In a place some still call the “Industrial Triangle,” between Bayshore Boulevard and Industrial Avenue in San Francisco’s economically-challenged Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, a street named “Apparel Way” marks a largely forgotten facet of neighborhood history.
The street would be just another haunting of the nation’s garment industry except for a couple of apparel businesses that remain lively where once there were enough to earn street signs. Apparel Way may also be a marker on the economic road ahead in what is a rapidly changing urban neighborhood.
San Francisco’s sewn products design and manufacturing industry was bursting at the seams twenty years ago, and included local luminaries such as Gap, Levi’s, Esprit and Jessica McClintock.
Today, both the number of industry workers employed in the City and the quantity of products being stitched here are pale reflections of the heyday. Smaller businesses were flattened by regulation, overseas competition and a bad economy, while larger ones moved production off-shore to survive.
That began to change when the value of the dollar declined (it’s bouncing back now) and local manufacturing became more economical. The resurgent “Maker” mentality and the trend toward revaluing of all things “local” spurred the change along.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that a neighborhood known for industry and scrappy entrepreneurs would host a stirring of apparel businesses. Blue Canoe (on Oakdale), West Coast Garments (on Elmira), Kamei Garment Company (on Newcomb), and Benchmark 44 (on Oakdale) have all relocated here recently. Advanced Technical Sewing (on Revere) is still active at Bayview Industrial Park, and professional contractors like Cynthia Carley at ApparelWiz have opened offices here.
On Apparel Way, in Bayview Hunters Point’s historic garment industry hub, one tenacious entrepreneur never left. Lynette Cason’s Cason Culinary Design still flourishes there. Lynette hosted a PeopleWearSF trade mixer in January of 2012 that showed off new design and production space any business would envy.
SF apparel industry’s fertile ground
SF’s Southeast Sector may be a fertile crescent for this industry resurgence, and Bayview is particularly fertile soil. Industrial space is relatively inexpensive here, under $1 a square foot in many cases. Supportive institutions like City College and San Francisco State University are nearby. The neighborhood breaths an atmosphere of innovation as the area is remade by public and private investment.
Transit via MUNI lines (9, 22, 24, and T-Third light rail) make getting workers to and from job sites about as good as it gets in San Francisco. Working families can more easily make a life here than elsewhere in the City.
As other San Francisco neighborhoods seem to take on uniformity like quadrants of a sprawling university campus, Bayview remains unique. The independent spirit crucial to any creative industry remains especially healthy here.
The time may have arrived for sewn products designers and manufacturers to set up shop here, and for entrepreneurs already based in SF’s southeast corner to roll up their sleeves.
Industry trends wending through the neighborhood where I live and work have clarified my own start-up apparel business plan. YamStreet seemed forever on the drawing board as I focused on non-profit community change work. Connecting my vision of a for-profit business in a global industry with place-based work in Bayview seemed like a recipe for “brand confusion.” Now it seems natural, even essential.
When, years ago, the family-owned sporting goods store in the small Ohio town where I grew up spent it’s marketing budget to get its name on the Little League jerseys local kids wore by buying the kids their uniforms. Sadly, community-based marketing and local economies were headed out of fashion. Decades later, in a forgotten working class San Francisco neighborhood, mixing business with community may be coming back again.
As an organizer, I believe that good community building finds opportunity in the midst of challenge, and strengthens the underlying capacity of people living in “place.” As an entrepreneur, I believe that good business building seeks opportunity and treats people as if they were neighbors even when that’s not literally true.
The values that guide my work in the community seem transferable and mutually-reinforcing alongside socially-responsible business development. The neighborhood-based network of support informally emerging around me shares a thread of belief that business can strengthen the neighborhood while drawing strength from it.
Some neighborhood businesses are survivors, like those on Apparel Way, and connect industrial history to future potential. Some entrepreneurs are just discovering that Apparel Way and opportunity in Bayview exist. All share an air of determination and optimism that has been circulating in Bayview and the City’s southeast corner from the beginning.