I am a panda. Or a great ape. Or any of a number of animals - I'll choose the cute ones - whose terrain is disappearing and are therefore endangered. Tut- tutting or telling me how cute, chubby, and fun to watch I am doesn’t help much. "Oooh, check out that guy with the hand tools! Amazing!" Neither does lip service. On the face of it, our government agencies all love manufacturing and makers. They love to have “maker initiatives,” training, etc. They are even happy to make a small, zoo-like zone of a few blocks where manufacturers who already exist can try to still exist. But protecting the actual wild environment is another story.
Most of the energy in encouraging manufacturing in NYC is focused on "Maker Spaces," which are always well-intentioned and sometimes actually awesome. But the problem is that these spaces, much like a breeding sanctuary, is that it is not a real substitute for an improved wild environment. What happens to a fledgling business after you "graduate" from a maker space? If you have a prototype, you will probably will outsource your production to somewhere with enough affordable real estate to encourage manufacturing - a place that sometimes feels like anywhere but New York City. And what if you want to expand your business? That probably means not New York too. All the investment in maker spaces, incubators, and other startup support may pay off - but not for the people of the city.
Cabinet shops, which are TFWW’s retail life blood, are dying in NYC. Many landlords don't want messy businesses. Even in neighborhoods with industrial zoning - places that are zoned for mess and noise - the trend is to try to rent to offices and commercial ventures. Even if the business does actual making, their primary work is clean and silent. Offices and design shops have a far greater density of people than a woodshop, and so higher rents are easier to achieve. And of course once your tenant is a fancy office, it will want like-minded businesses for neighbors, not a company with a screaming table saw or spray booth. And once a landlord realizes that it can get more per square foot by skirting the industrial zoning requirements rents shoot up. Even if the space is available for a cabinet shop, the cost might be unaffordable.
Now I should mention that not all landlords are opportunists who bought property that was discounted because of its use restrictions but now are trying to evade their responsibilities. ( See my blog from a few weeks ago about Industry City). There are a many landlord - and thankfully mine is one (My landlord has been incredibly supportive of what we do and truly fights for continued manufacturing in NYC) - that really want industry to succeed. There are bunches of reasons for this. The first is that many people, my landlord and others included, want a city that is diverse. They recognize that not everyone is a web designer or a stockbroker. We have thousands of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, machinists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and a range of other craftspeople and tradespeople who need a place to go to work, like being in the city, and most important, make the city far more interesting and full of ideas than it would be without them.
Let me give you an example:
Once upon a time, on West 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a tinsmith named Harry Segerman had a business two doors down from my grandparents’ luncheonette. Harry mostly made tinware, and later stainless fixtures, for the restaurant industry. In the years following WWII, Chelsea (nowadays an exceedingly trendy and expensive neighborhood) was a fairly rough part of town. A few blocks west were the Cunard Docks; the buildings were a mix of low rise housing and garment industry factories.
The area was inexpensive to live in, which attracted bohemian artists. Some of them wandered into Harry's shop and were enamored by the idea that you could take metal and bend it into interesting shapes. Harry, who was encouraging by nature and very interested in art, helped helped a lot of these artists make work in tin. Some artists took it a step further and developed expertise in sculpting with sheet metal because of his support.
On paper, this interaction is what cities do best. Art and crafts (and commerce) happen when a big city is a melting pot of ideas and skills. But it won't happen - and we will be the poorer - if New York City becomes solely a consumer of real things, instead of a designer, maker, and consumer.