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Can Hip Urban Crafts Help Revitalize Rust Belt Manufacturing?

A new culture of small, local companies could still use the Rust Belt’s ingenuity and know-how, and the Rust Belt could use their energy and cachet. If they figured out how to work together, they might change the way things are made in America.

The welding torch has been passed. The Midwestern forges may still flicker and cough (at least, that’s what Chrysler ads want you to think) but if you haven’t noticed, a lot of new American manufacturing is going on in cities like Brooklyn and San Francisco. Making things in America seems divided between the fire and smoke of old-style factories and the bird-branded tote bags ridiculed in Portlandia, between industry and craft. While San Francisco won’t start smelting ore anytime soon—and Allentown would play an unlikely host to a single-bean chocolate tasting—new industry doesn’t have to leave its old urban centers empty as it migrates to the hip warehouse districts of major coastal cities. In fact, given the right incentives and connections, it might set them humming again and set the stage for a revolution in American-made products.

Manufacturing in any city, rusty or not, is about access. Unlike a secluded, suburban office park, urban manufacturing sites have access to infrastructure, workforce, and most importantly, customers. Kate Sofis, the executive director of SFMade, which promotes urban manufacturing in San Francisco, says the typical amount of space they help companies find is 5,000 to 10,000 square feet. But what San Francisco’s industry lacks in size, it makes up for in neighbors willing to shell out for the badge of localism.

"You can’t charge $1,000 for a laptop bag," Sofis says. "But take Rickshaw Bagworks. They can place a value on you being able to pick your own colors, and go get your bag at the factory when it’s ready." To folks who care about local, sustainable, and stylish goods—San Franciscans, in other words—the bags are expensive, but worth it. "We don’t have undifferentiated, low-price commodities made in San Francisco, and that’s okay," Sofis says.

But not even San Franciscans can live on artisinal chocolate alone. Much of what Americans buy is undifferentiated, low-cost, and therefore, not locally made. "Anything that can be put on a container ship will be made wherever labor is cheapest," wrote champion of local craftsmanship and philosopher-turned-mechanic Matthew Crawford in Forbes. And that’s usually not here. If it’s cheap, and common, it can’t be local. Call it the Deckchair Dilemma.

The Rickshaw Bagworks factory in San Francisco. Photo by Flickr user alykat.

Writing about harbor seals in the New Yorker, Ian Frazier muses on those white plastic chairs he sees everywhere from a Long Island beach, to the Lagos city dump, to his own backyard: "I believe this type of white molded-plastic chair belongs to the growing category of the world’s ubiquitous objects." There’s even a Flickr group devoted to them. They’re everywhere and yet, seemingly made nowhere, or rather, somewhere else.

American manufacturing can’t command that global scale anymore, says Matthew Tuerk, assistant director of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation, and founder of Urban Made, a program to support urban manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley and around the country. So let’s forget ubiquity. "The idea that you’re going to make something in Cleveland that’s used around the globe is unlikely," he says. What Cleveland—and Allentown, and the tarnished hordes of other post-industrial cities—can do, though, is produce goods for regional consumption. "Localization equates to generalization," Tuerk says. He sees cities making not just pricey chocolate and messenger bags, but those very deck chairs. "I think people would like to see stuff made for the market they’re in—not the same deckchair in Phoenix and Portland, Maine. You want to meet the guy who made it, connect with people." Think of it like a regional farmer’s market for manufactured goods.

Old manufacturing in Allentown. Photo by Flickr user Don Campolongo

In fact, food, Tuerk says, is often the first step cities like Allentown take toward self-sufficiency. Look at Detroit, with its swarming network of urban farms. True manufacturing independence, though, is a far-fetched idea, especially in a networked world, but that network makes another future possible, where cities like Allentown help new manufacturing centers like San Francisco.

Both cities might enjoy residents willing to spend for locally made goods—chocolate or chairs—but San Francisco, unlike Allentown, is a globally recognized brand, with customers around the world. That difference could be just the thing to connect those cities, and others like them, in a manufacturing partnership.

San Francisco, for example, has a buzzing sewing industry. "We have 20 to 30 small factories that can do much smaller runs than the places in Asia," Sofis says. "You can sew here easily. But say you wanted a custom dye. There are no dying factories in Northern California—but Pennsylvania, Boston, the East Coast is full of them."

The idea is co-manufacturing. "The old way was, you had your own secret channels," Tuerk says. "Now everything is open-source, and cities can be part of the supply chain, producing component parts, not just the final product." Allentown is home to Bradley Pulverizer, and Tuerk pictures those machines crushing dye in, say, Philadelphia to color fabric sewn into a laptop bag in San Francisco. Or a company in San Francisco that can’t meet demand because of floor space can open a second production center in, for example, one of the old Mack Truck buildings in Allentown. At the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Chicago this summer, Sofis launched the Urban Manufacturing Alliance to help build just such a network.

No matter where its component parts were made, that bag gets stamped with the San Francisco brand, something as unique to the city as low-run sewing factories. Cities, Sofis says, should do what they’re good at. That might mean making pulverizers, or it might mean adding a "made by" stamp of approval. For urban manufacturing to flourish in a global economy, it’s going to need both. "What San Francisco’s good at," Tuerk says, "is marketing."

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