by Jeffrey Betcher
Co-Founding PWSF Board Member
Between Bayshore Boulevard and Industrial Avenue, in San Francisco’s economically-challenged Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, a triangular street called “Apparel Way” marks a largely forgotten facet of neighborhood history. It might be just another garment industry haunting, the “Ghost of Business Past,” except for a couple lively apparel businesses that still exist where once there were enough to earn a street sign.
But Apparel Way is more than a window to history. It may also be a marker on the economic road ahead in what is a rapidly changing urban neighborhood.
San Francisco’s sewn products design and manufacturing industry was bursting at the seams twenty years ago, and included local luminaries such as Gap, Levi’s, Esprit and Jessica McClintock.
Today, both the number of industry workers in the City and the quantity of products being stitched here are pale reflections of the heyday. Smaller businesses were flattened by regulation, overseas competition and a bad economy, while larger ones moved production off-shore to survive.
That may be changing. Local manufacturing has become more economical as the value of the dollar has declined. The “Maker” mentality is resurgent. And all things “local” are being revalued.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that a neighborhood known for industry and scrappy entrepreneurs would host a stirring of apparel businesses. Blue Canoe (on Oakdale) and West Coast (on Elmira) have relocated here in the past couple of months. Professional contractors like Cynthia Carley at ApparelWiz have opened satellite offices.
On Apparel Way, Bayview Hunters Point’s historic garment industry hub, tenacious entrepreneurs who never left are succeeding. Beverley Siri of Siri, Inc. posted two job openings on PeopleWearSF’s new job board. Similarly, Lynette Cason of Cason Culinary Design hosted a PWSF trade mixer last January that showed off new design and production space any business would envy.
Bayview and SF’s Southeast Sector in general is fertile soil for this industry resurgence. Industrial space is relatively inexpensive there. Supportive institutions like City College and SFSU are nearby. And the drive toward innovation is palpable as the area is remade by massive public and private investment.
Transit via MUNI lines (9, 22, 24, and T-Third light rail) make getting workers to and from job sites about as good as it gets in San Francisco. Working families can more easily make a life here than elsewhere in the City.
Just as importantly, the independent spirit crucial to any creative industry remains especially healthy in Bayview. As other San Francisco neighborhoods seem to take on uniformity like sections of an expensive university’s sprawling campus, Bayview remains unique.
The time to consider the Southeast Sector as a place for sewn products designers and manufacturers to set up shop is here. Also here is the time for entrepreneurs already based in the Southeast Sector to roll up their sleeves.
The plan for my own start-up apparel business, YamStreet, which seems forever on the drawing board, has clarified as I have become involved as an organizer in my evolving neighborhood. Not long ago, connecting my for-profit business vision with my not-for-profit place-based work in Bayview seemed like a recipe for “brand confusion.” Now it seems natural, even essential.
Remember when the local sporting goods store spent it’s marketing budget on Little League jerseys for local kids playing on their team?
Mixing business with community is back again, and you don’t have to own a cafe to benefit. As an organizer, I believe that good community building finds opportunity in the midst of challenge, and strengthens existing capacity when other approaches express designs on a place as though no one had ever lived there. As an entrepreneur, I believe that good business building nimbly follows opportunity and treats people as if they were neighbors.
The values that guide my work in the community seem transferable and mutually-reinforcing alongside socially-responsible business development. Trying to reinvent a grassroots foundation of trust for business purposes now resembles a fool’s errand to me. In fact, the neighborhood-based network of support emerging informally around me as an involved community member seems to be even more robust than I had imagined, and includes businesses that strengthen the neighborhood while drawing strength from it.
Some of those neighborhood businesses are survivors, like those on Apparel Way, that connect industrial history and future potential. Some entrepreneurs are just discovering that Apparel Way exists. All share an air of determination and optimism that has been circulating in Bayview and the City’s Southeast Sector from the beginning.