The Garment Center in New York was once one of the few districts in the city where most anyone who was willing to work hard could find a job. Immigrants, people with little or no education, those with no work history or skills, and some with criminal records flocked there to get a job. All that was required for a steady paycheck was the ability to deal with mind-numbing labor. The women—and some men—needed quick hands to work the sewing and pressing machines, and the younger men had to have strong backs to push the carts and deliver the clothes to other stores and trucks.
It might not have been much, but those menial jobs from the rag trade fueled the economic engines of the poorer neighborhoods throughout the city. No one but the owners made a fortune, but many a lawyer and doctor was put through school because of the hard work of their parents toiling down in the Garment Center.
Jews, Italians and Irish manned the Garment Center in the early days. African-Americans, Jamaicans and Latinos joined later. The heyday for the center was in the 1920s. To bolster this booming industry, special lofts were built to provide workspace for the tailors, pressers, sewers and deliverymen who would bang around New York with garment carts—and God help all who got in their way. At its peak, 500,000 people were employed in clothing manufacture in the area which—loosely defined—went from 25th and 40th Sts. between 5th and 9th Aves. By 1931, New York’s garment center boasted the largest district of apparel manufacture in America.
The boom continued into the 1970s. I recently talked with Pat Fenton, a retired court clerk and writer, who worked down in the Garment Center in the 1960s.
"I was an 18-year-old kid—a dropout and hanging out with a South Brooklyn gang called The Jokers. I liked working outside, and that’s how I wound up pushing box trucks down 7th Ave. At work, I would daydream about the weekend of drinking, juke boxes and slow dancing with women.
"At the end of the day, you would see rough-ass-looking black guys from Bed Stuy eating roasted sweet potatoes out of their hands from a street vendor on 7th Ave. Standing right next to them would be tough Irish and Italian kids knocking off from work. We all had a respect for each other for the hard work we did. There was no time clock in the Garment Center. You started around eight, and whatever you had to deliver that day, you delivered. If it took you 12 hours—and sometimes it did—you weren’t paid any extra money. There was no such word as ‘overtime’ down there.
"We all looked at it as a job we were passing through. Something to do until a better job came along. The Garment Center was the stopping-off place for the lost and tough Irish, Italian and black street kids. And I’ll tell you, it was the most honest, hardest work I ever did, and I’m proud I was able to do it."
By the 1980s, the industry was in decline, but New York saw fit to honor its past. In 1984, on 7th Ave. and 39th St., a bronze statue was erected to honor the workers of the Garment Center. "The Garment Worker" by Judith Wheeler is a bronze sculpture of an old Jewish man working a sewing machine. His gnarled hands operate the apparatus, but his unsmiling face tells the true story of the brutality of the work.
The Garment Center now employs 100,000 workers, and every year that goes down. New York 2003 could use a new Garment Center—a place where young, unskilled people could find work. The Dec. 2002 unemployment figures tell us that there are at least 200,000 men between the ages of 16-24 lounging around New York City street corners. Their unemployment rate is listed at 12% (8% for the rest of the population), but spend anytime in the Bronx and those numbers seem low-ball. It feels more like 25%.
But it’s a little late in the day for that. The Garment Center has now been renamed The Fashion District, and young ruffians need not apply. The buildings in the Garment Center are now being turned into high-end residential lofts. The rag trade has moved—Chinatown, small towns in New Jersey and Queens have picked up the business. Now, the old storefront sweatshops have morphed into retail/wholesale clothing stores, and the sight of a garment worker pushing a cart—once ubiquitous—is rare. I spent a few hours walking the district and saw four carts being pushed about. The strong backs are working elsewhere.
It has been said that every 25 years, New York changes. Nowhere is that more true than in the Garment Center. In the late 70s, I worked as the parking valet at Al Cooper’s Restaurant. The steakhouse was on 36th St. between Broadway and 7th; it was a dirty block dedicated to the rag trade. Cooper was a short, brutal man who knew how to play to the bosses of all the clothing firms. The place was the Ben Benson’s of its time. Al Cooper’s Steakhouse at 128 W. 36th St. is now Melange, with a sign that reads, "Closing Out Inventory $5, $30."
I walked down the new and improved W. 36th St., where the new stores are much cleaner and seemingly more user-friendly than the old shops. But go into one of these so-called stores and buyer beware. None of the clothing has a price tag, and if you ask too many questions, you’ll be told that it’s all wholesale and that you have no business there. From what I could observe, Latinos hold the lower-level jobs and the Russians seem to be running the show.
When I worked the door at Al Cooper’s, I became friendly with a garment worker who went by the name of Stevie the Mule. His fellow workers called him the mule because he could push three racks of clothes and never take a step back. Stevie was a young kid like myself. We lived in the same neighborhood and both had a taste for reefer. After work we would hang out on W. 36th St. and light up and talk about how fucked up New York was. This was the late 70s.
Once in a while, Steve would invite me home to eat dinner with his "baby’s mother" and daughter. We’d hang out on the fire escape watching the Bronx night while Mrs. Mule cooked up some rice and beans. Here was a young man, sans high school diploma and without work history, who was able to support a small family because he had a strong back and the willingness to use it. I imagine 20-year-old Stevie would be flipping burgers or dealing pot today. In 2003, we don’t offer New York City’s youth many opportunities, yet we wonder why they join the Bloods or end up in jail.
A cold wind hit me as I walked up 36th St., and I wondered whatever happened to Stevie the Mule. As I turned on Broadway, I saw a middle-aged black man pushing a cart. He had a long face and the same sad eyes that Stevie the Mule had. I watched him and I swore that if someone did a computer age-generated portrait of Stevie, this was how he would look twenty years later. I followed the man as he pushed an empty rack, and as I got closer I said, "Stevie?"
Not even a flinch. He kept walking.
In a louder voice, I tried again. "Stevie… Stevie the Mule…?"
He kept walking, but I thought I’d seen him flinch at the second part of the greeting. I decided to walk away. Maybe it was him. Maybe he never got out. And maybe he didn’t want anyone to know.