Andrew Cuomo stood in a huge hall up in Albany last week proclaiming correctly that New York’s only way forward is to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The new governor pledged to use every means at his disposal so that we get back to the proud symbols on the state’s official seal.
Fortunately, since no one in the crowd of 2,000 people in the convention center or those watching on TV had ever noticed this emblem, Cuomo provided a giant screen shot: It showed a pair of sailing ships on the Hudson. They signify prosperity, commerce, and trade, he explained.
As Cuomo spoke, an African-American businessman named David Lee was on the second floor of a brick warehouse in the South Bronx, near another river. Lee was hard at work doing just what Cuomo suggested—without much help from his government or anyone else.
Lee’s company is called kd dance. He has a workforce of 12 and a half-dozen computerized knitting machines. Together, they produce marvelously fashionable garments: sleek skirts, tops, dresses, leg-warmers. They are soft and stretchy confections, clothes that make customers look like dancers, even those who can’t dance a step. You may have seen Jennifer Lopez wrapped in his chic designs in Shall We Dance? or in a dozen other films.
Lee, 55, lives in Harlem, close enough to have been able to walk to work through last month’s blizzard. He could easily do what most garment manufacturers do these days, which is have his clothes made in China or someplace where they pay a dollar or so an hour in wages. This doesn’t interest him. “We’ve got our own ‘feel,’ ” he said last week. “We have to be part of the process. It just wouldn’t work overseas.”
Which is why he labors in the Bronx, providing the most precious resource in the city’s poorest district: $14-an-hour jobs. His plant is around the corner from Hostos Community College, part of the CUNY system. There is mutual benefit here as well. “I am getting a steady stream of interns from Hostos,” he said. “I just hired one of their graduates as an accountant to help handle the books.”
This is the way the economy is supposed to work, but rarely does. This month, City Limits magazine reported that under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, manufacturing jobs in the city disappeared twice as fast as in the rest of the country. Almost 64,000 blue-collar positions vanished, a decline of 46 percent. It is the worst eight-year slide in city history, says Sarah Crean, who has kept an eye on these statistics for the New York Industrial Retention Network. Land rezoning is one reason, says Crean. Indifference is another.
Bloomberg skipped this hemorrhage of entry-level jobs in his own economic slideshow last month in Brooklyn, where he insisted that the president should follow his example if he wants to fix the nation’s economy. Of course, if not for all the federal stimulus funds pumped into Wall Street banks and investment firms over the past two years, the city would be just as flat on its back as the rest of the country. This fact was also omitted from a presentation intended to stoke more of the mayor’s White House dreams.
By rights, Lee’s little shop should have been among the blue-collar victims. As the economy sputtered, he racked up big tax debts. At his last location, he fell behind in the rent. “It is a miracle to still be sitting here today,” he said as he sat at the far end of his plant under a bright white ceiling laced with red and yellow pipes high overhead. “The business costs of manufacturing in the city are huge,” he said.
In his opening address, Cuomo vowed to help. “This is going to be a business-friendly state,” he said. He called for new “public-private sector partnerships” and a push to “empower local communities” so that they plan their own futures. Given the chance, Lee was asked, what would be on his wish list if he could tell the new governor how to help businesses like his own survive and grow?
The entrepreneur didn’t miss a beat. “I’d like the same deal Goldman Sachs got,” he said. “I could use long-term, low-interest financing for technology upgrades. I could use training grants through a program like CETA, where the government picks up part of the labor cost.”
CETA? There’s a subversive blast from the past. The 1973 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funded public and private-sector jobs for low-income workers and the unemployed. The idea was to give them a leg up and the tools to win unsubsidized work. “It worked for me,” said Lee. “I was a member of a dance troupe in California on a CETA grant.” While there, he and a friend began toying with ways to create loose, lightweight dance garments. They hit on the twin-yarn weave he still uses. “It led directly to this,” said Lee, gesturing at the humming machines.
Naturally, today such a scheme would be denounced as something worse than socialism. It wouldn’t even help to explain that CETA was the brainchild of Richard Nixon’s Republican administration.
These days, such props go only to those at the top. “It seems like all the help goes to the big businesses and banks,” said Lee. “They have the connections. For a small business, I don’t know how we make that connection.”
Lee connects with his own customers from behind the counter of his tiny retail shop at Bleecker and Lafayette streets. “People come in and say, ‘This is really something special.’ Which is why I know, one way or another, this can work. We could just use a little help.”