The explosive growth of manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an indelible mark on the five boroughs. While New York is now known for its dominance in fields like finance, media, and design, it grew up as a city of industrial districts. Back when the manufacturing sector was one of the primary forces driving the city’s economy, residential and commercial development often followed the factories. This was a time when neighborhoods were known as much for what they produced as for who lived there.
As shown in the infographic above [NYPL], which is exhibited in Vertical Urban Factory, the city’s core circa 1919 was a melange of crosshatched manufacturing clusters. Not only did many of these clusters overlap with each other, they mixed right in with the city’s residential and commercial sectors. In 1919, New York City was home to 32,590 factories in neighborhoods across the city, employing a total of 825,056 people. But while this meant that many New Yorkers were able to walk to work, the soot, smells, and clamorous sounds of the factory also followed them home. The city’s earliest zoning regulation, in part, was intended to create more distance between noxious industrial sites and the places where people lived. “Until the early twentieth century most urban areas had unrestricted uses,” explains Vertical Urban Factory‘s Nina Rappaport. “The first zoning regulations in New York were put in place in 1916 to separate noxious uses from residential areas, to provide for healthier living. This gradually placed noxious uses in low income areas, or the industrial areas that developed became sequestered. This separated industry and workers from the everyday, removing diversity from city life.”