Emily Geminder Feb. 19, 2010, 4:35 p.m.
Koreatown unfolds like a blip in the consciousness of midtown. It’s where the city abruptly departs from its staid brick assonance and, for a span of roughly three short blocks, digresses into a frenzy of barbecue and lights. Koreatown has somehow at once managed to wedge itself smack in the middle of everything and remain largely invisible. Hovering at the southern fringe of midtown, not quite Murray Hill, not quite Chelsea, it’s a cartographic no man’s land hiding in plain sight.
By day, the neighborhood—if you can call it a neighborhood—is a condensed jumble of signs, all clamoring for attention in two languages and about a thousand different shades of neon yellow. But the real Koreatown happens at night. On weekends, West 32nd Street turns into a 24-hour playground, a kind of noir wonderland where barbecues and spas and karaoke joints all stack up on top of each other and nothing ever closes.
You have to really peel back the street’s glittering confetti to take in the buildings sitting mute behind it all, the anonymous brick and limestone pasted with the sediment of accumulated decades. If you can see past the blinking lights, past the signs, the six-story building at 32 West 32nd Street reveals its past in a faintly emblazoned facade: “Bergdorf Building.”
The name “Bergdorf,” of course, would go on to become half of that most lavish, ladies-who-lunch department store, where Mahattanites not only accrued the regalia of a moneyed lifestyle but luxuriated in the marble-encased trappings of money itself. But, in 1899, Bergdorf’s was an unremarkable side-street tailor shop at a truly remarkable time in tailoring. With the rise of manufacturing, methods of production and lifestyles both were speeding up, racing toward a streamlined industrial horizon. Caught in the middle of it all was Herman Bergdorf, a tailor with more luck than talent, and a greater passion for wine than for his craft. It took Edwin Goodman, his ambitious young apprentice, to recognize the bend that manufacturing had thrown into history, a bend he leaned on heavily to refashion the women’s ready-made garment industry.
The manufacturing industry, which transformed the garment district more than a century ago, has more recently transformed it again—this time by all but disappearing. It wasn’t a sudden disappearance, and it was one that was slow to sink in, perhaps because the garment industry has always been something of an invisible one. It didn’t require much room, its cutting rooms and zipper shops cropping up in brownstones, boutiques, sweatshops, excess office space, just about anywhere at all. It filled up the margins of midtown, propelled by the largely invisible workforce that always fills those margins—New York’s steady stream of immigrant labor.
But, in recent decades, Manhattan rents and cheap overseas production have whittled away at the Garment District’s edges. It shrunk northward, even as the city’s zoning protections limited the conversion of factory space into more profitable offices. (The protections themselves may soon vanish, as protestations of landlords grow louder.)
At 32 West 32nd Street, the climb to the K-pop blaring karaoke bar—past the barbecue, the noodle shop, the eyelash salon—takes you up rasping wooden stairs, likely unchanged since their tailor-shop days. With a notable exception: The walls have been painted with cartoon Korean children, cavorting in the dim light like mutant hieroglyphs from one of Herman Bergdorf’s drunken dreams. It’s one of those strange New York corners where you can’t quite tell if the hasty brushstrokes of the present are infringing on the past, or if it’s the other way around.
FOR MUCH OF THE 19th century, ready-made clothing was principally the attire of slaves, miners and sailors. But nearing the century’s end, the advent of the sewing machine and post-Civil War distribution networks set the burgeoning garment industry ablaze with energy. The 1890s saw the rise of women’s suits and small concurrent shifts in women’s social status, as middle-class women led increasingly public lives that left less time for elaborate dress fittings. Manhattan’s garment industry seized on the distinguishing factors that long remained its mainstay: a position as a port city with strong ties to European fashion markets and a convenient supply of cheap labor. By 1899, New York produced 65 percent of the nation’s ready-made women’s wear.
At the time, Herman Bergdorf, an Alsatian immigrant, maintained a middling tailor shop along the Ladies Mile stretch of Fifth Avenue. His shop might have continued to languish in relative obscurity had his sister not been employed by a prominent society lady, the wife of William Goadby Loew, who once admired one of Bergdorf’s suits and ordered one for herself. That was all it took to make “Berfdorf suits” a sudden rage, and Bergdorf found himself suddenly overwhelmed by orders. To compensate, he took on the promising 23-year-old Edwin Goodman, a move that also, according to Booton Herndon’s Bergdorf’s on the Plaza, freed him to spend more time in Brubacker’s wine saloon.
By 1901, Goodman had raised enough funds to buy into the business, and he convinced Bergdorf they should join the migration of fashionable shops up Fifth Avenue. But while Goodman was away on his honeymoon, Bergdorf instead opted for a cheaper side-street location, the 32 West 32nd Street address he christened the Bergdorf Building. According to city records and the Office for Metropolitan History, Bergdorf paid $132,000 for the structure, built by Bruno W. Berger.
Returning from his honeymoon and expecting to find a fashionable Fifth Avenue storefront, Goodman was infuriated by Bergdorf’s choice of real estate, and the two men parted ways soon after. Goodman bought out Bergdorf, who retired to Paris, and the operation remained in the cramped 32nd Street salon only until 1914. But in its decade or so there, Goodman became a fastidious scholar of a growing movement in women’s wear: the trend toward less restrictive fashions. To the popular hobble skirt—a literally named garment to which The New York Times attributed several injuries and, in 1911, one death—Goodman added a box pleat that in the knee allowed for a slightly less inhibited step. The jabot, a choking, boned neckpiece, he did away with altogether.
At the time, most of the manufacturers that tailors relied on worked out of their homes, according to Daniel Soyer in A Coat of Many Colors, often employing entire families in packed, squalid conditions. The boom of the garment industry was dependent on the sudden influx of immigrant labor that began arriving in New York in the 1880s. Eastern European Jews, primarily unmarried young women, made up the majority of the laborers, followed by Italians, also often young women. The young, mostly female workforce was at the forefront of major labor battles that, in many ways, radically altered the industry. At the same time, garment manufacturing gained a reputation as a “mobile industry”—a reputation that, by and large, has stuck—in part to elude accountability for its labor practices.
While the workforce changed, fluctuating with shifts in immigration policy and demographics, the garment industry remained fairly stable until the 1970s, when fashion retailers that had relied on local manufacturers began widening their production networks into foreign countries. Garment manufacturing became a transnationally mobile industry, as advances in communications and transport facilitated highly specialized, coordinated units operating in multiple countries at once.
Around the same time, changes in immigration policy allowed Koreans to enter the U.S. in unprecedented numbers. Small Korean sweatshops began appearing on West 32nd Street, mostly subcontracting work from Seventh Avenue manufacturers and employing a largely Latino workforce. By 1989, there were 1,500 Korean-owned garment factories in New York, concentrated predominantly in the garment district and Flushing, according to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. But the midtown industry was still largely invisible to most New Yorkers and still dependent on questionable labor practices. In 1988, at a building just down the block from 32 West 32nd Street, the Associated Press reported the collapse of a fire escape as garment workers fled INS agents.
As manufacturing is displaced both within the New York area—many Korean sweatshops have moved to Queens and New Jersey—and globally, Korean groceries and restaurants crowd onto West 32nd Street at higher and higher densities, transforming the patch of molting textile industry into a kinetic spurt of motion. You could say it’s the time-told New York immigration story: A largely invisible community is sucked up into the city’s labor market, eventually appropriating and reappropriating its power structures and finally earning its mainstream cultural credibility—usually in the form of culinary appreciation and usually in a neighborhood where few members of the community actually live.
That’s one way of looking at it. But it’s also about a city of transplants, its odd collisions and obliterations, its reinventions. It’s about the endless hemming and restitching such a city entails.