A 1919 map of New York City’s manufacturing facilities provides insights into the city’s manufacturing prowess:
In 1919, this list shows, New York produced more than 50% of total national output in twelve lines of manufacture, and was competitive in many more.
Geographer Richard Harris, writing about industry in the city between 1900-1940 in the Journal of Historical Geography, points out that because of the particular products New York was known for (lapidary work, women’s clothing, millinery), many industrial workers were women. In 1939, they represented 36% of the total workforce. Workers in Lower Manhattan, where many garment factories were located, were particularly female.
Harris points out that although factories tended to move outward into the boroughs after 1919, before WWII the city did retain many factories in its central core, bucking the nationwide trend of suburbanization of industry. In 1940, 60% of New York workers had manufacturing jobs.
In the midcentury period, however, development trends turned toward offices and corporate headquarters. Zoning regulations made building more factories difficult.
In recent years, the city’s economy has rested on the service and financial industries. While manufacturers still do set up shop in the city, the scope of their activities is specialized. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, industry now provides just 16% of private-sector jobs. New York still produces garments, textiles, and printed material, and has increased production of packaged foods (see this October 2013 report from the NYCEDC for details [PDF]), but city factories tend to be smaller and to employ fewer workers.
This is an impressive range of industrial capabilities in 1919. As the above section notes, today New York City doesn’t have much of a manufacturing image due to the rise of Wall Street, the finance industry, the sector, and entertainment industries. Yet, 16% of manufacturing jobs in New York City still adds up to a big number of employees and firms, even if these facilities are not in highly visible areas in Manhattan. Additionally, some of the more hip areas in New York City today, such as Williamsburg and SoHo, are places that were ripe for gentrification and redevelopment in recent decades after large industry left in the mid 20th century.