Over the course of the last year, Open House New York invited visitors into more than 40 factories, distilleries, recycling plants, maker spaces and incubators, to help New Yorkers understand what, where and how things are being made in the city today. Together with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Making It Here was designed to get broader popular support for manufacturing in New York City. It was the first time OHNY dedicated a year’s worth of programming to a single issue, and recently they convened a panel of experts to weigh the results.

The industrial sector employs half a million New Yorkers, which is about as many as finance or media. Within the industrial sector, manufacturing is just a part, with 75,000 workers. But manufacturing offers higher wages for lower education workers, as well as entry level positions that can lead to long, stable careers. Traditionally, they have offered a ladder to income mobility that is not offered by the retail and hospitality jobs that have been a large part of the city’s job boom of late. Furthermore, these jobs are especially prevalent in the boroughs beyond Manhattan, with 300,000 of the half million industrial sector jobs in the outer boroughs. This is important for communities where a commute to the city is daunting.

Inside the Food Manufacturing Hub at Brooklyn Army Terminal

But labor is actually a big challenge for local manufacturing firms. Many firms say they would like to hire but are unable to find candidates with suitable skills. The availability of quality jobs to workers with little education is changing fast. Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development says about 40% of new jobs in the sector are going to require some training. Nina Rappaport of Vertical Urban Factory calls it a Catch-22: if we don’t have the companies, we keep losing and deskilling our labor. When companies do want to come here, there will be no people for them to employ.

Of course it is misleading to talk about manufacturing as a whole because there is so much diversity within the sector. Adam Friedman of Pratt notes that despite a “cultural revitalization” in manufacturing and the advent of the maker movement, there are still many traditional manufacturers out there. This distinction between the kind of manufacturing our grandparents knew and a newer, smaller-scale, more tinkery variety, is an important one. Some of the forces that have helped bring about a manufacturing renaissance are the same ones that are seen as threatening some older ways of doing business in the city.

Inside S&L Aerospace Metals in Queens

Tod Greenfield is the vice president of Martin Greenfield Clothiers, a brand his father helped found in Bushwick in the 1940s. Greenfield likens the kind of big manufacturing that was going on in the first half of the 20th century to a dinosaur, where today’s manufacturing is more like a mammal: smaller and more adaptable. It consists of small-batch baking and distilling, custom cabinetry and lighting fabrication, and assembly of clothing for film and TV wardrobes, which is what Greenfield’s firm has been doing more and more of. It is more diverse, more flexible, and has different needs. Old manufacturing is not coming back the way it was.

“The days of the widget maker are long gone,” says Brian Coleman, director of the Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center. “Our tenants are small, artisanal and custom, for an affluent market. There is a custom jewelry maker that sells to Barney’s. There are custom architectural woodworkers.” The employees of this new wave of firms are by and large younger and more educated than their forebears, Coleman says, and they’re using technology to a much greater extent.

But there is a tension arising “between the high-tech stuff and the old gritty stuff,” cautions Barika Williams, policy director of the Association for Housing and Neighborhood Development. The older, less educated workers are being squeezed out of some of these neighborhoods, where the newer, more sophisticated manufacturers can afford to stay.

Indeed, real estate in New York isn’t cheap. According to an Economic Development Corporation survey, 25% of industrial firms are looking to expand by 10,000 square feet or more in the next five years. Whether they will be able to afford to do so is a big question, as the amount of space that’s available to them has come under pressure. Residential conversions—both legal and illegal—have taken out old warehouse stock in hip neighborhoods along the L train and in Long Island City. Hotels are springing up in manufacturing districts thanks to a loophole in the zoning code. And offices are now permitted to be built in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront district after a 2005 rezoning. 

Nina Rappaport of Vertical Urban Factory sees the possibilities for, well, just that. Because of the trend of smaller, nimbler firms, manufacturing has become less noxious and intrusive, and can be located virtually anywhere: in apartments, sprinkled through office buildings, and even in dedicated towers of small workshops. So many desirable parts of Long Island City and Bushwick are covered with one-story sheds, where more industrial density would be workable, even welcome.

But new residents have no “appreciation for the nuisance” of manufacturing, warns Mr. Coleman of GMDC. People who used to live in those neighborhoods also worked there, so tractor trailers making deliveries in the middle of the night weren’t so bad because it meant the factory was still open and your cousin who works there still has a job. Housing was cheap near industrial districts because they were undesirable, and on top of affordability, commutes were quick. The void left by heavy manufacturing has stoked a housing market that prizes lofty old factory buildings.

But not all dirty industry has fled overseas. School bus lots, taxi repair shops, and elevator repair people need to be close to their markets. Cement plants need to be close to construction sites. Construction and transportation are a huge part of a healthy New York economy. And these businesses can only exist in manufacturing districts. As Mr. Greenfield notes, it’s not just about jobs, the city simply “wouldn’t function without a minimum amount of industrial space.”

Despite a resurgence, manufacturing remains a sliver of its former heft, in part because this new guard of “makers” just doesn’t employ nearly as many as the old assembly line work. But a large aim of Making it Here was to prove that manufacturing remains important to the economy and is worth nurturing. Mr. Coleman of GMDC attests that he failed to convince the city to rethink its Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning after showing some city councilmen around local shops and studios. They didn’t see any heavy machinery or rows of workers.

Noble Experiment distillery in Williamsburg

Preserving existing manufacturing districts is one way to keep some of these businesses viable. But true mixed-use districts, like the kind described by Ms. Rappaport, are another possibility. San Francisco has even induced developers to build more manufacturing space by offering to allow them to build denser (more profitable) office space. Manufacturing is a priority in San Francisco, Mr. Friedman says, and that city as well as Chicago have taken a leadership role in public education about the need for space that New York has not.

Not only we need more creative and prescriptive zoning approaches, Ms. Williams claims, but New York City government suffers from a lack of enforcement. For example, Manhattan’s Garment District boasts a mess of illegal conversions. She also suggests a set of financing tools for industrial construction so owners who want to build higher for manufacturing can. Another suggestion from the city by the bay is an open factory day, akin to Bushwick Open Studios, where manufacturers open their doors to the public.

The speakers showed that New York City has a long way to go to make the city truly welcoming to manufacturing firms. But the program also uncovered a swath of businesses that chose to locate here for one reason or another. With labor costs in the developing world on the rise and a discerning consumer increasingly scrutinizing the ‘Made in’ label, New York will always have one thing going for it: it’s one of the world’s biggest, wealthiest markets for stuff.