This year’s NFL championship game is being touted as a “blue collar” Super Bowl – it’s a battle of storied franchises that hail from rust belt cities with industrial laborers for mascots. Steel and meatpacking harken back to an era in American history when heavy industry and manufacturing ruled the economy, and the country’s workforce was made up of blue collar union men. Despite the nostalgia that the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers evoke, both for the smashmouth football of the NFL’s Golden Age (which is commemorated in the hagiography of NFL Films
) and for bygone American industries, let’s not forget that these cities are represented by multi-millionaire athletes hired to play for teams worth close to a billion dollars
In contrast, New York City’s sports teams rarely (if ever) earn the moniker “blue collar” from America’s sportswriters. The city is associated with the glamor and excess of more white collar sectors: finance, real estate, media. Yet New York City ranks second in the country in the number of industrial jobs
(behind Houston), well ahead of Pittsburgh (41st) and Milwaukee (16th – tiny Green Bay doesn’t even register on national rankings). For all of America’s history, New York City has been one of the nation’s leading manufacturers, and metalworking and food processing are among the largest industrial employers today. During the city’s industrial heyday a century ago, both steel (technically, ironworking) and meatpacking employed thousands of residents, and some of the largest enterprises in both industries could be found in one neighborhood: Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Click image to enlarge.
Today the Williamsburg waterfront is known more for glass-fronted high-rise apartment buildings scattered amongst abandoned industrial relics, but the area was once teeming with industrial activity. Williamsburg was home to many major industries during the late 19th century, including pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, food processing and iron works. Looking at one such industry, the Hecla Iron Works was one of more than 40 foundries operating across New York during the city’s cast iron building boom in the 1870’s. Founded in 1876 by a pair of Scandinavian immigrants, Niels Poulson and Charles M. Eger, Hecla employed more than 1,000 workers at its height and manufactured structural and ornamental components for some of New York’s most famous buildings, including Grand Central Terminal and the New York Life Insurance Company building. The foundry stretched along both sides of North 11th Street between Berry and Wythe streets, close to Williamsburg’s East River piers where raw materials and finished products could be transported easily.
The company grew swiftly in its early years, but the improvements in steel-making technology and the phase out of cast iron construction led to a short boom. The company also suffered two devastating fires, in 1889 and 1891, but they rebuilt and continued operating until Poulson’s death in 1911 and Eger’s retirement in 1913, when the company was sold to Chicago-based competitor Winslow Brothers. In 1928 one of the buildings was purchased by the Carl M. Schultz Mineral Water Company to manufacture and bottle seltzer (another major Brooklyn industry
), but the vast complex was unused for much of the 20th century.
Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.
We have become well acquainted with the Hecla Iron Works because today it houses a different historic Brooklyn industry: beer brewing. Unlike the vast majority of Brooklyn’s industrial buildings, which have been either demolished, abandoned, or repurposed for commercial or residential uses, Hecla is the home of the Brooklyn Brewery. The brewery has been located on the block since 1996, and they recently completed a major expansion
into an adjoining building on the north side of North 11th, which will allow them to produce 50,000 barrels of beer a year at the facility. Today the brewery occupies almost the entire foundry complex, including a building on the south side of the street; one of the Hecla buildings, 100 North 11th, is not occupied by Brooklyn Brewery, but it is landmarked by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission
. Thanks to this and the success of the Brooklyn Brewery, these historic structures will remain to tell the story of Brooklyn’s industrial past and continue its manufacturing traditions.
While Williamsburg’s waterfront was teeming with factories 100 years ago, if you traveled a bit farther east you would likely come across cows, pigs and chickens in the streets. East Williamsburg was once home to a large number of slaughterhouses (then know by the far more delicate term “abbatoirs”); livestock were brought to these facilities by boat, to the East River docks, or by rail, as the eastern side of the neighborhood was served by a terminus of the Long Island Railroad, where most of the slaughterhouses were clustered. Unlike major meatpacking cities such as Chicago, Denver, or Green Bay, Brooklyn lacked the space for vast stockyards and feedlots. It was a densely populated neighborhood, and animals were unloaded off of railcars and barges and driven through the narrow streets to be slaughtered and processed.
A map of the breweries, feed depots and slaughterhouses clustered around the Eastern District LIRR terminal. Click image to enlarge. Courtesy Cindy VandenBosch.
This arrangement was less than ideal for the residents, and several stories in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
recount incidents of cattle running wild in the streets, turning Williamsburg into a veritable Pamplona. One such incident, in August 1887
, resulted in several people being gored by steer, including a 70-year-old woman, who received injuries “about the body and head” and was told by her physician that “she could not recover.” Here is a description of the mayhem:The herd was turned into the latter thoroughfare [Manhattan Avenue] and went along peacefully enough until the corner of Guernsey street was reached. There a number of boys began hooting at them and pelting them with stones. The animals at once became frightened and dashed away in various directions. One of them, a great big red steer, started up Meserole avenue at full speed, its eyes glaring wildly in all directions. It turned into Leonard street, along which it dashed, followed by a great crowd of boys and men, until it reached Cayler street. There it encountered Daniel Murphy, 40 years of age, of 221 Bedford avenue. He tried to get out of the animal’s way, but was unable to. He was knocked down and tossed in the air. The steer then turned down Calyer street to Lorimer, along which it proceeded to Noble and thence to Franklin street. At the latter corner it gored Abraham Russell, 16 years of age, of 233 Manhattan avenue.
A faded sign for 'Lehmans Abbatoir' along Johnson Avenue in East Williamsburg. Image by Andrew Gustafson.
As the cows continued to rampage, the police were called out, and they began shooting the animals to prevent children from being trampled; one officer had to cut a cow’s throat with a butcher’s knife in the street. Brooklyn even had it’s own cowboys, who were paid $15 for every wayward cow they lassoed and returned to the owner. Despite the carnage wrought by marauding cows, the practice of driving them continued – in another story, this one from May 1900
, local business owners petitioned the Department of Health to stop slaughterhouses from marching cattle through the streets.
Of course, Williamsburg’s slaughterhouse row was relatively small compared to Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, which boasted more than 250 facilities in 1900. The historic center of Brooklyn’s meatpacking industry was actually downtown, near the junction of Atlantic Avenue and 5th Avenue, where Armour and Swift had large plants
. These closed in the 1980’s, and today the site is largely taken up by the Atlantic Center mall.
Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed 70,000 people during World War II, including thousands of women. Courtesy Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.
Despite this change, food manufacturing remains a staple of Brooklyn’s economy. Meatpacking is done on a much smaller scale, and there are no longer cows running through the streets, but different food industries abound. While a former foundry has been turned into a brewery, a former brewery, the Otto Huber, has been turned into a food factory, as the home of TMI Food Group
, a manufacturer and distributor of Asian food products. The area along the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick is today known as the Tortilla Triangle
due to the large number of tortilla factories in the area. And there are many, many more.
New York City may not have the same reputation for hard work and industry as the cities meeting on the gridiron on Sunday, but the past and present story of manufacturing in Brooklyn shows that its “blue collar” credentials match up with any city in America.If you would like to learn more about the city's efforts to preserve and expand manufacturing jobs, visit Made In NYC. For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment.
For the second year in a row
, we made the journey to the Staten Island Zoo
to hear the prognostications of Chuck, New York City's only forecasting groundhog. Waking up to a city covered in a sheet of ice – and this coming after the snowiest January on record – we could all use a bit of good news when it comes to the weather. As hoped, Chuck predicted spring's rapid approach. It should be noted that his report was related to the public by way of a medium, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said before the groundhog had even been rousted from this lair that he expected a call of early spring. Like the rest of us, the mayor may have been projecting his hopes onto Chuck, and it undoubtedly influenced his translation of the Groundhogese.
In addition to the mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and other local dignitaries, Buddy Valastro and the crew of Cake Boss
made the trek from Hoboken through the ice and slush to present a special cake for the occasion. We didn't get a slice, but who wants cake at 7:30 in the morning? (Answer: the many, many small children in attendance). Unlike last year, Chuck and his more famous counterpart, Punxsutawney Phil, were in agreement, as neither saw their shadows; Connecticut Chuckles
, who resides in Manchester, also called for early spring. We will never know, however, what Malverne Mel
saw when he emerged from his burrow this morning, because his prediction ceremony was canceled due to the weather.So, another year, another Groundhog Day, another call for winter's end – we shall see what the next six weeks have in store.For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment. All photos are by Andrew Gustafson.