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Small Urban Manufacturers Make it in the U.S.A.

Last year, my then-six-year-old daughter went through a period of being enamored by all things made in China. For about three days it was all “Ooh, I’m going to wear my special China dress today” and “I’m going to play with my special China stuffed cow” before she figured out that, alas, such items weren’t so special after all. The fleeting period ended with her asking in exasperation--and I’m not making this up--“Don’t we make anything in this country?” Fortunately, her fascination with such labels ended before Christmas, because my husband and I weren’t sure how were going to skirt questions about why Santa’s elves were living in some place called Vietnam.

In fact, we still make many things here in the U.S.A., even if not a whole lot of them make it into my daughter’s closet or toy box. Lizzy Bennett’s piece on the Atlantic’s website earlier this week about manufacturers in San Francisco talks about the speed and nimbleness of small firms like the one she works for, which makes custom messenger bags. A Baltimore version of this story ran in the Sun earlier this year, featuring companies producing everything from lacrosse sticks to caramels.

The fact is that, though U.S. manufacturing has certainly taken a big hit the past several decades, much of the sector that remains--and continues to grow anew--is dramatically different from what it once was. Unlike the days when large companies dominated the nation’s commodity production, today’s manufacturing landscape is largely occupied by decentralized networks of small specialized firms, many of which are hidden in plain sight in America’s urban areas. Nicely, if inadvertently, foreshadowing a forthcoming paper on small urban manufacturing by Brookings and the New York City-based Pratt Center for Community Development, Bennett rightly points out that policy--local, state, and federal--needs to recognize the economic gems these companies are and help them overcome the land and building constraints, capital access problems, workforce issues, and other challenges that can hinder their success. 

“Made in China” (or Indonesia, India, Thailand, Mexico…) may continue to dominate the tags on my kids’ stuff, but we can all take heart that the gears of industry whirl right here at home, too--we just need to know where to look for them.