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Thread: Where Blue Collars Grow Endangered - Sunset Park

  1. #1

    Default Where Blue Collars Grow Endangered - Sunset Park

    June 24, 2003

    Where Blue Collars Grow Endangered


    About 13 years ago, Eligio Abreu was living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where he grew up, and attending college in Manhattan. But after his girlfriend got pregnant, he stopped going to school and started working at a cosmetics factory a friend told him about near his home. He has been there ever since.

    "One thing that was good about this company is that you never had to go to the unemployment office," Mr. Abreu said yesterday standing outside the factory. "They were good secure jobs."

    But all that is about to change. Mr. Abreu, 37, has been making lipstick, eye shadow and mascara for Markwins International, which has already laid off about 200 workers, and plans to let the remaining 200 or so go by the end of the summer when it shuts down in Brooklyn for good. And those workers are far from alone. In March, a candy factory that employed about 150 workers, many of them from the neighborhood, shut down its operations as well, several business officials said.

    Sunset Park was one of the last remaining neighborhoods in the city where people could live and have a factory job, but now all of that is threatened, according to business leaders who are trying to keep manufacturing jobs there.

    Like other industrial areas throughout the city, Sunset Park had gone into a steep decline when the city hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs — down from about 1 million in 1960 to a little over 200,000 today, according to experts. But in the 1980's and 90's, the neighborhood came back from the brink, creating a thriving industrial hub, now with a vacancy rate hovering around 5 percent, officials say, by attracting those kinds of small manufacturers who needed and wanted to stay in the city.

    "The smokestack industries are gone and what's left are the companies that can survive in New York's high-cost environment," said Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network.

    Those are generally companies, like garment and jewelry makers or food processors, he said, that want to be in the city because they need skilled workers to create goods with specialized designs or because their customers are nearby.

    But now, because of what labor advocates say is both the shaky economy and the city's emphasis on attracting white-collar jobs and housing development to the waterfront, those jobs are beginning to disappear. The City Council plans to hold an oversight hearing today about how to retain manufacturing companies even as the city moves to reclaim much of its waterfront for residential and other uses.

    "The city doesn't do enough for the blue-collar jobs to stay here," said David Yassky, chairman of the Council's Select Committee on Waterfronts.

    One proposal Mr. Yassky is considering, modeled on an approach he said was used in Chelsea, is to impose a fee on those owners converting their properties from manufacturing to residential uses that would help displaced industrial companies relocate. But these days, it is unclear just where those businesses will go. Some of the most densely populated manufacturing areas, like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, are slated to be rezoned to encourage residential, office, recreational or retail development.

    City officials say they are working to keep what industry they can. This summer, the city plans to complete a $30 million renovation of the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city's Economic Development Corporation.

    And some say that the issue is not particular plant closings but broadening the idea of what a new business can be. "In that industrial park area you have businesses opening and closing and I think you're always going to have all of that," said William Grinker, president of Seedco, a nonprofit organization, "but the question is, can we get new businesses to come in? It doesn't have to all be high-tech."

    For his part, Mr. Grinker has started a program to shuttle workers from the subway to various factories so that they can get to late and overnight shifts.

    In the meantime, many in Sunset Park worry about the effect of the loss of jobs, many of them unionized, on a hard-won local economy. "This is just the first layer of peeling the onion," said Leah Archibald, executive director of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. "If they replace these jobs with jobs that don't have health coverage, then their health needs become a burden on the neighborhood."

    Some business owners in Brooklyn suspect that the Bloomberg administration's vision for the future has no place for them. "It's going to be a picture-perfect city that doesn't have people with dirty hands, that doesn't have smelly little factories," said Donald Schoenholt, president of Gillies Coffee Company in Sunset Park.

    "It's a wonderful vision," he said, but added that in order to accomplish that, "they're going to have to take all the last industrial neighborhoods along the waterfront in Brooklyn and they're going to have to dismantle them and put them back together."

    Mr. Schoenholt, who said he moved his company to Brooklyn in the early 1990's at the suggestion of city officials, is appealing a fine by the Department of Environmental Protection, which said he created a hazard by running a business that smells like, well, coffee.

    Mr. Schoenholt said he had already been asked by officials in New Jersey to relocate there. "The problem for me is that there is no practical way to prevent the coffee business from smelling like coffee," he said.

    For many workers, the concerns are more immediate.

    Mr. Abreu, who has three daughters to support, plans to avail himself of unemployment benefits while he tries to get his commercial drivers license. Agueda Arias, a union representative at Local 888, said that they had applied to a government program for the workers at Markwins for training and education to help them find new jobs. Still, she said, "some of the people are 55 or over and they know that it will be difficult, especially for women."

    Like Ana Gutierrez, 65, who expects to be laid off from her job in the lipstick department in about a month. "I thought I was going to end my old age here," she said in a telephone interview last weekend.

    She does not expect to receive a pension from the place she has worked for 19 years, and she said she had not saved money, instead spending what she earned to put her son through college. She has heard about another cosmetics company in Long Island City, Queens, that she hopes will take her on, but she has few illusions about her ability to find a new job at her age. "I'll just have to make do with what I have," she said.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  2. #2

    Default Where Blue Collars Grow Endangered

    I was told that up to the end of WWII, most of the residents of Sunset Park, from the waterfront all the way to 5th Avenue, were mostly employed in the shipping industry. You had Bush Terminal, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Todd Shipyards, Moore McCormack Lines, etc. That all disappeared and a new workforce evolved. Now it looks like that is threatened, too.

  3. #3

  4. #4

    Default Where Blue Collars Grow Endangered

    It's saddening really. My worst fear is that new residents would move into a rezoned area, set up shop, then start complaining like NIMBY's about the noise and pollution coming from remaining factories and distribution centers, thus adding to the pressure for these vital businesses to close up shop. Are the politicians and bureaucrats really that shortsighted? *

    (Edited by Agglomeration at 10:49 pm on June 24, 2003)

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