BBC News

US manufacturing: A factory grows in Brooklyn

By Kim Gittleson
BBC News, Brooklyn, New York

image copyrightRobert Clark / Brooklyn Navy Yard
image captionToday, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is home to over 200 small and medium size manufacturers

When Situ Fabrication moved into Building 132 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2013, they were so busy constructing work for clients that included Harvard University, the Brooklyn Museum, and some of the country's biggest artists that it took them awhile to catch their breath and look around.

But when they did, they noticed that the crumbling building - which had recently been used for cold storage and was covered in layers of insulation - was actually something much grander than its decaying exterior would suggest.

"There was a little opening on the south façade and we thought we should really put a gate in here," recalls Bradley Samuels, one of the four founding partners of the architecture and fabrication firm, which was started in 2005.

"We started removing material and we just kept removing more and more until we realised, oh my god, there's this enormous door that steam engines used to come through," he says.

Built in 1905, it turned out that Building 132 was once a steam engine repair shop - and that its "bones", in Mr Samuels words, were perfect for the cutting-edge 21st century manufacturing that the firm was planning to do.

image copyrightlibrary of congress
image captionThe Navy Yard was created by US President John Adams - at its peak, it employed 70,000 people during wartime

That a building which was purpose built for late 19th century technology could still be useful - even ideal - for an innovation-focused firm like Situ might seem surprising, but it makes perfect sense to Mr Samuels and others like him who have moved into the Navy Yard.

Today, the Navy Yard has gone from a Brooklyn eyesore that once symbolised the decline of urban manufacturing to a model for keeping production in urban centres.

image captionSitu employs 45 people who work at Building 132 in the Navy Yard fabricating art and architectural designs
image copyrightElizabeth Bernstein / SItu
image captionSitu Fabrication manufactures products for architectural clients and artists such as Teresita Fernández
image captionMr Samuels said when the firm moved in the space seemed like "one giant refrigerator"

'Devastating blow'

At the Navy Yard's peak during the boom years of World War II, the site employed more than 70,000 people.

Even during peacetime, the premises had around 15,000 full-time employees working in the "classic manufacturing jobs that made the American middle class," says Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) president David Ehrenberg.

But when the Navy decided to move out in 1966, almost 12,000 people lost their jobs overnight. By the 1970s, when Mr Ehrenberg was growing up in Brooklyn, only 100 people worked at the 300 acre (121 hectare) site.

image copyrightBrooklyn Navy Yard
image captionAt its peak, when the Navy Yard employed women during World War II, 70,000 people worked at the site
image copyrightBrooklyn Navy Yard
image captionAfter the Navy left in 1966, thousands of workers were laid off from the yards overnight

"It was really symptomatic and [an] example of the industrial flight from New York," says Mr Ehrenberg.

"You could see all up and down the Brooklyn waterfront—formerly very active, dynamic manufacturing facilities going completely dormant.

"You know, I grew up hearing stories of the Dodgers moving out of Brooklyn, and that being a terrible blow to Brooklyn, but losing 20,000 middle class jobs was really a devastating hit to the borough."

Building a web

To revitalise the site, the BNYDC, the non-profit which now runs the property, sought to move away from big tenants - like the shipbuilders that once loomed over its piers - to a more diversified manufacturing base.

image captionDavid Ehrenberg says that the Navy Yard is on track to employ as many people as it did in its heyday in the 1950s

The BNYDC brought in older companies - like Cumberland, which has been packaging artificial sweeteners like Sweet 'n Low and Splenda for half a decade - as well as more cutting edge firms, which include everything from space suit designers to a robotics builder to a motorcycle manufacturer.

In doing so, they created a web of interconnected manufacturers who could lean on each other for design knowledge or fabrication help.

For instance, Mr Samuels of Situ says the firm will often go to a welder nearby when it can't keep up with demand or when the firm has a particularly tricky bit of metal work that it needs to finish.

"We're constantly collaborating with other tenants," he says.

Today, the Yard employs over 7,000 people and generates nearly $2.35bn (£1.53bn) in economic output.

It has been successful in attracting a range of tenants by promising them long-term leases - a rarity in New York City - as well as by continuing to invest all profits from the operation of the site into redeveloping its railways, docks, and power generating infrastructure.

Brooklyn Navy Yard: Through the years

image copyrightlibrary of congress
  • 1801 - The Brooklyn Navy Yard is established by US President John Adams
  • 1939-1945 - The Yard reached peak employment, when women are drafted to work there to help out with the war effort. Nearly 70,000 people work in the Yard.
  • 1960 - The USS Constellation is severely damaged when a forklift pierces a fuel tank and lights a fire. 50 workers die, and the reputation of the Yard is tarnished.
  • 1966 - The Brooklyn Navy Yard closes
  • 1969-1981 - The Brooklyn Navy Yard is run by the Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings (CLICK). However, when the largest tenant, Seatrain Shipbuilding, lays off 3,250 workers in 1975, the non-profit struggles to retain jobs.
  • 1988 - The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation takes over, and begins to diversify the Yard's manufacturers
  • 1998 - The Yard is at 98% occupancy
  • 2004 - Steiner Studios, a major television and film production facility, opens in the Navy Yard
image copyrightlibrary of congress

Since the mid-2000s, the Navy Yards have been at full-occupancy - and Mr Ehrenberg says the site is on track to employ 12,000 people in the next five years.

Technology changes

Now, the Navy Yard model is being copied by other cities across the US who are looking to revitalise their manufacturing centres, with San Francisco, Philadelphia and Detroit all pushing forward with plans to create manufacturing hubs.

These efforts have led to a resurgence in urban manufacturing jobs - by some measures, Los Angeles county employs nearly as many people in manufacturing as the entire state of Michigan, for instance. And New York and Philadelphia have also seen growth after years of declines.

This resurgence has benefitted from trends in the industry that have once more made production in smaller spaces efficient, such as the rise of 3D printing.

image copyrightIndustry City
image captionIndustry City is a mixed-use industrial site in the Sunset Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn
image copyrightIndustry city
image captionAt its peak in the early 1900s, Industry City - then known as Bush Terminal - employed 20,000 people

Furthermore, changing consumer habits - young urban consumers often want to know how and where their products are made - combined with the rise of social media and e-commerce have allowed niche manufacturers to flourish in urban centres, where they can easily show off both their wares and their processes.

"Modern manufacturing includes a broader overlay of sectors," says Andrew Kimball, who used to run the Navy Yard before moving on to the helm of Industry City, one of New York City's first privately-run manufacturing sites in the Sunset Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn.

The future, he says, "will be an intersection between design, technology, [and] art, with a focus on small, niche, tech-driven manufacturing."

No more smokestacks

But there are of course challenges - for instance, space is an issue in New York City, where rising rents have often squeezed manufacturers.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionExperts say the era of big, single-use factories in urban centres- like the Domino sugar plant in Brooklyn - is over

Furthermore, investing in sites like the Navy Yard is often difficult, as years of disuse have left former industrial sites in states of extreme disrepair.

"The single biggest challenge is deferred maintenance - there was just no money put in for 50 years," says Mr Kimball.

That concern is echoed by Situ's Mr Samuels, who said the firm initially had difficulty getting Building 132 hooked up to enough energy to power their more advanced machines.

And costs, of course, are also higher in urban centres.

John Grady runs the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is, like Brooklyn's version, a mixed use site that is primarily devoted to manufacturing.

"It's always cheaper in the suburbs and that's hindered our industrial economy for its entire decline from the [1950s] to today," he says.

"For cities like Philadelphia or Brooklyn, it is about finding sectors where there's value added - where the cost of being in the urban environment can be supported by the product," he says.

While experts remain optimistic about the future of urban manufacturing, what no one doubts is that both its size and scale will remain small for the foreseeable future, with sites like the Navy Yards functioning as a sort of large-scale factory with many smaller enterprises within its walls.

"The days of the smokestacks are gone," says Mr Kimball.

Related Topics

  • US economy
  • New York City