Almost indistinguishable from its Midtown surroundings, the Garment District is a borderless nook struggling to hold on to its floundering identity. Sometimes referred to as the Fashion District, the tiny neighborhood’s bounds are loosely considered to be between Fifth and Ninth Avenue, and 34th to 42nd Street. It’s hard to imagine, especially when one considers the current economic state of this district, that it was once the epicenter of fashion design and textile manufacturing. Now, the Garment District carries the name of waning industry, and its residents struggle to inject life back into it.
In 2011, Dewi Cooke and Tahiat-e-Mahboob created the documentary “By a Thread” as a digital media Master’s project for Columbia University. It’s an in depth look at the Garment District’s history, its downfall, and the plight of those still working in the industry who operate within the Garment District. Numerous campaigns and organizations have been formed to help preserve the declining fashion industry, and proposals have been made suggesting anything from introducing new regulations and tax breaks for relevant companies and manufacturers to expanding the district’s borders. The general message conveyed is this: the Garment District is in trouble and it needs saving.
While it is undoubtedly true that the Garment District is a shell of its former self, the idea that this small Midtown neighborhood should continue to thrive as it once did may just be entirely fanciful. The garment industry itself has changed, and what’s left of the Garment District is likely all that can be carried on in a world after textile manufacturing has gone overseas or sourced South after NAFTA.
What is left of the Garment District is not all stubborn, wistful thinking and hopelessness. Thanks to the current designers who carry the torch of this historical neighborhood, New York is still considered one of the standout cities in the fashion world. In fact, the Design Trust for Public Space reported in 2012 that the largest manufacturing division in New York City is apparel production. While this figure is not limited to the Garment District alone, the jobs that are within its humble borders are generating $2.1 billion of economic output. The fashion industry in the Garment District is a far-cry from the 20th century glory days, but it is an industry that has adapted in its own way – scaled down out of necessity.
With one industry waning, there is naturally room for growth in others. A recent boom in office-space rentals, high-end shopping outlets and increased residential sales are all positive signs of growth – a contrast to the bleak image painted by those longing for a return to the heights that textile manufacturing reached after becoming completely industrialised in mid-1800s. While it isn’t yet clear what the future holds for the area, nor which industries might strengthen their footholds, the garment industry’s history and lingering presence will likely always dominate its namesake district.