Enlarge Image
Enlarge Image
Even textile manufacturing, a quintessential New York City industry, followed that trend. In 1950, half to two-thirds of all women's clothing in the United States came from the cramped factories and sweatshops of Manhattan, originally on the Lower East Side and often in the tenements themselves. As many of the Jewish workers moved to Brownsville in Brooklyn, so did some of the garment factories. The more significant development, though, was that the larger garment district moved westward and uptown. One of the more important stories in New York City history is how the garment district came to be located west of Seventh Avenue and south of 42d Street.

The answer has to do with zoning. There are two reasons why New York City leads the nation in zoning. One has to do with the Equitable Life Assurance building, which was at Broad Street just north of the New York Stock Exchange. It burned down in 1913 and was rebuilt a year or two later, now even bigger than before. The building still stands today, at the corner of Broad Street and Pine. It's about fifty stories tall, and at the time it was built people were horrified by it. It would block the sunlight from the streets around it, they said, except for five minutes around noon, and if all the buildings in the city were this tall we'd be sickly and unhealthy for the lack of sunlight. One result of the Equitable building, then, was the creation of zoning laws that mandated that tall buildings have a wedding-cake shape that would enable sunlight to reach the street. A building was no longer allowed to be designed in the shape of a tall rectangle that covered all of the lot on which its base was built.

The other reason for the move of the garment district north and west was a clash between the aspirations of shop owners on Fifth Avenue and the demographics of those who worked in manufacturing. The garment district in New York gradually moved north, mainly along Fifth and Sixth Avenues, from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The people who worked in the garment district—many of them men who made women's clothing and belonged to the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union—would often spend their lunch hours outside, getting some fresh air. They would take their sandwiches in paper bags and walk up and down Fifth Avenue, looking in the windows of the most expensive shops in the United States. The store owners felt that these shoddily dressed immigrant workers were clogging the streets around their stores and tarnishing their high-class ambiance.

The store owners couldn't ban them from walking on the sidewalk, but they could push for a ban on even light manufacturing in any building east of Seventh Avenue. Through zoning laws, not only the size and shape of the building could be regulated but also the use to which the building could be put. In 1916, the store owners, under the aegis of the Fifth Avenue Association, succeeded in passing new zoning laws that made it illegal to sew buttons onto dresses or trousers in a building on Fifth Avenue. In effect, the new zoning law relegated the garment district to Seventh Avenue and west of that, so that the distance between it and Fifth Avenue might be about half a mile. The objective was to discourage workers from walking on Fifth Avenue, and to some degree it was met. This was the nation's first comprehensive zoning ordinance, adopted in part because of the Equitable building on Wall Street and in part because of garment workers walking to Fifth Avenue to eat lunch out of paper bags.

In 1990, only one-third of women's clothing made in the United States was made in New York City, and early in the twenty-first century that figure is down to about one-fifth. New York City is still the country's fashion capital, though. A lot of high-end women's clothes are made here, because fashions turn over fast, and the geographical concentration of buyers and manufacturers enables the supply to keep pace with the demand. The same general rule applies as well to other industries—toys, for example—in New York City.

Political cartoon, Tweed ring
The Equitable Life Assurance Building (1920).
Columbia University Libraries