From Chicago grain elevators to art/film space to potential spot for redevelopment

Urban properties can go through a series of changes and one set of grain elevators on Chicago’s Southwest Side have seen their share of uses:

Grain elevators’ histories are often marred with explosions (something about the dust mixed with oxygen), and one such spontaneous combustion on these 24 acres led to the current John Metcalf-designed “Damen Silos” property, formerly the Santa Fe Railroad Grain Elevator, built in 1906 at 2900 S Damen off the South Branch of the Chicago River. Keep in mind the staggering presence of 35 80-foot silos in the pre-skyscraper era. They churned out 400,000 bushels thanks to machines running on 1,500 horsepower (from steam and electricity). Unfortunately while users changed (Stratton Grain Co was up next), explosions continued…

The property’s been a fertile stomping ground for the street art and photography set for years. Brent Bandemer’s 2012 short film “Gone” documents the life of David “Gone” Brault, a 23-year-old suspended college student squatting at the Damen Silos to teach others how to survive when the apocalypse comes. (Understandable, given the silos’ arty End of Days vibe, and where Chicago apartment rents are headed.) As David’s favorite graffiti on the property says, “One day the whole city will be this beautiful.” In 2013 it was a filming location for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, whose special effects hit eerily close to home…

The state’s only remaining vacant land in Chicago, the property’s location (with Chicago River frontage and access to interstate travel) should be its biggest selling point, says the CMS spokeswoman, along with lots of land to play with for industrial redevelopment. Looking at other grain elevators around the world, you’ll find creative adaptive reuse strategies ranging from residential to office to data centers to artsy (they work well as both canvases and projection screens). A distributor who needs water and highway access would be more practical, though probably not as pretty.

Perhaps this exemplifies the shifts in the American economy in the last century or so: Chicago as an agricultural center taking in grain from all over the Midwest but then losing agricultural and manufacturing jobs as the country moved to a knowledge economy. The empty space then finds a second use as space for artists who can work with the postindustrial vibe. Now, the property offers some advantages for redevelopment with easy access to transportation (one of Chicago’s continued strengths).

At the least, this property offers some unique potential in a city known for its industrial and agricultural past.

Mapping NYC’s manufacturing facilities in 1919

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.