At This Address, Not Everyone Starts on the
By ERIKA KINETZ
ON the second
floor of 336 West 37th Street in Manhattan, a sign on the door of
Regency Fashion says the minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Someone
has scribbled a 1 after the dollar sign. Inside, most of the sewing
machines are silent. A Chinese deity looks over the factory floor
from behind a mound of partly burned incense sticks. Several of
the dozen workers have tied strips of red fabric around their noses
to block the dust.
very slow this week," said Angela Ng, a worker. She considers
herself lucky to have a steady job, 8 to 10 hours a day, five to
six days a week.
up, sunlight floods the spacious workshop of Christopher Spitzmiller,
who makes expensive ceramic lamps. Seated at his potter's wheel,
he can see a new luxury residential building nearby, as well as
the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and the Hudson River.
rented it, it was like a fire had gone off in here," Mr. Spitzmiller
said of his 2,700-square-foot studio, which had been a rundown manufacturing
space. He renovated - no, transformed - the space and installed
a kiln. He produces about 60 lamps a month for people like President
Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
A 14-story building
with a penthouse, on the western edge of the garment district, 336
West 37th Street not only reflects the economic and ethnic variety
of New York's small businesses, but is also a barometer of their
success. Within this 75-year-old building, the businesses literally
rise and fall with the economic winds. Take the elevator up and,
floor by floor, the windows let in more light. The paint in the
hallways changes from dark gray to silver. Fabric carts give way
move up. Some move down. Others disappear. Philippe Ifrah, a partner
at I.G.S. Realty Company, which owns the building, said he had a
$4.5 million mortgage. He shepherds struggling businesses into smaller,
cheaper spaces on the lower floors and reserves top-floor vistas
for tenants who can pay the higher rents.
In the late
1990's, Regency Fashion, a clothing manufacturer, ceded its space
on the sixth floor and now occupies a small space on the second
floor. In 2001, Apparel Cutting, also a clothing maker, tumbled
from the 11th floor to the 2nd floor.
James Brady, has a catering and event planning company that took
over the 11th floor in January 2001; two years later, he opened
a party space in the penthouse. "After my cousin died at the
World Trade Center - he was a fireman - it took the fear out of
me," Mr. Brady said. "Failing is not an option."
Down at Apparel
Cutting, failure is very much an option. Tony Hoti, who came to
New York from Yugoslavia in 1969, founded the company with his brother,
Dominick, in 1985. At its peak in the late 80's, Apparel had 14
full-time employees. Now, it employs two to four temporary workers.
"I try to do it myself, really, with family help," Mr.
Hoti said. "There is not much left." He said he paid his
workers $12 to $14 an hour and cannot compete with cheaper labor
overseas. "I'm just trying to buy time until I retire. I wish
I was a cook."
district, which stretches roughly from Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue,
between 35th and 40th Streets, has been mostly overlooked by the
big corporations that dominate the city's economy. According to
the New York State Department of Labor, 90 percent of the city's
214,419 private companies had 19 or fewer employees in September
2002, the latest data that is available. But these small businesses
employed only 24 percent of the city's 2.9 million workers.
There have been
some successful government initiatives designed to encourage the
growth of small businesses in New York City, but mostly these owners
have had to fend for themselves. After nearly three years of a bruising
recession and more than two decades of skyrocketing real estate
costs, many small businesses have settled in the garment district,
which is in Midtown but is cheaper than other commercial parts of
was developed in the 20's and 30's to accommodate the booming women's
fashion trade, and most buildings are unsuitable for large firms.
center has older properties built at a time when major corporations
weren't the norm in New York City," said Matthew Astrachan,
an executive director at Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate
company. "Therefore, they have smaller floor plates that aren't
as attractive to the larger business owner."
THAT has helped
to keep rents low. In the first quarter of this year, the average
rent for office space in the district was $31.27 a square foot,
according to Cushman & Wakefield, an amount much lower than
the citywide average of $41.97. (The rents at 336 West 37th Street
average $14 to $16 a square foot because the building is mainly
industrial loft spaces.)
In the mid-90's,
Internet companies flocked to the neighborhood. Most have vaporized.
Fashion businesses still dominate the area, making up two-thirds
of rental tenants, but their presence is waning. From 1989 to 2000,
the number of fashion-related jobs in the neighborhood fell 15 percent,
according to a study commissioned by the Fashion Center Business
Improvement District. Apparel manufacturers were hit especially
hard. Meanwhile, photographers, graphic designers, theaters, nonprofit
corporations, real estate companies, architects, accountants, insurance
companies and small law firms have been moving in. These companies
prefer the open factory floors that the district offers.
Mr. Ifrah started
managing 336 West 37th Street in the mid-90's. Then, all the tenants
were garment manufacturers, he said, who paid an average of $7 a
square foot for rent. Many of them, decimated by the steady flow
of manufacturing jobs overseas, could not pay their rent. The building
declared bankruptcy in 1995. By 1999, Mr. Ifrah and his partners
refinanced and completed a $500,000 renovation. "We created
a new image," said Mr. Ifrah, a native of Madrid. "From
that point on, we started seeing the rents go up."
Now, 16 of the
35 tenants are garment manufacturers. Others include photo studios,
a kickboxing gym and the Art Party, a theater company managed by
the actor Alan Cumming and Nick Philippou. Two art theaters, the
Zipper and the Belt, occupy the ground floor, which once housed
a zipper warehouse and a belt factory.
Mr. Ifrah, whose
desk is a slab of polished marble propped on two sawhorses, said
he gave many of his artistic tenants a break on their rent. Creative
tenants lend cachet to the building, he said, and usually renovate
their spaces beautifully. They tend not to mind the neighborhood's
had people complain, `I can't bring my Park Avenue clients down
here,' " said Mr. Spitzmiller, the lamp maker. But, he added,
most of the decorators that he deals with appreciate the district's
unruly quality. "Ninth Avenue has soul." Those seeking
steel-and-glass towers, or bothered by the presence of a methadone
clinic, know to look elsewhere.
Moreno Giannaccini, an Italian-born sculptor, rents space on the
seventh floor. Everything except the bottles of grappa and Seagram's
Extra Dry gin is splattered with white plaster. "I used to
be on the 15th-floor" penthouse, he said. "Now they are
the beautiful people."
Over the years,
Mr. Giannaccini has traveled the city rooting out studio space that
could be one step ahead of gentrification. "He probably is
going to tell me in a couple of years: `You get out. You can't afford
it,' " Mr. Giannaccini said, gesturing to Mr. Ifrah.
Mr. Ifrah just
shook his head and blushed.