The New York City Garment District

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When people think of the New York City Garment District, the first things that come to mind are high-end fashion designers like Michael Kors and Calvin Klein and the famous New York Fashion Week. As a New York Times reporter Jean Appleton put it, New York City is the “bustling epicenter of America’s clothing design and the manufacturing industry.”1 However, fashion is only part of the story. Few people actually know how garment production in New York City came about. Before the design and construction of huge lofts and towering skyscrapers, garment production took place inside garment shops and factories inside tenements. The garment industry has changed significantly in the past two centuries and continues to change today.
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At the end of the nineteenth century came the growth of contractors and sweatshops. During this time, the large influx of European Jewish immigrants dominated the garment industry and Irish and German immigrants were in the upper ranks of the trade, running sewing factories inside of big manufacturing firms.6 Many of the European Jewish immigrants found work from German Jewish immigrants, inside the apartments of other immigrants. Clothing manufacturers would hand out the task of assembling clothing to contractors, who would hire workers to actually produce the clothing.7 This system of passing work down became known as “sweating” and created the sweatshop known today.
Clothing production did not take place solely in factories until 1892. At that time, the New York State legislature passed a law banning clothing production in tenements.8 This law gave birth to industrial lofts (see B on map). These early lofts were mostly brick buildings. They had to meet fire codes. The New York legislature implemented many fire codes after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire in 1911. The requirements included having three emergency stairwells and fire escapes. If the building was less than 150 feet tall, it could have wooden floors and windows.9 Some clothing manufacturing occurred in old department stores and factories converted from commercial buildings. However, the building of several new factories also took place, especially near Broadway, south of 14th

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