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  • The Fabric of New York City’s Garment DistrictArchitecture and Development in an Urban Cultural Landscape
  • Andrew S. Dolkart (bio)

A 1959 study of the economics of New York’s garment industry opens by asserting:

Put the American woman on a subway train going from Pennsylvania Station to Times Square, and it will take her just 65 seconds to pass completely under the district that gives her the reputation of being the best-dressed woman in the world.1


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Figure 1.

Map of the Garment District and vicinity in 1934, showing West 34th Street on the south, West 42nd Street on the north, Sixth Avenue to the east, and Ninth Avenue to the west. From G. W. Bromley & Company, Manhattan Land Book, 1934. Author’s collection; courtesy of the Sanborn Library, LLC.

This subway train sped beneath New York City’s Garment District, an area only six blocks long, between West 35th and West 41st Streets, and three irregular-sized blocks wide, from Broadway to Ninth Avenue, centering on and, thus, often simply dubbed “Seventh Avenue” (Figure 1). Its streets are lined with skyscraper industrial lofts and office and showroom buildings, almost all of which were erected in a ten-year period following World War I (Figure 2). By the end of the 1920s, most of the ready-to-wear clothing worn by American women was manufactured and marketed in these buildings, where two-thirds of the city’s garment workers were employed. The importance of the Garment District to the history and character of New York City (and also to the national industrial economy) far exceeds its limited geographic scale. Indeed, few areas are more integral to the twentieth-century [End Page 14] history and legend of the city. Extensive research has been conducted on the labor history of the garment industry in New York, focusing in particular on the rise of garment unions. Yet virtually nothing is known about the stage on which this rich labor history took place—the physical fabric of the garment district: its distinctive architecture, the architects and builders, and the economic and social forces that shaped its development. 2

The question arises, why has a district of large-scale buildings, so important to the economic and social history of the city, been so ignored by architectural historians? In part it is because New Yorkers take these buildings for granted. They are the location of so much labor history and, for many people with roots in New York City, the place where a parent, grandparent, or other relative once worked, but not one to take guests to admire the grandeur of the city’s buildings. The names of the builders of garment lofts are largely forgotten, and few people are familiar with the architects who were responsible for most of these buildings. Yet this fascinating building stock is made even more interesting by an examination of the history that created the garment district in this location.


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Figure 2.

Aerial view of the Garment District, circa 1925, looking southeast from Eighth Avenue and West 40th Street. From B. M. Selekman et al., The Clothing and Textile Industries (1925). Author’s collection. Originally published in Regional Survey of New York and Its Environs, vol. 1B, The Clothing and Textile Industries (New York: Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, 1925). Reprinted with permission from the Regional Plan Association.

The presence of the dense mass of industrial loft buildings on the blocks north of 34th Street and west of Broadway is sometimes ascribed to the passage of New York’s comprehensive zoning law in 1916. This story of the power of zoning simplifies a far more complex and interesting story of the powerful real estate and retail interests who campaigned to remove garment factories with their largely poor and immigrant workers from streets near prestigious department stores and other high-end retailers. Storeowners feared that garment workers would scare away their affluent, primarily female clientele. The success of this campaign to restrict the location of garment factories was codified in the new zoning resolution, and speculative developers working with a small...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 14-42
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-02
Open Access
No
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