Great Big City, Tiny Little Districts

Karl Sluis
Oct 29, 2015 · 5 min read

Mapping the Microdistricts of New York City

Upper West Side. Meatpacking. Washington Heights. Little Italy. TriBeCa. This isn’t a story about Manhattan’s well-known neighborhoods. This is a story about the microdistricts within those neighborhoods — small commercial zones with an overabundance of similar businesses that only New York’s density could create.

A few weeks ago, as I walked to work in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, I noticed something unusual — not one, not two, but four tile stores, side by side, on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. Strange. Then, I remembered rumors about a magical street in Chelsea populated by dozens of flower nurseries. I already knew of Manhattan’s legendary Garment District. I wondered — how many microdistricts could there be in the city?

Tiles to the Furniture District

The Flower District

Strolling down 28th Street

In fact, some sources refer to a Fur and Flower District in the neighborhood. According to the New York Times, florists migrated to the neighborhood before the turn of the twentieth century. “They wanted to be closer to their customers, both the upscale department stores along Ladies’ Mile and the elegant residences on Fifth Avenue, but also the theaters, restaurants, and brothels in the nearby Tenderloin district.”

The Garment District

The garment industry once dominated New York’s economy. In 1910, 70% of all women’s clothing, and 40% of men’s clothing, was made in New York City, the result of a fortuitous mix of easy port access, new industrial machines, and cheap labor. The Garment District located itself close enough to the shops of Fifth Avenue for easy delivery yet maintained some distance to separate the consumption and production of luxury goods.

Chelsea Art Galleries

Also note the many art galleries on 57th Street, known as “Billionaire’s Row,” mixed with ultra-luxe shopping and impossibly expensive real estate.

The Diamond District(s)

The Diamond District, today

As rents rose, diamond merchants moved en masse to a new district, at the intersection of Canal Street and the Bowery, which still appears on the above map. A massive influx of merchants after World War II encouraged another move for New York’s jewelry shops to today’s Diamond District in Midtown, where over 4,000 merchants produce over $24 billion in sales every year.

Shopping Districts

Truth be told, I was hoping to find even more magical little districts — perhaps a few tenacious farriers in the West Village, or something that could only be described as “The Teddy Roosevelt Memorabilia District.” Even without, Manhattan’s lesser-known microdistricts still present an incredible, indelible, and absolutely unique commercial and cultural tapestry.

Karl Sluis

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Cities, mobility, and product leadership in New York City