In Place of Smokestacks, Makers of Dumplings and Doors
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
A worker sorting muffins at Angel’s Bakery in Brooklyn, which left Manhattan because of rising rents. A garment maker had been in the space but moved production to the Dominican Republic.
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Published: September 10, 2007
On some buildings, big faded letters on warm red brick are like a sequoia’s rings. The letters speak of age and industrial reincarnation. One long-gone brewery on Bergen Street in Crown Heights declares “Heinz 57 Varieties” and “Monti Moving & Storage Miami Puerto Rico Calif. Overseas.”
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This factory in Brooklyn can make 44,000 dumplings an hour.
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Todd Heisler/The New York Times
An elevator operator at the Monti Building has seen it change as the area’s economy has shifted.
Gregory Horgan and his wife, Cayce Becket, run a company that designs and builds custom architectural items, like handrails or wine cellar doors. The main area looks like a factory, with hammers, wrenches and sanding belts hung on a pegboard that serves as a backdrop to assorted power tools. Through a narrow doorway is a brighter space, filled with desks, computers and bookcases, where the pair meet clients and work out designs.
Well, the movers moved six years ago. Now the only varieties are the tenants, who represent the changing face of urban manufacturing. After this Brooklyn building was renovated and split into 25 work spaces, it became home in February to artists, woodworkers, film editors and architects.
“It’s rough enough to work in,” said Mr. Horgan. “But it’s clean enough to have an office.”
Rough has its charms. There are thick beams and columns that date to the 19th century. The ceiling is mottled with a reddish-brown patina some folks would pay good money to duplicate. Mr. Horgan thinks it had something to do with the tomatoes that Heinz probably processed here a century ago.
“I couldn’t wish for a better space than this,” he said, admiring the ceiling. “This is old Europe and modern industrial America.”
Such is the New York factory in the 21st century. The smokestacks are gone, taking jobs (and pollution, sometimes) to places where hands are cheap. But according to advocates for industrial development in the city, newer specialty companies like Mr. Horgan’s occupy a growing part of the city’s industrial landscape, along with makers of food products, especially for the burgeoning ethnic market. Many other firms that make construction materials, furniture or lighting have also grown in response to increased demand for environmentally friendly buildings.
“The most important thing we found was the need for more and smaller industrial spaces,” said Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, which assists manufacturers with space and advice. “Big guys like Farberware and Swingline left the city. What survived here are the niche manufacturers where proximity to their market makes a big difference.”
Inside the Monti Building (as it is still called) are companies that need to be in the city and close to clients: set designers for theaters, window prop studios for retail clothing stores, for example. For a firm like Mr. Horgan’s and Ms. Becket’s, being close to clients has other advantages in this age of environmental consciousness, since local procurement is one of the measures used by developers to tout “green” buildings.
The four-story Monti Building itself has solar panels to power the studios, a green roof and floors that radiate heat in the winter. Its rebirth was the brainchild of Benton Brown and Sue Boyce, who were originally interested in just finding a living space where he might be able to do his sculpture. One thing led to another, and a factory space was born. They wound up living in the former brewery’s icehouse around the corner. Now the building is his art.
“Everything is rented out, except for the ground floor,” Mr. Brown said. “We’re looking for someone special. Definitely some type of manufacturer.”
According to state figures, there are still some 230,000 manufacturing jobs in the city, which on average pay more and have better health insurance benefits than service jobs in retail or restaurants. Mr. Friedman noted that immigrants and minorities account for a majority of the production work force.
In previous generations, immigration fueled industrial growth, providing a steady source of unskilled and eager workers. These days, the immigrants help spur industrial growth in unexpected ways. As newcomers arrive in this country, they bring with them tastes for familiar food, which Mr. Friedman said made ethnic specialty foods the fastest-growing segment of the New York food industry.
“New York is the perfect place to be making that,” he said. “We have people from 149 different countries living here. Each immigrant group creates its own market. And that becomes an incubator.”
A low-slung building on a short Williamsburg side street has proved to be a hothouse for the Twin Marquis Food Group, makers and importers of a vast array of Asian products, from noodles and dumplings to bubble tea and ginger candies. Behind the bland facade are 150 workers in a spotless 80,000-square-foot factory that can crank out 44,000 dumplings an hour.
Machines tuck the filling into the dumpling wrappers and move them through a 30-foot-long steam chamber and into a dark, cold freezer before they plop down into plastic bags.
This behemoth started out in 1989 with just two people, one to make noodles and another to sell them to restaurants and stores in their Chinatown neighborhood. Rising rents in Manhattan nudged the company over the bridge, and it settled on its current location in 2004.
“Since we have more space, we were able to introduce more products,” said Kevin Li, assistant marketing manager. “Before, we sold to Chinese restaurants. Now, with more products, we target the mainstream, too. We have distributors who sell to supermarkets.”
Not only are they able to satisfy the needs and tastes of customers from various parts of Asia, making Korean-style dumplings or Thai curry samosas, they are also trying to change American eating habits.
“In Chinese culture, you can eat dumplings as a main course,” Mr. Li said. “Americans see it as an appetizer, but maybe we can change their perception one day.”
Mr. Friedman sees such approaches as redefining the knowledge-based economy.
“It’s funny to think of food processing as having knowledge content,” he said. “But that is exactly what is going on.”
But the kind of pressure that forced manufacturers out of Manhattan is starting to surface in some of the other neighborhoods where they resettled. Joe Angel, a fourth-generation baker who makes muffins and distinctive black and white cookies, thought he had found a good space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for $7.50 a square foot after his SoHo landlord quintupled his rent in 1999. During the day, the bakery is humming, while at night independent distributors line up for items that wind up throughout the city.
Mr. Angel’s arrival in Brooklyn marked a shift in the local economy: his bakery took over a 23,000-square-foot space after the previous tenant, a garment maker, moved production to the Dominican Republic. But now another local shift may have an unwanted effect on him; residential development along the waterfront is all but certain to raise his rent when his lease is up in three and a half years.
“I can’t afford to put ovens and flour and mixers out there if it’s costing me $20 a square foot,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Recognizing that smaller manufacturers need affordable space — and the city needs the jobs they provide — some urban planners urged officials to rethink where industry can be located.
Ron Shiffman, a veteran planner and chairman of the Industrial Retention Network, said many of the newer companies are a lot cleaner than past factories and can coexist alongside housing in mixed-use neighborhoods. He has also suggested an approach not normally associated with bricks and metal.
“We’re thinking of a trust for industrial space,” Mr. Shiffman said. “The same way we realized we have to save small farms, I believe we are going to need to save places for manufacturing in urban areas.”
Mr. Angel would like that. Right now, however, he is thinking of moving to New Jersey, even if that would eliminate the $1 million in sales to the independent distributors, since they would be reluctant to travel too far out of their way. Just in case, he is focusing on institutional and other markets that do not need to be near him, especially if he freezes his products before they are picked up by a single, larger distributor.
“I still have three years,” Mr. Angel added. “We’re hoping the real estate market will crash.”