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JOEL Joel's Blog

I Am a Panda


I Am a Panda 1
I am a panda. Or a great ape. Or any of a number of animals - I'll choose the cute ones - whose terrain is disappearing and are therefore endangered. Tut- tutting or telling me how cute, chubby, and fun to watch I am doesn’t help much. "Oooh, check out that guy with the hand tools! Amazing!" Neither does lip service. On the face of it, our government agencies all love manufacturing and makers. They love to have “maker initiatives,” training, etc. They are even happy to make a small, zoo-like zone of a few blocks where manufacturers who already exist can try to still exist. But protecting the actual wild environment is another story.
Most of the energy in encouraging manufacturing in NYC is focused on "Maker Spaces," which are always well-intentioned and sometimes actually awesome. But the problem is that these spaces, much like a breeding sanctuary, is that it is not a real substitute for an improved wild environment. What happens to a fledgling business after you "graduate" from a maker space? If you have a prototype, you will probably will outsource your production to somewhere with enough affordable real estate to encourage manufacturing - a place that sometimes feels like anywhere but New York City. And what if you want to expand your business? That probably means not New York too. All the investment in maker spaces, incubators, and other startup support may pay off - but not for the people of the city.

Cabinet shops, which are TFWW’s retail life blood, are dying in NYC. Many landlords don't want messy businesses. Even in neighborhoods with industrial zoning - places that are zoned for mess and noise - the trend is to try to rent to offices and commercial ventures. Even if the business does actual making, their primary work is clean and silent. Offices and design shops have a far greater density of people than a woodshop, and so higher rents are easier to achieve. And of course once your tenant is a fancy office, it will want like-minded businesses for neighbors, not a company with a screaming table saw or spray booth. And once a landlord realizes that it can get more per square foot by skirting the industrial zoning requirements rents shoot up. Even if the space is available for a cabinet shop, the cost might be unaffordable.

Now I should mention that not all landlords are opportunists who bought property that was discounted because of its use restrictions but now are trying to evade their responsibilities. ( See my blog from a few weeks ago about Industry City). There are a many landlord - and thankfully mine is one (My landlord has been incredibly supportive of what we do and truly fights for continued manufacturing in NYC) - that really want industry to succeed. There are bunches of reasons for this. The first is that many people, my landlord and others included, want a city that is diverse. They recognize that not everyone is a web designer or a stockbroker. We have thousands of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, machinists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and a range of other craftspeople and tradespeople who need a place to go to work, like being in the city, and most important, make the city far more interesting and full of ideas than it would be without them.

Let me give you an example:
Once upon a time, on West 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a tinsmith named Harry Segerman had a business two doors down from my grandparents’ luncheonette. Harry mostly made tinware, and later stainless fixtures, for the restaurant industry. In the years following WWII, Chelsea (nowadays an exceedingly trendy and expensive neighborhood) was a fairly rough part of town. A few blocks west were the Cunard Docks; the buildings were a mix of low rise housing and garment industry factories.
The area was inexpensive to live in, which attracted bohemian artists. Some of them wandered into Harry's shop and were enamored by the idea that you could take metal and bend it into interesting shapes. Harry, who was encouraging by nature and very interested in art, helped helped a lot of these artists make work in tin. Some artists took it a step further and developed expertise in sculpting with sheet metal because of his support.

On paper, this interaction is what cities do best. Art and crafts (and commerce) happen when a big city is a melting pot of ideas and skills. But it won't happen - and we will be the poorer - if New York City becomes solely a consumer of real things, instead of a designer, maker, and consumer.

Join the conversation
01/19/2018 Jim Galvin

You hit the nail on the head...the city and our country was built on making not servicing.
01/19/2018 Michael Trangaris
Unfortunately change is inevitable and represents the designs and desires of the current people. In New York those people are not creators of anything real; they create fantasies! They sell hype! My advice is to get out now since the place is bankrupt of what is great about our creative spirit! Yes, there are exceptions but the point is they are eventually going to choke you out of existence! Move out now while your spirit is strong and relocate to fertile soil where you can truly prosper or just join them in their valueless pursuit of things! The truth is no one in their right mind would live there anyway given the abundant and wonderful opportunities that exist.
01/19/2018 Duncan Ross
Come to the West coast - Buffalo NY. There are a lot of great spaces here, and this city is on the rise!
01/19/2018 Joe Newman
It could be worse. You might live in Southern California where the property costs, rent rates and regulations are staggering, even by NY standards. Mssr Trangaris is right: get out of Dodge now. Or, maybe move to Dodge.
Great post Joel. Your point is well taken and I don’t think anywhere is immune of this attitude. My shop is in an old industrial building that happens to be supportive of artists and makers but finding a landlord that wants a cabinet maker over an IT company is not easy. I agree that the real loss is of diversity and the potential spark it brings. I’m always surprised by how many people are taken aback that I make furniture because all they ever experience are stores and rarely if ever shops.
01/21/2018 Eric Anderson
Sadly, money Trumps artistry in the cityI I encourage the artists, the craftsman of the city, to consider moving to Maine where you'll fit in and be appreciated for all that you do. We love and respect artisans who design and build cool things! Maine has some of the best craftsman in the world. We are the leaders in wooden boat building: take a look at Brooklin Boat yard, Rockport Marine, Saber Yachts, BIW (ship builders in Bath). We have the "Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport", Thomas Moser Furniture, Ironworkers, textile artists, painters and the list goes on. If they want you out come here! We would love to have all of you!
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.