Repurposing industrial sites for something other than gentrification

Way back in the day, we did two things right: Building really cool factories and filling them with child labour. Wait, make that one thing: Building really cool factories. People seriously did not mess around when it came to designing and constructing absolutely beautiful buildings designed to endure for decades, and a century or more later, many are still standing, even in regions like California, where building in brick and stone is maybe not the best idea. They’re huge, and elegant, and glorious, with soaring arched windows (the better to let light in pre-electricity), and carved ornamentation and wooden floors. It’s the kind of stuff people pay big money for now, because modern construction costs and tastes don’t permit this kind of construction.

In fact, it really is the kind of thing people pay big money for, as many former factories and storage facilities are being converted into lofts and trendy little businesses. Which makes me die inside. It really does. On the one hand, I agree these buildings should be used instead of allowed to fall into decay, because I dislike waste. On the other hand, it makes me sad to see buildings chopped up into expensive, gentrified units that are only affordable to a limited number of people — especially when people say that it ‘revitalises’ depressed neighbourhoods (oddly, decaying factories keep property values low), but what it really does is push out people who have been there for decades, generations. Gentrifiers merrily dance in to hang Edison bulbs from the ceiling and go to their twee coffeeshops, and those old buildings do get used, which is lovely, but the Lofts At Wherever also represent a kind of cultural death.

There’s no reason that the choices here should be between ’empty, abandoned, sad buildings’ and ‘gentrification.’ There’s a whole world of things between, and I’m really intrigued and excited by proposals to actually rejuvenate such sites to their original purpose: Building things. Only this time, with less child labour, and better working conditions. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be producing textiles and other goods here in the US — in fact, we’re seeing a demonstrated market for it as many people are trying to avoid sweatshops and labour from other unethical sources. This is a golden opportunity for manufacturing that could be sustainable, and I love that people are starting to go there with it.

Newsweek had a feature a while back about an interesting experiment in Kentucky, a state with a big problem: A whole lot of tobacco that’s going nowhere. Tobacco farms are having trouble moving their chief product, but they’re already set up for growing a very specific crop, complete with drying sheds and other handling equipment designed for tobacco. Can they be converted? Yes, of course, but at considerable and not always functional cost. Farmers may have the choice between letting land lie fallow (bad), continuing to grow tobacco (not great, for a number of reasons), and struggling to pay to repurpose, up to and including parceling up their land to sell it in subdivisions (bad, because it contributes to habitat fragmentation and sprawl).

What if, though, what if farmers decided to grow hemp? Like tobacco, hemp needs a lot of room to grow. It’s harvested in much the same way. And here’s the kicker: It also needs drying sheds and very specific handling conditions after harvest so it can later be beaten into hemp fiber which can be spun into various textiles including yarn, thread, rope, and cord. Setting up an industrial hemp operation requires considerable resources — resources that tobacco farms already have. Farms that are sitting empty because the market for tobacco is shifting.

So why not take advantage of that? It’s what farmers and officials working on a hemp pilot program are reasoning, because we very clearly can benefit from industrial hemp — it’s a strong fiber that can be efficiently cultivated and used for a range of things, and no, you can’t smoke it, I mean you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. We might as well use existing infrastructure to run the program because it means we don’t have to invest in resources we might later decide we don’t want or need, and it means we’re furnishing struggling tobacco farmers with work. Everybody wins!

It’s one small example of something with distinctive potential. Empty cotton factory? The old equipment is probably outdated and too trashed to use, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be used to make fabric again, instead of being turned into The Old Cotton Mill at Someplace, with a bunch of boutiques and $1.5 million lofts. Former chemical manufacturing facility? Okay, you have some environmental cleanup on your hands and might not want to produce industrial chemicals there again, but it could potentially be turned into a domestic manufacturing site for metal goods or other components.

There’s all this cool stuff we could be making in places that were once used to make stuff. We don’t have to sell retail crap and a lifestyle where we could be giving people actual jobs making actual things with their hands. Maybe some of those people will be artisans returning to traditional methods of production — like knitters and weavers or jewelers — or maybe they’ll just be people who need a place to make stuff and conveniently have one in the form of a facility that was designed to make stuff. That makes it easier to buy US-made, to support US manufacturers, to inspect and audit facilities that pay workers fairly.

Personally, I’d rather buy a pair of pants made in the US from US-grown crops spun and woven in the US by union workers in need of jobs than see yet another useless development grow up where people used to actually do things. 

Image: Inspecting the Hemp in the Old Drying Shed, Tara Jones, Flickr