The Garment District and Chinatown

Today, the buildings in Core Chinatown and the area immediately south of Kneeland St. are a mixture of 1840s row houses and 19th and 20th century loft buildings. This was the result of the parallel expansion of both Chinatown and the Garment District in the same geographic area.

The distribution of garment buildings (blue) and Chinatown buildings (brown) circa 1930. Diagram by Randall Imai.
The distribution of garment buildings (blue) and Chinatown buildings (brown) circa 1930. Diagram by Randall Imai.

19TH CENTURY

Boston’s Garment Industry started in the mid 19th century as increasing urbanization raised demand for ready-made clothing and shoes. The Civil War further increased the demand for uniforms etc. In the late 19th century, the influx of Eastern European Jews and Italians brought entrepreneurs, skilled tailors and a large work force.

The 1872 Fire destroyed the earlier garment and leather factories. This led to relocation into the South Station and Chauncy Street areas. In 1898, sweatshops operating in tenements (mostly North and West Ends) were outlawed and work moved to loft factories. The industry expanded in the late 19th century south towards Essex St. At the same time, Chinatown was establishing itself on Harrison Ave. between Essex and Beach Streets.

1902 – Beehive Map
1902 – Beehive Map

1900-1917 GROWTH

The building of the El down Harrison Ave. and Beach St.  in 1901 drove out residential uses (except for the Syrians and the Chinese). The drop in property prices coincided with the expansion of the garment industry in the early 20th century. The noise of the elevated trains was no hindrance for manufacturing but daylight was still necessary to supplement electric lights for the workers.

Kheel Archives
Garment workers in New York. Kheel Archives

As a result, the first wave of buildings was about nine stories tall, steel framed with large windows. Corner locations with two outside walls were favored. Most notable is the intersection of Beach St. and Harrison Ave. – here was the station entrance for the El and five garment buildings. These displaced Chinese residents, establishments and restaurants that then moved around the corner to Beach and Tyler streets.

The street level stores were those that served the industry – sewing machines, buttons, textiles, embroidery, lace etc.

Looking north on Harrison Ave. intersection with Beach St. This shows that all four corners were dominated by garment buildings with large windows on two sides.
Looking north on Harrison Ave. intersection with Beach St. This shows that all four corners were dominated by garment buildings with large windows on two sides.

 

1920 – Beehive Map
1920 – Beehive Map

PEAK – 1920s

The industry continued to expand after WW I and reached its peak in the late 20s. The second wave of buildings was taller – 12-14 stories – with larger footprints as daylight became less important. These were built mainly on the south side of Kneeland St. where larger sites were available when Kneeland St. was widened. Unfortunately, at the same time that the industry was suffering from the dominance of New York and competition from other centers like Chicago, it was hard hit by the Depression. The Hudson Building  at 75 Kneeland St. (with up-to-date Art Deco decorations) was finished in 1928 but was not fully occupied until after WW II.

South side of Kneeland St.with garment buildings built in the 1920s.
South side of Kneeland St.with garment buildings built in the 1920s.
1930 – Beehive Map
1930 – Beehive Map

DECLINE & THREATS

In 1952 the industry and Chinatown were threatened with oblivion by a proposal to build the Central Artery right through both. It would have taken out the majority of the buildings including the Hudson Building and left the survivors isolated next to a highway and its ramps.

Map of DPW proposal for alternate routes for the Central Artery. Early 1950s. Source: http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/highway/Departments/EnvironmentalServices/CulturalResourcesUnit/BostonAerialPhotos.aspx
Map of DPW proposal for alternate routes for the Central Artery. Early 1950s.
Source: The Massachusetts Department of Transportation – Highway Division

The industry joined with Chinatown to oppose the routing and most of it was spared. But it continued to decline. According to Anthony Tappé’s MCP thesis of 1958, the industry was still the largest in Boston and employed over 13.000 people. But by 1981, hampered by increased foreign competition, the industry had shrunk to 8000 workers.  The traditional immigrant owners and workers moved to the suburbs and the second and third generations were moving onto the professions and white-collar work.

Boston Globe 1953
Boston Globe 1953

CHINESE INFLUX

Up to WWII, there were few Chinese involved in the industry. Even though Chinatown and the garment factories were cheek-by-jowl with each other, there was no interaction between the two. There were a few restaurants like Yee Hong Guey and Ruby Foo’s that were popular among some of the owners. The reasons were the shortage of Chinese women and language and cultural obstacles. The influx of Chinese women after WWII and the 1965 Act brought large numbers of Chinese women (mainly from Hong Kong) who were skilled seamstresses and accustomed to factory work. It was the influx of this reliable work force that kept the industry viable even as it continued its decline. Finally in the 80s Tufts Medical Center and the University’s Dental and Medical Schools began to purchase the loft buildings and to lease the adaptable space at higher rentals.

6. Garment factory CHSNE photo
Chinese Female Garment Worker, 1972. CHSNE Photo

 

END & RE-USE OF BUILDINGS

Today the industry is completely gone but the old loft buildings have been converted to other uses. In core Chinatown, they have been adapted for housing, family associations, offices and restaurants. The large spaces have been ideal for the large dim-sum restaurants like the China Pearl and Chow Chow City. South of Kneeland, Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Dental and Medical Schools have converted them to laboratories, offices, classrooms and other academic uses.

 

 

References:

Wai-han Mak  The Female Chinese Garment Workers in Boston’s Chinatown

Boston University MS thesis 1980 (unpublished)

Tappé,  Anthony  (1958) The Ladies Garment Industry in Boston.  Unpublished MCP Thesis MIT

EDIC/BOSTON (1981) The Garment Industry: Will It Survive In Boston?

The Great Workshop

Maps by Beehive.

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The Garment District and Chinatown

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