In Defense Of Manufacturing

glb_headshotLIVING FOR CHANGE
In Defense Of Manufacturing

By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, March 7, 2010

In this article Michelle Lin projects an unconventional approach to manufacturing that can help revive our cities. A graduate student in Landscape Architecture and City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, Michelle plans to return to Detroit after she completes her studies. —Grace Lee Boggs

Manufacturing can save our cities. We should not view it only as dying. Instead, we must rethink it within a “community-scaled” framework that produces products, jobs, skills, relationships, and stronger neighborhoods.

The familiar narrative about manufacturing in the U.S. begins at the turn of the 20th century. Manufacturing gave us prosperity. It gave us global economic power. It created a robust middle class. It ramped up at unprecedented scales to meet the demands of mass consumption, particularly in the automobile industry. Cities like Detroit (“Arsenal of Democracy”) and Philadelphia (“Workshop of the World”) were hailed as success stories of the Industrial Revolution.

This revolution did not last forever. Deindustrialization began in the post World War II years. With automation the number of workers required on the line declined significantly. As the labor movement grew in strength, companies left for the suburbs. Today corporate urban flight extends overseas, and the bastions of American industry struggle with the devastating effects of disinvestment and rising unemployment rates.

Economic development solutions for de-industrialized cities often fall into two categories. The first looks at the physical conditions of thousands of derelict buildings sitting idly across the landscape and devises programs that rehabilitate neglected industrial buildings for commercial or residential uses. e.g. former factories are converted into luxury condos. The second approach focuses on job creation by building a “knowledge-based” economy. Advances in digital technologies have sped up globalization, placing a premium on jobs in this sector. To become a “knowledge city,” cities invest in research institutions that develop technological innovations in science and engineering. Advocates believe that cities with a strong knowledge economy will increase their global competitive edge.

These prevailing approaches do not leave much room for viewing manufacturing as part of the equation for urban revitalization. Should every abandoned factory become high-end residential lofts? Is the knowledge economy the panacea for all de-industrialized cities? Only if manufacturing is caricatured as an industry encumbered with union lobbyists or associated with a dying era, one that should step aside for the Information Age.

A Brooklyn-based non-profit is demonstrating the viability of community-scaled manufacturing. Through the acquisition, rehabilitation, and management of neglected industrial spaces, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has transformed six properties into top-rate facilities. These buildings mainly house custom-made artisanal operations, like woodworkers, upholsterers, and fabricators. Over 100 businesses reside in GMDC’s buildings, supporting over 500 workers. The majority of employees are residents from the surrounding neighborhood, showing that community-scaled manufacturing can deter fears of gentrification and displacement.

Economist E.F. Schumacher said, “If you get too many useful machines, you will get too many useless people.” By encouraging the reuse of supposedly obsolete industrial infrastructure, community-scaled manufacturing is a place-based strategy that roots manufacturers in their local areas. It addresses workforce development concerns about the lack of skilled workers. The apprentice-style education provides a way for people to discover and develop their own abilities.

Thus manufacturing becomes a step towards broadening hands-on opportunities for many people. Jobs in trade and craft are good skills; community-scaled manufacturing recovers the societal value of jobs in which people make things. Its inherent small-scale demands a localized economy and has the capacity to advance craftsmanship, promote education, and build stronger communities.

Manufacturing can, should, and is taking place in our cities. More communities are recognizing the need to localize goods and services. The local food security movement reflects this understanding. Community-scaled manufacturing can realize similar outcomes. It has the ability to bring the consumer closer to the producer, decrease the ecological footprint of manufacturing, improve local economies, and encourage self-sufficiency. We can let go of the old way of manufacturing – its polluting factories and menial labor – and embrace the future of community-scaled manufacturing.

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