Bloomberg’s New York: Garment Industry Disappearing

Tracy Reese Spring 2009 Collection (Photo by Maurice Pinzon)

Tracy Reese Spring 2009 Collection (Photo by Maurice Pinzon)

By Maurice Pinzon
During the current financial crisis on Wall Street, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s knowledge of how money circulates and is leveraged gives him a well-informed perspective of the volatility of the economic crisis and how it affects the city’s finances. It is the logic behind his quest for a third term as mayor.

But early in his administration, Mayor Bloomberg promised to reduce the city’s heavy dependence on Wall Street. The Bloomberg administration sought to diversify New York City’s economy by supporting the tourism, communications, media, film, information services and technology sectors. One major way the city planned to accommodate these industries was to rezone large tracts of the city. According to a speech directed at a business group last February by New York City’s Planning Chair, Amanda M. Burden, Ms. Burden cited the unprecedented “construction boom in all five boroughs that will, when completed a decade from now, stand as one of the greatest in New York City’s history.”

According to her prepared speech, she added, “Our strategic agenda was also shaped by the prescient Schumer, ‘Group of 35’ report, issued in 2001. That report warned that the city’s long term economic growth would be limited by a severe lack of office space. It forecast a need for 60 million square feet of commercial space by 2020. The report recommended the creation of new and expanded business districts in 5 boroughs by rezoning to allow for higher density commercial use.”

But just as the overproduction of housing across the nation created a housing bubble, the politically-powerful real estate industry may have created its own corporate housing bubble by overproducing office space. As a result, the rezoning generated by this explosion of commercial buildings may end up destroying existing industries. Critics have argued this issue in the case of Willets Point, a project that is currently under review by the New York City Council, where an industrial area with an estimated 1,500 jobs could be destroyed if the rezoning is approved by the City Council.

Another area where jobs are disappearing and space is being pinched is the garment industry, where manufacturing space and work have been moving overseas. According to many in the fashion industry, the Bloomberg administration has moved lethargically in protecting these jobs and spaces.

A few weeks ago, during New York Fashion Week, Nanette Lepore, a New York fashion designer, was perplexed by the lack of urgency that Mayor Bloomberg had given to the loss of apparel jobs in the garment district. She provided anecdotal evidence of the garment district’s fragile manufacturing base disappearing and just a couple of weeks ago, the New York State Department of Labor corroborated Ms. Lepore’s fears. The data, released by the agency on September 18, 2008, indicated that from August 1998 to August 2008, New York City lost 52,200 apparel jobs. Mayor Bloomberg has been in office since January 2002.

Ms. Lepore does not understand why Mayor Bloomberg fails to see the connection between the mix of manufacturing jobs in the garment industry and the secondary industries that the garment industry generates.

In a city that is famous for its role in the fashion industry, Ms. Lepore wonders how it is that the current administration plans ahead for those who have managed to carefully look after the real estate industry, but leaves those in the fabric-cutting world suffocating underneath a heap of their own cloth. Ms. Lepore wonders whether Mayor Bloomberg has ever visited a garment factory in his life. After all, those garment factories are the foundation of a trade that encourages tourism, communications, media, film, information services and technology throughout the city. In a time of financial instability, fashion industry insiders insist that Mayor Bloomberg may want to consider the fact that fashion has a circulation of its own – most prominently culturally, but also as a reliable money-maker for the city.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the twice-yearly New York Fashion Week “generates $466 million in direct visitor spending per year.” This translates into an overall economic impact in New York City of $782 million a year.

For many who have had some contact with fashion industry, it is hard to see how the city could credibly have a festival of haute couture without any significant amount of manufacturing taking place in the city itself. If the garment district continues to retrench, New York Fashion Week may soon become merely a fashionable Potemkin village.

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