Hung Yi
Photo by Steve Schlackman
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The Garment District: From Buttons and Bows to a Home for Art

When asking about artsy neighborhoods in New York City, locals might point you immediately to Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Brooklyn’s Bushwick. However, the Garment District on the west side of Manhattan, is a contender these days, too. 

garment district
Barbara Blair, President of the Garment District Alliance (photo by Kelly Campbell for the Garment District Alliance)

Historically, the Garment District was the hub of New York’s fashion industry. Its narrow, dark streets were lined with tall buildings that housed clothing factories. Shipments came and went on huge trucks. Storefronts sold fabric and trimmings. It was a very bustling place during the day, but not welcoming after dark. When the work day ended, desolation took over.

Then an identity crisis hit in the 1960s. Barbara Blair, President of the Garment District Alliance, explained that manufacturing jobs began moving overseas, leaving many of the old factory spaces vacant. By the 2000s, fewer than 50% of the businesses in the area were fashion-related. Landlords, who could not replace their fashion production tenants, began renting the spaces to a broader range of clients, including creative service companies, business service companies, architects, and tech companies. Then in 2005, the city rezoned the west end of the neighborhood, allowing for spaces to be converted into residential units and hotels.

“The hotel development is bringing in a whole new constituency to the neighborhood. We have 900,000 visitors a year that stay in Garment District based hotels who never, before 2005, would’ve stepped foot in the district,” Barbara said.

The Garment District Alliance, which includes building owners and business owners, sought to make the neighborhood safer, cleaner, and more interesting. Barbara noted, “Our core programming is clean and safe. We have 30 sweepers, and we have graffiti removal on the streets every day. There are 25 security guards, who are really like ambassadors, because the city is a very, very safe city.”

After establishing those services, Barbara said, “You start thinking, what are other things we can do to really improve the neighborhood to make it more compelling for the new tenants that are here? Because a lot of the new tenants stay later into the evening.” So the next thing the alliance did was to improve lighting on the side streets, which has been a great benefit to the smaller eateries and the boutique retailers that have recently been established.

Once the Garment District was secure, clean, and well lit, more people ventured to it. To alleviate some of the sidewalk crowding, the city government created a pedestrian plaza in the area. The alliance added potted plants, tables, chairs and umbrellas to make it an inviting public space. And with that, the group saw the perfect opportunity to introduce an arts program, which Barbara said aims to make visitors feel like they’ve “arrived in some special place.”

The Garment District Alliance Arts Programs

The arts program includes an annual festival that takes over the plaza. It is a fun and interactive weekend. This year’s festival, which occurred in October, included gallery shows, open studios, performances, and demonstrations.

The alliance also sponsors the Broadway Sculpture Series. Currently, Taiwanese artist Hung Yi’ massive, colorful sculptures of whimsical animals line the way, but Barbara stated that there is no one uniting theme to the installations and curating them has been a learning experience.

The Garment District: From Buttons and Bows to a Home for Art 1
Sculpture from Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein’s “Avian Avatars” (photo by Laurentiu Garofeanu for the Garment District Alliance)

“In the beginning, we were timid and a lot of the stuff we chose would look nice, but it was undersized. When you put something out on Broadway with these skyscrapers on both sides, you have to have something very, very large to get people’s attention. So we’ve been scaling up over the years. Hung Yi is the biggest that we’ve had. We also had this fabulous collection of birds that were made out of sticks by two Vermont artists (Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein). Those were pretty monumental, and they looked great in the snow.”

The Hung Yi installation will be on display through April 15, 2017, but the next artist has not yet been chosen. The Garment District Alliance will soon request from artists and arts organizations proposals for “what they would do on Broadway if they had this ‘canvas.’” A committee of tenants will then choose from those submissions.

Finally, there is the Space for Public Art. Artists are recruited to display their works for several months in a storefront window in the district. There is one permanent window in the building where the alliance operates, but other building owners who have spaces that would be otherwise empty also participate. For this initiative, the alliance prefers local artists first, but has welcomed participants from all over. Artists interested in this opportunity are invited to submit proposals to the alliance. More information on how to do so can be found on its Web site.

So when you’re in New York City looking to get your art fix, don’t overlook the Garment District. Thanks to the efforts of the Garment District  Alliance, it has become a thriving area with much to offer. From diverse retail establishments to exciting arts programs, it’s not just buttons and bows anymore.

The Garment District Alliance is online at


About the author

Kelso Jacks

Kelso Jacks was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and happily continues to live there. She enjoys walking her dogs, outsider and street art, and bourbon.

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