New York tours offer look at urban manufacturing’s revival

Urban small-scale manufacturers at work. Photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel for OHNY.

In today’s American economy, where so much is imported from other countries, American cities are rediscovering their manufacturing roots. Industry shakeups and the economic downturn demonstrate the vulnerability of cities that rely on single-industry manufacturing sectors like steel and automobiles. But while large-scale industries suffer from lack of resilience, small-scale manufacturing is creeping back into our cities and strengthening our local economies.

Today, though the manufacturing sector makes up just 12% of US GDP, the sector has grown at roughly twice the pace of the country’s overall economic growth since the end of the recession. Manufacturing provides high-wage, low-barrier to entry jobs with the average manufacturing salary roughly $10,000 more than the average U.S. job. Between 2010 and 2012, manufacturing jobs grew by over 400,000—many of them in small businesses. The opportunity for local job growth is great.

While manufacturers in some places—like Washington, DC—function as their own separate islands, unaware of the growing production sector around them, in other places these businesses create communities for themselves. One example of this community energy is in the non-profit cultural organization Open House New York. OHNY organizes a yearly open house weekend (since 2003), in which hundreds of buildings usually closed to the public open their doors and allow a peek into their inner workings. They zeroed in on the urban manufacturing scene this year to showcase the businesses and their neighborhoods.

There is plenty to see in the New York manufacturing tours. OHNY organizes outings spanning all five boroughs that get participants into sites and challenge them to see the spaces in “new and exciting ways.” Brendan Crain, the Director of Programming, says that the idea is to “learn from these tours how an entire system works over the course of the year.” The tours take participants to sites from the Brooklyn Army Terminal to a Gowanus Canal boat tour. The yearly weekend event features tours, dialogues, and workshops with architects, designers, planners, and scholars. With the success of this year’s events OHNY hopes to continue year-long exploration in a wide variety of sectors.

With the help of partners like the New York Economic Development Corporation and the Pratt Center for Community Development, OHNY succeeded in creating tours that interest not just architects and designers, but anyone who cares about the history of New York or wants a glimpse into how things are made. OHNY and NYCEDC often co-select sites and build the narrative of each tour. For NYCEDC the tours are a marketing campaign, and for OHNY they are a way to attract a diverse swath of New Yorkers. The tours help EDC make the case that manufacturing still exists in New York and helps show the value of the sector. Residents get to see what’s happening in neighborhoods and that these jobs pay good wages. Maisha Lopa from NYCEDC says that manufacturing was part of New York’s past, is part of its present, and will be part of its future.

Diverse economies in a city are vital for maintaining the stability of the market and build resilient communities. Boasting a diversity of industries strengthens a city’s ability to withstand a downturn in any one particular sector. Each city is less vulnerable when many different businesses spanning a sector like manufacturing make their home in the city.

Other cities should look towards Open House New York’s model as an example of how to tie a city together and promote its homegrown businesses to its residents. The more information residents have about what’s going on around them, the better served both they and their local businesses are. In the attempt to connect residents to the workings of the city, OHNY is succeeding.

Jason Miller, “Regional Manufacturing Hubs: A Path to Innovation.” The Brookings Institution. 9 July 2014.