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Once the global epicenter of American manufacturing, New York City’s historic Garment District is little more than a relic of a bygone era. In its heyday in the 1950s, the area bounded by 35th and 41st Streets and Sixth and Ninth Avenues hosted the largest concentration of high-rise factories in the world, supporting more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs and producing nearly three-quarters of all women’s and children’s apparel in the country, according to Urban Fabric: Building New York’s Garment District, an exhibit opening at the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park on Wednesday.But the neighborhood as we know it may not be long for the world—that is, if Barbara Blair Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, has anything to do it.
R.I.P. GARMENT DISTRICT?
Already overhauled once, the Garment District may undergo its biggest transformation yet. Earlier this year, Randall solicited suggestions for a name that better reflects the neighborhood’s changing demographics. No more a stronghold of pattern-makers, cutters, sewers, pressers, and finishers, Seventh Avenue is now populated predominantly by online-media companies and architecture firms. Even a 1987 zoning law reserving 50 percent of the space for traditional garment production didn’t stem the manufacturing exodus overseas.
No more a stronghold of pattern-makers and sewers, Seventh Avenue is now populated predominantly by online-media companies and architecture firms.
“The neighborhood has been changing for 60 years,” Randall told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “We decided we have to move on and reposition this neighborhood in the eyes of the public and the real-estate community as to what it truly represents.”
Randall’s real work, however, will be in revamping the neighborhood’s ground-level retail space. The Fashion Center BID wants to replace the “mish-mash” of fast-food restaurants, banks, and bodegas with high-end shops more deserving of the buildings’ unique architecture, most of which were erected in the 1920s.
But Andrew S. Dolkart, a Columbia architecture professor and curator of the Urban Fabric exhibit, doesn’t think you can excise the Garment District from its workers. “There are buildings in the Garment District that have significance in the history and culture of the city,” Dolkart said. “But architecturally, you wouldn’t look twice at them. The Garment District is greater as a whole than its parts.”