Saturday, October 20, 2012

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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keeping a running tab in NYC

To prep for my latest research trip - I'm in NYC this week - I've been poking around in some new subject areas. Much to my surprise, the history of labor unions has figured prominently in that. So I want to quickly give a shout out to the collections housed at New York University. Specifically, the Tamiment Library within the Bobst Library offers an impressive starting point. How appropriate that the Bobst's interior looks like a huge Escher painting given the levels that seem to feed up and down and into one another therein. The access to living history in the form of an honest-to-goodness union icon best got me on the path I intend to follow going forward. Expect you'll hear much more about that from me in the future.

That's not exactly the kind of thing you can put in the ol' scrap book or add to your travel "must see" list. Not that anyone's looking here for those sorts of things. I will offer up a few tasty choices from this latest trip to the City. More recap than guide. Less definitive than anecdotal. Do what you will with it. I've most certainly just straight up enjoyed what I've dipped into thus far.
  • One impossible to get ticket in town is sadly the "Discovering Columbus" exhibit using the statue of Christopher "Yes, THAT" Columbus at the Circle he discovered back in 1492. I may be mixing up a detail or two. The point being that I walk by that elevated fake apartment most times I head to or from the actual apartment I'm staying in while in NYC. If you've got dibs on one of those few slots upcoming, way to go, Sport. Share your thoughts and everyone will surely be glad to know more than what's already been written.
  • If you're a Green Bay Packers fan and you find yourself in the City on a game day, you can do no better than Kettle of Fish in Greenwich Village. It was a beatnik bar - pictures of Kerouac and the various icons from the era are still hanging on the walls amidst all the cheeseheads and beer posters. Incredibly friendly folks fill the place to bursting. I met a few prime Sconnie ex-pats, and even a current member of the Lambeau Field grounds crew who travels for work when he's not back in Green Bay for home games. This past Sunday I left at halftime to head to a Salman Rushdie/David Remnick snoozefest conversation as a part of "The New Yorker Festival". Mixed blessing because we were up 21-3 at that point. Don't remind me what happened thereafter. But do head there if you want to see natural fans in a mostly surreal environment.
  • The day I'd spent digging deeply into the history of labor unions in America, I followed by seeing the documentary "Detropia". I would have never imagined that decay and despair could be so beautiful and stirring. I'd read criticism before seeing the movie saying that Detroit is exploited in showing how much has gone wrong and what is left behind. I completely disagree with that and highly recommend seeing it yourself. 
  • If you're not already a fan of "The Moth" I'd love to say run breathlessly to one of their live events. Maybe start with the podcast if you're unfamiliar. I hadn't planned especially well ahead of time to go to the show I caught last night at Housing Works in SoHo. No snacks, long line, all sorts of standing around. Then I got to talking with folks. It was fantastic. And I left hungry for more. It's all about the people - I met more cool ones than I can itemize now. Including someone in line from Michigan who I tried to convince to go see "Detropia". It's amazing how things manage to come full circle in a City like this.
  • Here's an obvious one - write and read and just plain build a bigger brain by spending time in the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. That's a well traveled recommendation. But it's still a truly good one.
  • If you need to find a gift for a curious 2nd Grader or grown up science geek, there are few cooler places I've found than the Evolution Store in SoHo. If I had a few extra Benjamins bouncing around loosely in me pocket, I'd so be carrying an awesome skull in my backpack right now.
  • I had a very particular reason to seek out the New York Historical Society (on the Upper West Side - Central Park West and 77th Street). Almost everyone in there with me this morning appeared to have first hand knowledge of the new WWII exhibit. There are certainly no shortage of great museums in this City. This one, however, started out as a work visit that turned into a totally fun one - bonus points for that. Be sure not to skip the movie.
  • On a much smaller scale, there are just so many moments navigating life here that charge my batteries and keep me on edge for what might happen next. There's a complex but very rational reason behind that persona almost all Americans recognize immediately as being that of a New Yorker. I can only take a small vicarious thrill from being lumped in with those who actually live here and act like they damn well do. On my first full day, I got approached by a foreign tourist for directions. Which I gladly gave in full knowledge of what he needed ("There is red line subway near this Chelsea, no?"). As in all places, I like to pay attention closely. In NYC? Times ten.
That maybe all seems rather random. But this post lets me clear the pipes out, know what I mean? Speaking of catharsis and pulling a major non sequiter out of my hat - there was a wonderfully odd piece in the NYTimes a few days ago about one of my favorite overlooked eras. The War of 1812. In this Bicentennial Year, it seems that Stephen Harper (the Prime Minister - but you already knew that, right?) is making a militaristic embrace of Canada's conduct during the War in response to American aggression. I'd normally give big props to anyone putting that historical curiosity on the front-ish burner. Well, unless you're doing what Harper's seemingly doing and trying to spin things for political gain in the present. I know, I know - next thing I'll be offended to learn that there's gambling taking place in the casino where I eat dinner in every night. So to speak.

And with that, I'm off to Brooklyn. Literally, not figuratively. Wherever you're headed, don't take any wooden nickels along the way, mmm'kay?