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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.