I doubt that many Thomas Piketty fans know what a 5 Axis CNC router is, but they probably should. Strictly speaking, the router is a robot, though if you’re expecting R2D2, you’ll be disappointed. This robot is more like an extra-wide, open-sided MRI machine. The “patient”—usually a slab of plastic, metal, or wood—lies on the bed, where it is “operated” on by a giant drill-like machine suspended on a track above. Following computerized instructions (CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control), the drill grabs the needed “bit” as it moves along the track to cut, trim, and shape the slab/patient into a seat, or a domed architectural detail, or whatever it is that its human master is trying to make. The less expensive 3 Axis router has a drill that can move left to right, right to left, and up and down, but the 5 Axis can also go all the way around and create swirly, curving forms. If created solely by human hands, these forms would be so time-consuming as to consign them to the category of one-of-a-kind sculptures.
I saw the 5 Axis router in action at SITU, a fabrication company housed in a massive garage of a space in the 300-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard, on an East River inlet between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Train tracks attesting to SITU’s former identity as a locomotive repair shop are still visible. A mere 25 years ago, the Yard stood as a perfect symbol of the ruins of the American working class, its 40 or so structures strewn like industrial carcasses from a Mad Max movie. The buildings—used then by a smattering of small manufacturing firms and as warehouses—endured regular blackouts, stuck elevators, and roads so cratered that truckers dubbed the area “Dodge City.” Occasional wild dogs and dead bodies—suspected mob hits—completed a scene that was more film noir than economic hub.
Enter through one of the five gates of the Yard today, though, and you’ll find scores of young companies like SITU humming with deliveries, projects, plans, and digital machinery. The Yard is now home to 330 small to medium-size manufacturing firms employing 7,000 workers—double the total of 15 years ago. Many of the companies are traditional or “analog” in their approach, but firms emerging out of the local north Brooklyn design, crafts, and tech scene—or the “maker movement,” as it’s sometimes known—come to the Yard every day looking for vacancies that don’t exist. Local officials have their fingers crossed that the Yard’s rise from its smokestack ashes will reverse decades of manufacturing decline and make a real impact on the persistent joblessness that troubles nearby, mostly minority, parts of Brooklyn. But in part for reasons related to that 5 Axis router—as well as to New York’s costly regulatory climate—they should be careful not to hope for too much.
A recovery of the manufacturing sector, were it to take place, couldn’t find a more fitting spot than the historically resonant Brooklyn Navy Yard. Purchased by President John Adams in 1801, it was one of the United States’ first military bases at a time when international stature was defined largely by naval power. During the Civil War, the Yard’s laboring men launched the USS Monitor, famous as the first ironclad warship, and later the Maine, the 1898 sinking of which led to the Spanish-American War. At its World War II peak, the Yard was Brooklyn’s largest employer, sustaining 70,000 electricians, mechanics, welders, and sheet-metal workers and, by extension, their nearby neighborhoods.
In September 1945, the Japanese surrendered in a ceremony on the USS Missouri, launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard just a year earlier. The event turned out to be symbolic, for as the war ended, so did the jobs of thousands of Brooklyn workers. Given the Yard’s history and its centrality to the borough’s economy, it took some time for the federal government to acknowledge the inevitable. But finally, in 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced the Yard’s closure.
The well-known correlates of urban deindustrialization—white working-class flight to the suburbs, rising minority unemployment and welfare dependency, budget crises—all appeared in Brooklyn. The Ingersoll, Walt Whitman, and Farragut public-housing projects, built by the city in the 1940s and 1950s to house Yard workers, filled up with unemployed residents, especially newly arrived poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, who now had few local job prospects. Retailers and restaurants shuttered in adjacent neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, and small contractors looked elsewhere for business. Things didn’t improve when the Yard reopened in 1971, as an industrial park under city management. While a few tenants had stuck through the bad times—Cumberland, producer of the artificial sweetener Sweet’n Low, remains the granddaddy of Navy Yard companies, with a history going back to World War II—the Yard’s condition mirrored that of its fraying home borough. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s and even into the early 1990s, the area was primarily known to car owners as the site of the city tow pound.
So what led to the old shipyard’s resurrection? The first sign of hope came in the mid-1990s, when the Giuliani administration, pondering ways to create jobs, spent $15 million to update the Yard’s crumbling infrastructure, some of it of Civil War vintage. The administration also encouraged a new approach by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the nonprofit that had acted as the Yard’s leasing agent and landlord for more than a decade. Instead of focusing, as it had been doing, on large manufacturers and warehouse distributors to occupy spaces, the BNYDC now sought small, light industrial firms and niche manufacturers in need of workers. By 1998, the BNYDC had nearly fully leased the 4 million square feet of its available space to 200 businesses, filling 3,000 jobs—a respectable start, though not much to celebrate, compared with the glory days.
A bigger change was in the works, however. Shortly after taking the reins at the BNYDC in 1996, Marc Rosenbaum, a former white-shoe lawyer, took a trip to Los Angeles and was seized by an idea: the Yard had plenty of space and needed some sex appeal—why not build a movie studio there? “There was a lot of skepticism,” Rosenbaum admits. “People said that soundstages in LA were sitting vacant, that digital advances threatened to make soundstages obsolete. And because soundstages don’t make that much, they wondered why anyone would want to lend money for such a project.” Skeptics also wondered why anyone, least of all Hollywood machers, would be interested in commuting to work in gritty north Brooklyn. Rosenbaum proved them wrong when Robert De Niro and Miramax studios began negotiating for the acreage. That deal fell through, but it wasn’t long before the city signed a 69-year lease with a local family real-estate firm, Steiner NYC, to open Steiner Studios.
Few would dispute that the results have been, in Rosenbaum’s words, a “monumental success.” Employees—camera grips, sound engineers, set decorators, seamstresses, directors, producers, and actors—drive daily through the studio’s dramatic entranceway, flanked by two World War II radio towers, lit and painted bright blue like the poles of a giant circus tent. With its ten soundstages, Steiner is the largest television and movie studio on the East Coast, the birthplace of films such as The Producers, Spider Man 3, Sex and the City 2, and television series such as Boardwalk Empire, as well as commercials and music videos. “People with talent want to be in New York,” observes Rosenbaum. “In fact, they’d rather shoot here than in California. Plus we have a tremendous stock of actors. The city had been losing business because of the lack of facilities.”
Equally if not more important to the Yard’s upward mobility was a new population of tech-savvy college grads settling in nearby Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Fort Greene. Tom Maiorano, the Yard’s veteran leasing agent, says that he noticed a change in the kinds of tenants seeking space in the late 1990s. The older firms still present, owned by immigrants or the sons of immigrants, represented “a generation looking for security,” he says. “They did what they had to do: provide for their wives and kids, who eventually became doctors, lawyers, teachers”—and now they were nearing retirement age. In the late 1990s, the new tenants were “young, just starting their businesses,” Maiorano continues. They tended to be artisanal woodworkers, metalworkers, and other representatives of an emerging design-inspired economy.
The manufacturing industry—along with its owners, workers, products, and processes—was undergoing a dramatic change that would bring it into alliance with the designers. Technology such as routers, computer-assisted design (CAD) programs, and 3-D printers were making it possible to create not just apps and websites but also physical objects quickly on a small scale, in what is sometimes called “mass customization.” Unlike mass production, mass customization blurs the lines between design and production. Young “creatives”—designers, artists, and engineers—could dream up an idea, cobble together a relatively small amount of capital, buy a router, and open a small fabrication shop. Mass customization is good news for cities. “Because manufacturing today takes much less space, it can become part of the city again,” explains Nina Rappaport, architectural historian and author of The Vertical Urban Factory. “You don’t need to keep a large inventory or warehouses, and that can keep you close to clients.” (It also keeps you within biking distance of employees’ lofts and apartments, an important plus for millennial workers.) A study by the Pratt Institute found that 88 percent of Navy Yard tenants sell goods inside New York City; those transactions make up an average 71 percent of these tenants’ total sales.
And that brings us back to SITU, a perfect example of the new manufacturing. Founded by four Cooper Union architecture graduates, SITU is more like a combination crafts shop, conceptual art studio, and tech company than factory or architecture firm. “Cooper Union gave us a lot of time in the shop; we got used to drawing and making things,” says Brad Samuels, one of the company’s founders. “It helped us to erase the distinction between designing and making. We bought our first router in 2004.” At first, the company did commissions for older artists and architects who didn’t have their “maker” know-how. They went on to produce their own designs: a granite memorial for the victims of American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in 2001 near Far Rockaway; exhibit-display systems for stores and events; mannequins for Marc Jacobs; and a “design lab” in the 11,000-square-foot Grand Hall at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. Recently, the company got its highest-profile job yet: a redesign and reconceptualization of the Brooklyn Museum’s entrance pavilion.
The Yard’s newer tenants also include Ice Stone, a company that makes countertops of recycled glass; Rockpaperrobot, a “kinetic” furniture and lighting company run by an MIT robotics grad; and Ferrara Design, which produces metal railings and signage. Founded by a Pratt graduate priced out of Williamsburg, Ferrara made the whimsical schooner-shaped bike racks used throughout the Navy Yard. Other Pratt grads leasing space have opened OgoSport, a manufacturer of “play products,” and December Box, a producer of custom furniture, lighting, and display. In addition to numerous individual fine artists, furniture-restoration studios, jewelers, and muralists, the Yard now houses Kings County Distillery (“New York City’s oldest operating distillery . . . founded in 2010,” the company’s website puckishly declares) and Brooklyn Grange, the largest rooftop farm company in the United States. Andrew Kimball, the highly lauded CEO of the BNYDC between 2005 and 2013, summed up the Yard’s reenergized atmosphere: “Making things is cool again.”
If the new manufacturing was limited to providing a customized entrance table for the new Park Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan (SITU) or baby kale for Brooklyn locavores (Brooklyn Grange), it would be good only for high-end consumers and perhaps as inspiration for an episode of Portlandia. But plenty of companies at the Navy Yard use technology for innovations with more crucial uses, including several that recall the site’s military origins. Honeybee Robotics has developed robots for NASA, hospitals, and mining companies. Atair Aerospace makes advanced self-guiding parachutes, while Pliant Energy Systems has received a grant from the U.S. Navy to develop an underwater device that generates power from moving water for eventual use with drone submarines. Another military-contract business, Crye Precision, may be one of the Yard’s biggest success stories. Crye designs and manufactures advanced protective military clothing, including helmets with cameras for the Army Special Forces, removable chemical-weapon protection, communications devices, and “MultiCam,” a newly designed all-terrain camouflage used by the U.S. in Afghanistan. Caleb Crye, sometimes called “the Steve Jobs of tactical gear,” and his partner moved to a 1,000-square-foot space in the Navy Yard in 2002. As their company grew, it scattered its operations to different buildings, but they plan to consolidate into an 85,000-square-foot space at the site’s Green Manufacturing Center, the renovation of which is scheduled for completion later this year.
The Navy Yard’s success has come as a surprise to just about everyone. During his first term, Mayor Michael Bloomberg figured that New York was becoming a postindustrial city, and set about updating zoning rules to create more residential and commercial space, including in Brooklyn. The move seemed to make sense at the time. Gotham’s hundreds of vacant factories and the continuing exodus of manufacturing firms from its borders testified to the march of deindustrialization. Jonathan Bowles, of the Center for an Urban Future, found that between 1997 and 2010, New York hemorrhaged at least 5,000 manufacturing jobs a year.
The trend seemed unstoppable, but after 2010, with rising labor costs overseas and the acceleration of mass customization, the decline halted in New York City as a whole and actually reversed itself in Brooklyn. The Navy Yard’s big problem today is a shortage of usable space. Several large renovations in the works, including that of the Green Manufacturing Center, will help. In November, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged $140 million to another addition, “Building 77,” a million-square-foot concrete hulk that will house Shiel Medical Laboratory, employer to 600 people at the Navy Yard, along with other larger firms. Steiner Studios will expand into a 50-acre annex, where nineteenth-century buildings— including a magnificent antebellum Greek Revival hospital—will be modernized to house media offices. The annex will feature the first underwater stage in the country and a graduate school of cinema, under the auspices of Brooklyn College.
No one should confuse all this with a large-scale New York manufacturing revival—at least, not anything to compare with what less expensive states like Texas, Ohio, and others with friendlier regulatory regimes have enjoyed, especially during the last five years, when the country has added 660,000 manufacturing jobs. New York companies continue to struggle under the weight of high taxes and state and local regulations that drive up the cost of making things in Gotham. Any broader New York manufacturing revival would require an overhaul of tax and regulatory policy.
Still, the Navy Yard’s rebirth is good news for the city. “We are probably at an all-time low in vacancy rates in habitable industrial space,” says Bowles. “It’s the tightest industrial market in years or decades.” No wonder public and private developers are betting on other fallow industrial areas of Brooklyn. Several miles away from the Navy Yard, overlooking the harbor in Sunset Park—and, like the Navy Yard, easily accessible to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—stand the 4-million-square-foot Brooklyn Army Terminal, the 16-building, 6-million-square-foot Industry City, and Liberty View Plaza. All are filling up with small manufacturers and makers. In Williamsburg, the former Pfizer pharmaceutical factory is being revamped into a haven for food start-ups. The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has expanded into a former auto-parts warehouse in Crown Heights. Incubators, shared work spaces, and maker-friendly web businesses have spread throughout north Brooklyn. “Some of these five- and ten-person companies today have the potential to grow to 20 or 30 or even 50 and 100,” says Bowles—if they can find the right space and the right workers.
During its manufacturing heyday, Brooklyn employed generation after generation of poor immigrants and brought them to the threshold of the middle class. At least on a large scale, that scenario seems unlikely today. For one thing, the new manufacturing needs far fewer workers; that 5 Axis CNC router and other productive technologies consign many low-skilled jobs to history. In 1999, Scott Jordan, whose eponymous firm has been making Shaker-style wood furniture in a former cannon factory at the Yard since 1988, brought a 3 Axis router that cuts one of his trademark chairs in 20 minutes. Technology and a draggy economy have reduced his staff from 12 to six.
And many of today’s manufacturing jobs require more advanced skills than the smokestack-company grunt work of the past. “There are no more silos between physical labor and white-collar work,” the National Journal wrote in a 2012 profile of Jergens, a Cleveland manufacturer of clamps and fasteners. “Everyone, from the factory floor to the sales office, is expected to talk the same language.” SITU partner Brad Samuels notes that each project that his company takes on uses different materials and different processes; he needs employees who can adapt. Recently graduated artists and architects looking for experience in advanced manufacturing often take those lower-level jobs. The day I visited SITU, I saw about 20 workers—almost all young white guys who could have come straight out of Williamsburg central casting.
This doesn’t mean that no opportunities exist for low-skilled Brooklynites. Seamstresses, most of whom commute from Sunset Park’s Chinatown, hand-sew Crye Precision’s MultiCam vests, for instance. (See “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers,” Spring 2014.) The Yard’s employment center is committed to hiring local residents. The center places about 200 people a year, roughly a quarter of them minorities from New York City Housing Authority projects. Administrators expect to double the Yard’s workforce over the next five years, to 14,000. Though it’s unclear what percentage of those jobs will be unskilled, David Ehrenberg, the BNYDC’s newest CEO, is upbeat: “Modern manufacturing . . . requires more and more skills, but it still has a wider skill band than in other sectors. And these are skills that lend themselves to on-the-job training. People progress from lower down watching and learning, graduating to laser cutter.” The organization partners with local schools like City Tech and offers paid internships for high school and college students.
Yet the Navy Yard’s promise for the hardest-to-employ Brooklynites, who lack even the most rudimentary habits of good work, remains uncertain. Furniture maker Jordan has seen all sides. “Look, I don’t want to generalize,” he says. “I’ve seen Pratt grads smoking crack in the bathroom. But you need skills to hold a job that are not learned in a week or a month or a year, like the skill of getting to work on time every day.” Jordan’s deliveryman grew up poor in the area and has been with him for nearly three decades; Jordan finds his knowledge and expertise indispensable. But other local employees make him wary. “Hiring from the projects requires a lot more sifting,” he continues. “Right now, I’ve got a guy working for me who comes in late all the time. He knows how to work. I like him. When I warn him, he just shrugs his shoulders, and says ‘I’ll try better tomorrow.’ I’m not doing social work. I’m running a business.” These days, to Brooklyn’s, and New York’s, benefit, he’s not alone.