Made in Brooklyn

The borough plays host to a manufacturing revival that combines high tech with a decidedly green sensibility.

The United States has lost over 42,000 factories since 2001, and some 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since the turn of the millennium. Officially, this is a death spiral. At the same time, a powerful desire to make things—tangible things, products even—has sprung to life in the border zones where high tech meets the green movement. And Brooklyn now sits squarely in this fertile territory. The borough is home to the wildly successful Web site Etsy, a marketplace of handiwork, which can be read as a Web 2.0 rebuke to the clean-out-your-storage-locker ethos of creaky old eBay. Local food production is booming; it seems as if every 28-year-old guy in the borough has a line of artisanal pickles.

And then there’s the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre site on the East River, established by the U.S. Navy in 1801. Since 1966, when the Navy pulled out, it’s been a city-owned industrial zone. Sitting on what is now prime real estate, just across the river from Manhattan, the Navy Yard contains a fascinating mix of about 240 businesses, only a couple of which have anything to do with ships. There’s Crye American, a young company that managed to snag a defense contract to make Kevlar body armor; Steiner Studios, the largest soundstage on the East Coast; and Cumberland Packing, the company that invented Sweet & Low. There are also artisans—metal- and woodworkers, set builders, display makers—who straddle the boundary between art and industry. The Navy Yard, according to Andrew Kimball, its president, is energetically rebranding itself as a “sustainable industrial park,” home to America’s first “multistory, green industrial facility,” the newly completed, 89,000-square-foot, LEED-certified Perry Building.

Down in Building 275, one of the ramshackle old warehouses typical of the Navy Yard, I run into Jeff Kahn, a partner at Ferra Designs, a 10,000-square-foot metal shop specializing in architectural fabrication and miscellaneous small, intricate metal objects. Many of his 15 employees studied industrial design at nearby Pratt Institute. “This is a Pratt shop,” Kahn boasts, explaining that graduates are drawn to Ferra and other Navy Yard companies because they’re no longer content to just design things. “Most of them are under thirty,” he says. “They’re into craftsmanship; they want to know how to build things. It’s a renaissance.” The 40-year-old Kahn, who originally planned to be an artist and never made it to college, is the face of New York City’s industrial revival, representing an approach that is pre–industrial revolution in scale and post-industrial in strategy.

In the 21st century, industry largely resides in China. As America’s factories have evaporated, Rust Belt cities have reached out to the creative-class pied piper Richard Florida to teach them how to remake themselves as magnets for affluent professionals. In the January/February issue of The American Prospect, Alec MacGillis called Florida’s strategy a “ruse” and wrote about how Elmira, New York, inspired by a $35,000 speech by Florida, installed “poetry posts” around town. While taking lucrative speaking and consulting fees from desperate cities, Florida also argued that “we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try.” The article may have bruised Florida’s reputation, but the arts-based philosophy of development was not his invention, and it remains solidly enmeshed in our current thinking about cities. In April, the Ford Foundation announced a $100 million plan to fund art spaces that “spur economic development in their surrounding areas.” The arts have become the default tool for economic development.

Meanwhile, in the February issue of Wired, Chris Anderson wrote eloquently about the power of small manufacturing, celebrating the growth of garage-scaled businesses that use social networking to design and assemble complex industrial products, such as automobiles. But Anderson’s model, predicated on access to high-tech prototyping tools here in the United States, still depends on Chinese factories. We send them our digital files; they send back components. As I read his article, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d be better off if we could make products from our digital files right here. His larger idea, however—that manufacturing no longer means mass production—resonates strongly.

Every time I see an old industrial building newly converted into artists’ studios or luxury condos, I wonder: Wouldn’t it be better to convert that old factory into a bunch of small, technologically adroit new factories? What if the Ford Foundation announced grants based on the notion that manufacturers can spur growth in their surrounding areas? Isn’t that how economic development used to happen?

In Brooklyn, there are several examples of this industry-as-community-builder approach. The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center started rescuing and rehabilitating factories in 1992. The center is a cluster of five old industrial buildings, housing more than 100 businesses and about 500 workers, including furniture makers, fish processors, and a guy who fabricates dinosaur armatures for the American Museum of Natural History. When I ask about community, the GMDC’s CEO, Brian T. Coleman, shows me a map that demonstrates the high percentage of people who work in its buildings and also live nearby. “Our model works,” Coleman says. “It’s not mass production. But it’s production.”

Back at the Navy Yard, Ferra Designs appears to be a typical dirty, noisy metal shop. But then Kahn points out the CNC machine, a computer-driven device that can mill just about anything. He also has an extremely precise water-jet cutter and a press brake, good for making intricate folds. His current project is a series of shiny, eight-foot-tall, metal fragrance bottles for Marc Jacobs, exactly the sort of high-end, quick-turnaround, small-batch job that is the strong suit of New York’s remaining manufacturing sector.

Kahn sees the potential for a genuine revival. “The cost of doing business is going up in China,” he says. “Shipping costs are rising. There is nothing remotely green about buying anything made overseas. Prices will not stay low indefinitely. This country has an opportunity to regain some of its manufacturing base, using cutting-edge technology and a new generation of interested youth.”

The most exciting thing about the Brooklyn Navy Yard is that it’s a true community. If one shop can’t make something a customer wants, the shop down the hall can. The Navy Yard is filled to capacity and growing, adding 1.7 million square feet of industrial space, including a disused ship-engine facility that is being rehabilitated specifically for green industries. (In the interest of expansion, the Navy Yard is also tearing down a row of abandoned 19th-century town houses, infuriating preservationists.) The yard has never been accessible to the general public, but it’s now building a visitors’ center, scheduled to open next year, where exhibitions will promote its history and products. A restored 1857 town house will be joined to a new glass building, designed by Beyer Blinder Belle and Workshop/apd and built from components fabricated in the Navy Yard by the modular-home builder Capsys.

The Navy Yard’s precise circumstances are impossible to replicate, but this historic manufacturing cluster seems like a perfect model of what a 21st-century industrial community could be. “We’ve demonstrated here that urban manufacturing is back,” Kimball says. “It doesn’t look anything like the days of the smokestacks. It tends to be small-scale, with very nimble businesses that tap into the creative class …”

Right, the creative class. Maybe Richard Florida has promoted the wrong creative class. In his model, artists beget coffee bars that make formerly dreary neighborhoods attractive to real estate developers, who lure lawyers and accountants into luxury loft buildings with names like “the Shoe Factory.” Maybe there’s another model, one that sucks a little of the class bias out of the formula and privileges artisans over artists, blue-collar jobs over white-collar ones. Give enough people who are passionate about making things the stability to invest in equipment and hire workers, and you might slow, or even reverse, the death spiral.

Recent Programs