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Instead of Industrial Giants, Brooklyn Has Niche Factories

Joseph Berger, New York Times
Thursday, 9 Aug 2012 | 10:21 AM ET
manufacturing engineering
manufacturing engineering

The hulking five-story brick factory, complete with an emblematic smokestack, once braided rope for New York’s shipbuilding industry and employed hundreds of blue-collar workers.

It no longer makes rope, but in a promising twist for the city’s survival as a place where things are made, the factory on the Brooklyn side of Newtown Creek has not suffered the fate of many old industrial buildings: conversion into residential lofts for artists or bankers to live in.

Rather, this building, at 1205 Manhattan Avenue, has been sliced and diced into several dozen small factories, each with a niche clientele. One forges exhibits out of wood and metal for the city’s museums. Another makes props and models for advertisers of products like Absolut Vodka to use in their magazine photo spreads. A third restores stained-glass masterpieces for museums like the Cloisters.

This is the face of manufacturing in 2012 Brooklyn. The big industrial behemoths that until the 1960s once made Brooklyn a rival to Chicago’s image as the “stormy, husky brawling City of the Big Shoulders” are mostly gone. Domino sugar, Eberhard Faber pencils, Schaefer beer, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, companies that sold their products across much of the country and sometimes the world, have found locations where wages, taxes and real estate costs are lower, traffic is not as snarled, regulations are not as burdensome, and there is elbow room for the scale required by modern machinery and trailer trucks. Their departures have cost the city thousands of jobs nearly every year for decades.

But in a shift that has been both celebrated and parodied, Brooklyn is increasingly retaining some of its remaining industrial spaces for small-scale, small-batch manufacturing.

A surge of young entrepreneurs eager to produce $7 chocolate bars made from hand-roasted and hand-ground cocoa, or build theater and movie sets or fashion high-end furniture for a connoisseur’s market find the smaller spaces carved out of these old factories precisely what they have been looking for.

Often the rents are affordable and the entrepreneurs can commute to work by bicycle. Such businesses also operate in New York because it has a wealth of the skilled employees they need for idiosyncratic operations that often find their customer bases within the city’s borders.

“We think this is the future of urban manufacturing,” said Brian T. Coleman, chief executive of Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit group that has bought four weathered industrial buildings and converted them into lofts for small factories housing 110 businesses with 500 employees.

“There is a highly skilled work force making products for local consumption,” he said.

Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a policy-research institute, said he was optimistic about this “revival of entrepreneurial manufacturing.”

But he noted that these niche enterprises do not employ anything like the thousands of workers the mass producers did; Brooklyn averaged 11.2 workers per business in 2011, compared with an average of 16.8 workers in 2000.

Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, pointed out last year in “How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back,” that the refashioned Brooklyn Navy Yard rented space to 275 businesses employing 5,800 people, a figure that pales next to the 15,000 the yard employed in 1959.

Still, Mr. Bowles said, while “the overall trend continues to be that manufacturing employment is dropping, it is dropping at a smaller rate in Brooklyn than it has in decades.”

Between 2000 and 2003, Brooklyn hemorrhaged about 11,000 manufacturing jobs, dropping to 32,298 from 43,212, according to New York State Labor Department figures Mr. Bowles cited. But between 2009 and 2011, the drop was far smaller, to 19,445 from 20,650, or just 1,205 jobs.

Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, said Brooklyn “is going back to the future.”

“What is emerging is the artisanal approach rather than the mass production for millions of items of something,” he said.

Brooklyn's Manufacturing Frontier

A prime example of the new frontier in Brooklyn factories is Swell, a tenant in the building along Newtown Creek. Swell, a six-year-old company owned by a Japanese-born entrepreneur, Makoto Aoki, has many of the fixings of a factory — a band saw, table saw and drill press.

But with just 1,500 square feet of loft space and two employees, he is not making a mass product for hundreds of thousands of people to use, the way Eberhard Faber did.

If Absolut Vodka wants its orange-flavored vodka sheathed in an orange rind to lure the eye of a magazine reader, Swell will shape such a model for the photographer. When Money magazine wanted a split dollar sign made out of shiny aluminum to grace its July cover story, it turned to Swell.

Swell’s clients are in Midtown and often have tight deadlines that could not be met by a similar operation in, say, Iowa or China. “Most of the jobs I deliver myself,” said Mr. Aoki, 43, as he sat in his office with a view of the Manhattan skyline. “I cannot trust messengers. If there is a delay, they would have to wait for our model to take a picture.”

Being in Brooklyn also gives Mr. Aoki access to artists and craftsmen who do the fine detail work that his company requires. One of his employees is an installation artist whose work has been shown in galleries; another is an industrial designer.

Two floors down from Mr. Aoki is South Side Design and Building, a 12-year-old company with 6 to 10 employees that builds display cases, pedestals and other fixtures for almost 50 medium-sized museums, like the Asia Society and the Jewish Museum; it even built the rostrum and backdrop for the commencement speech that President Obama gave in May at Barnard College.

Most clients are only a cab ride away, allowing them to see whether the work meets their specifications. South Side is also experienced with working around precious objects, like the Modigliani paintings that the Jewish Museum featured in 2004 and the 50 rare medieval manuscripts for the museum’s planned exhibition; South Side will build climate-controlled cases for their display.

“There are 240 museums in New York City and we can respond very quickly,” said Sam Morse, president of South Side. “If you’re shipping stuff all over the world, you probably need to be in Ohio. But certain kinds of products require certain kinds of training and education and you have a more skilled pool of workers in New York than anywhere else.”

In another onetime rope factory in Brooklyn’s gentrifying East Williamsburg, Twoseven creates window displays for upscale stores like Louis Vuitton, Saks Fifth Avenue, Cole-Haan and Dolce & Gabbana, fabricating them out of wood, plastic and metals.

“It’s good to be in New York because the designer can come here and look at the prototype and make changes,” said Franco Götte, a Swiss-born artist and woodworker who heads the 11-year-old company.

But he has also run into some of the difficulties of manufacturing in New York. For example, he plans to buy a $7,000 carbon filter for a laser cutting machine that emits fumes a congested city will not tolerate.

Still, Brooklyn is where he wants to be.

“There was a need for people to be able to work with their hands again,” he said. “It was something that had gotten lost.”

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