Look Up to See Where Your Grandmother’s Clothes Came From

West 35th Street in 1938, looking east between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Source: NYC Department of Records, Municipal Archives

West 35th Street in 1938, looking east between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Source: NYC Department of Records, Municipal Archives

It can seem a little quiet walking over to Mood these days. Not too long ago, the streets above 34th Street between Sixth and Eighth Avenues were clogged with push boys, wheeling racks of  materials, trims, and fashions among jobbers, contractors, accessory importers, fabric stores, and showrooms. The way it used to be comes alive in the Skyscraper Museum’s show (closing today) Urban Fabric: Building New York’s Garment District.

In its heyday, those 18 blocks just north and west of Macy’s produced 75% of all US women’s and children’s clothes.  The exhibit tells the story of how this bustling hive happened.  In a nutshell, the old sweatshops in tenement buildings gave way to factory loft spaces in the 1890s around the area where NYU is today. When the big department stores emerged along Sixth Avenue and 23rd Streets, the lofts came with them. But the congestion proved to be a bit much for the female shoppers, who were disturbed by the throngs of guys loitering about on their lunch breaks, and the retailers took action.

The department stores (like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor) moved above 34th Street. To prevent the factory lofts from overwhelming them again, the City implemented the first zoning ordinance in America in 1916. The garment makers, closed out of the fancy retail neighborhood, started razing the Tenderloin District on the West Side and erecting architect-designed skyscrapers (like the Fashion Tower on West 36th) from that point on. About 125 buildings went up on those 18 blocks before the Depression hit.

Here’s a glimpse of what it was like in 1952:

As recently as the 1970s, carts were still being shuttled through the narrow streets, but we know how that story ended.  Today, no one even looks up at the entrances, set-backs, lobbies, or embellishments of these once grand hubs where models, marketers, Mad Men, laborers, seamstresses, teamsters, pattern makers, the designers co-mingled.

Interestingly enough, not a single building is landmarked. In fact, the Skyscraper Museum had trouble even finding photographs of the original buildings and had to turn to historic adverts and early brochures on factory electricity.

For the full, fascinating story by the curator who unearthed it all, listen to Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University, and watch his slide show:

Interns and staff built a nice model of the buildings lining 37th Street for the show, and a big thank you to The Skyscraper Museum for (again) putting the history and installation walkthrough on line. Tell your friends, and be sure to look up next time you walk over to Mood.

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