in all directions depending who's talking and when. I spent chunks of two days at the New York Historical Society pulling references and photos and never found a definitive answer. But I've settled upon between the Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.) and 9th Avenue for the east and west thoroughfares, and between 26th and 42nd Streets for the north and south. If you go by just the employment records of the unions representing workers there (the International Ladies Garment Workers Union or ILGWU was a biggie), back deep into the 20th Century you had a quarter million people employed making garments there. That's not an aggregate - I'm talking all at the same time. Huge industry. What's left of that? Start ups. Small manufacturers. A shell of an industry, now surrounded by the kind of new media and technology companies who'd never even been dreamed of when the unions of prior dominance were being shut out and those industries were being shipped overseas by the changing dynamics of manufacturing.

For me, finding what had been in the Garment District has grown into a mission. Somewhat in contrast but still on the same point, the Design Trust for Public Space is looking to the future of that part of Manhattan. Their activities were what sprung forth in the limited media coverage this week. They're working on a multi-stage plan - moving from a multi-media history titled "Made in Midtown" to the just released "plan" (in book form) for "Making Midtown" a driver of NYC's future economy. Is this wonky stuff interesting? To a very limited audience, absolutely. But I think it's broader than that. This is economic history that just might evolve into a stage for the new economic Century. I haven't yet seen how they address the manufacturing workforce and how it, too, has evolved. Please remember, America - not long ago NYC's Garment District was basically a Union "town". The hundreds of thousands of people who worked there came from all the Five Boroughs to my deepening understanding, because they could earn wages there to feed generations of Americans. Yet they had to fight for those jobs for over decades. Is that what's proscribed for this newly re-made Midtown? Or is it more on the order of "American Apparel" and what they've done in L.A. It's mildly ironic that one of the historic buildings I've in on in the Garment District now has an American Apparel franchise on the ground level of 7th Avenue - or Fashion Avenue, if you go for that bit of re-branding. Obviously, I've got some reading to do and then I'll get back to you.

Oddly, this connects with one of the coolest places I saw in NYC last week. In Chelsea - which is so posh, undeniably on the make and my favorite neighborhood for meandering - I happened upon this permanent pop-up store/gallery named "Story". They rotate and curate the themes of the place - it's more gallery than retail - and the current incarnation is called "Making Things". This comes after a fashion-themed "Story" most recently in conjunction with Fashion Week in September - they certainly feed off the neighborhood vibe more often than not. Basically for this "Story", they had 3D printers, laser cutters and all sorts of prototype fabricating technology and know-how there to dink around with. I got a few things made for my daughter, printing in epoxy based on plans called up from the searchable archives of "Thingiverse". I predict in five years, every city in America will have some sort of 3D printer in a store that fits the sort of fashion of what "Story" offered up (GE Garages actually supplied the technology and knowledgible folks) Seattle's already got one of this ilk, and the market I think will be limitless. The point still being that if you happen to be anywhere near Chelsea on the lower West Side of Manhattan through mid-November, this "Story" is a blast to check out. Pair it with the Rauschenberg Foundation's "We the People" show just across the street and maybe even a walk down 9th Avenue to Chelsea Market - the pop-up flea market named "Artists & Fleas" just dripped with quirky ideas from hip vendors like wax off a locally sourced beeswax candle - and you'll have as much of a blast as I did.

Come to think of it, a long look at what has gone on and what might come to constitute the Garment District isn't that far removed from a place like "Story" and the sort of maker culture that's currently being shown therein. You just need to find the right seam between the ideas and get to stitching. Then again, I don't really have the time to dress this transition up fully. This comes simply off the rack. I'll do some creative alterations on the connection sometime hereafter.