Who Works in the Garment District?

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 The Garment District 

The Garment District spans the west side of Midtown Manhattan from Ninth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, from 34th Street to 40th Street. It is less than one square mile in area—but is key to the manufacturing history of New York City. The first purpose of the city’s garment industry was the production of clothing for slaves on Southern plantations: it was more convenient for plantation owners to purchase cheap clothing in New York than to have their slaves make their own clothes. During the Civil War, there was also a constant demand for soldiers’ uniforms, which kept the industry thriving.

In the 19th century, the rise in demand for ready-to-wear fashions propelled the Garment District into a fashion production hub—cementing New York’s status as a global fashion capital. In the economic revival of the 1980s, dozens of high-end designers set up headquarters in New York’s Garment District, to take advantage of the city’s media and finance connections.  At the same time, the number of Asian and Hispanic immigrants was increasing. The increase in demand for high-end clothing and the availability of workers made New York city’s garment industry the second largest apparel producer in the U.S., after Los Angeles.

Like New York itself, the garment industry, and with it the Garment District, is constantly changing. Facets of the garment industry are moving out of Manhattan’s Garment District to Brooklyn or Queens, or out of the country altogether. Once the center of an industry that employed hundreds of thousands of workers and produced 78 percent of the clothing in the U.S., the Garment Industry Development Corporation estimates that now only 5 percent of clothing sold nationally is made in the U.S.—most of which is made in New York City and Los Angeles.  Increased rents, zoning laws, and outsourcing to China, India and Latin America have taken their toll, but campaigns exist to keep Manhattan’s garment center relevant and to preserve its legacy and place in the world.

Living and working

Naturally, the flux of the industry is reflected in the people who work in the garment industry and the Garment District. Many of them are recent immigrants who can’t afford to live in Manhattan, and so they settle in communities in the outer boroughs. An industry of immigrants in the city of immigrants, the Garment District has been a means for many immigrant workers to carve out a living for themselves.  For decades, the Garment District was powered by cheap, skilled labor from Italians and Eastern European Jews, many of whom had been tailors in their home countries. Russian, German and Central European immigrants arrived in the mid-19th century, when manufacturing methods were becoming more sophisticated, and in the early 20th century, Eastern Europeans and Russians dominated he garment industry.  A large wave of Italian immigration after World War II saw them dominate the Garment District. Many Italians were skilled button makers and patternmakers–but their presence in the garment district has dwindled.

In the 1990s, the city still had a big garment industry—although it was smaller than in decades past. Today, the total number of garment industry workers in Manhattan is 19,216.  Gender is a strong element in the make-up of garment industry workers: 71 percent of garment workers in Manhattan are women.  Also, in Manhattan, Caucasians comprise close to half the workers in the garment industry. For the city as a whole, 66 percent of garment industry workers are foreign-born and that percentage is higher in Queens and Brooklyn.

The Midtown Gazette’s chart shows the current ten largest garment industry worker ethnicities—these numbers are by analysis of the 2005-09 American Community Survey combined file by the CUNY Data Service, Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Currently the five largest groups are Chinese, Dominican, Korean, Indian, and Italian.

The map also shows where in the New York City metropolitan area these groups live. Because of the high rents, relatively few workers who work in Midtown actually live in Manhattan. Alongside each arrow is the total population of that ethnic group living in the labeled neighborhood. A plus sign or minus sign next to the numbers on the map indicates if this group’s numbers in the neighborhood have increased or decreased; an example of the kind of flux neighborhoods experience.

The great majority of garment workers today are Chinese, at 46 percent. Joe Pereira, director of the Data Service at CUNY’s Urban Research Center, says that a large percentage of Chinese garment workers are women, who came in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time that coincided with affordable manufacturing space. Before then, Chinese immigrant men in New York had outnumbered women by a factor of six to one. In her study, ‘Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry’, Margaret Cho Chin writes that at the peak of the Chinese garment industry in the 1980s, there were 20,000 garment industry workers and over 500 Chinese-owned sewing shops. The largest concentration of Chinese residents lives in Flushing and Whitestone, Queens.

Chin also found that in the 1980s, Korean-owned garment shops numbered 400. Koreans came to America following the signing of the Korean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1882, which allowed them to move freely, but the largest waves were in the 1950s and 1960s, and then from 1969-1987. There is a small ‘Koreatown’ in Manhattan close to the Garment District, but Koreans have a far larger presence in Queens, in Flushing and Whitestone.

There has been a Dominican presence in New York City since the 1930s. The garment industry employs the greatest number of Dominican women in the New York area. Dominicans have spread out over New York City to parts of the Bronx and outer boroughs, but still have dominant areas in the north of Manhattan, in Washington Heights and Inwood.

According to the American Community Survey, New York has the largest proportion of South Asians in the U.S.—and they are one of the newest and also the fastest growing immigrant groups. In the garment industry, they are employed in fabric shops and jewelry making. India has a large garment and textile industries so their skills are often transferrable. South Asians and Indians have a large presence in various areas of Queens, where they make up 2.8 percent of the population.

In recent decades Hispanic workers, especially women, replaced the white Garment District workers when they retired–whose sons and daughters were not interested in following them into the business. According to Margaret Cho Chin, in 1940 there were only 1,900 foreign-born Hispanic workers in the garment industry. This number was 20,700 in 1980. The pattern changed in the 1990s, when Asian women started to replace the Hispanic workers.

The majority of Ecuadorian immigrants are in New York City—but Mexican and Ecuadorian immigration to New York is still relatively low. From a slow trickle of economic migrants in the 1960s and 1970s, a larger wave of Ecuadorian immigrants started arriving in the 1990s due to high inflation and a sharp loss in petroleum revenue. Census figures show a 99 percent increase in Ecuadorian immigration between 1980 and 2000. Most of these find work in the restaurant or the garment industry. Recent immigrants from Mexico and Ecuador are attracted to the garment district, where there is already a presence of workers from their home country, or even region—because it is easier to find jobs in industries where there are already people from their country at work.