Elizabeth Forum 2012
The Singer Corporation And Community
The HSENJ gratefully acknowledges the financial support for this Elizabeth Forum and thanks the Infineum Corporation, Fidelity Investments, the Emsbo-Mattingly Foundation and a series of individual contributors. The Society also wishes to express its appreciation for in-kind assistance, especially the Elizabeth Public Library’s History Room and the unflagging support of Librarian Nancy Smith. We also greatly appreciate the participation of citizens who were interviewed for this project and who shared their historical knowledge with us: Anna Boronas, Jose Cuevas, Rev. Joseph Garlic, Manny Grova, Warren Grover, Anastasia Mantia, Pauline Shirley, Lorraine Staboris, Bruce Symon.
In 1873 the Singer Sewing Machine Manufacturing Company purchased 32 acres of vacant land in Elizabeth, New Jersey. This transaction was more momentous for the city than any previous event. Not the original founding and charting of the city in 1664, not its seminal role in American Revolution of the 1770s and 1780s, not its shaping role of the state of New Jersey. The Singer Sewing Machine Company would become, first the center of the city’s economy for the next one hundred years. But more important, in these years, when New Jersey became one of the most industrialized states during America’s industrial heyday, the Singer Corporation would become an industrial model, pioneering a number of patented inventions, organizational strategies, marketing successes and, not least important, international brand recognition.
By 1890 the corporation had produced over 13 million machines worldwide since its 1863 incorporation and – since half of these were built and sold abroad – Singer was America’s first international corporation.
The origins of this phenomenon were singularly unprepossessing. Issac Merritt Singer, the son of German immigrants, was born in 1811 in upstate New York and spent his youth pursuing the role of actor until well into his thirties. By that time he had been married twice and had fathered eight children and his financial prospects remained permanently shaky. At a period in life when most ambitious young men had a plan and a trajectory, Singer shifted his attentions from the stage to invention. He began work on a machine to carve letters for printing but had trouble finding backers and failed to produce a prototype. His efforts to interest financing in this project took him to New York, where he was asked to examine a new device, a sewing machine.
Unaware of other competitors at that moment – like Elias Howe who is often credited with the invention of the sewing machine[i] – Singer made some crucial corrections in the design before him, particularly the insertion of a heart-shaped cam and a straight (rather than a curved needle) which facilitated a continuous feed of cloth.
Singer’s ingenuity – he patented 12 new ideas in 1857 alone – was insufficient to produce a successful machine production. Equally important to most successful American corporations were the added ingredients of organization and legal defense. Elias Howe was not alone in attacking Singer’s claims, but Singer alone had the good fortune to encounter Edward B Clark (1811-1882) in mounting a defense against Howe and others. Clark, born in upstate New York and exactly Singer’s contemporary, was a graduate of Williams College and a New York lawyer. Singer hired him to protect his invention, which he did successfully and became Singer’s partner. In part, Singer’s metal machine and other devices were sufficiently different from Howe’s that Singer prevailed and fashioned a settlement with Howe and others. His precision parts and imitation of Samuel Colt’s principle of interchangeable pieces enabled the Singer company not only to duplicate production elsewhere with no loss of quality but also to create a reputation of quick repair and long-term endurance of his machine.
It would be Clark who would capitalize on these features with strategically located showrooms, trained agents to demonstrate and fix machines, to hire agents native to a region and give dealers autonomy in advertising and discounts. It was also Clark who gave pastor’s wives cut-rates on machines to be shown to their congregations, the acceptance of trade-ins which would be destroyed to preclude a secondary market and above all in 1856 to devise the first installment plan ($5 down and $3 per month) on a $100 machine.
When sales flagged during the Civil War, Clark donated machines to the war effort and at the same time created his first overseas factory in France. After the war Clark cut the price of the sewing machine in half, just as some of his early patents expired, so as to guarantee dominance of the sewing machine market. He also reinvested these new profits into a cash fund, a policy followed by his successors, which precluded borrowing from banks in later economic downturns and giving them great leverage in purchasing competitors among other opportunities.
The Singer Corporation initially produced industrial-grade machines. They promoted as fact that one machine enabled a cobbler to sew 900 pairs of shoes in a 10 hour day, eleven times the ordinary production of a single shoemaker. In 1859 the company produced a family machine, whose advantages were obvious to every family with multiple children. Clark’s organizational and marketing strategies translated into a company that boasted 20,000 units annually and a capitalization of $550,000.
The center of this enterprise was Mott Street in New York City where narrow streets slowed the movement of materials to the industry and complicated the export of finished products.
In addition, Issac Merritt Singer became a liability. Singer’s reputation as a polygamist and philanderer – he would eventually father 24 children by six women, two of whom he married – resulted in his ostracization by New York’s 5th Avenue society and threatened the sale of his famous machine.
Once again Clark stepped into the breach and produced a deal with Singer: a) Singer would sign over 50% control of his patents to the corporation, b) take 40% of its stock and sever his ties with the industrial operation. Singer also insisted that Clark himself not become the company president and hence Clark arranged for a figurehead leader, Inslee Hopper (1837-1881), while he continued to run the company behind the scenes.
In 1863 Singer agreed and took his familial entourage to England where he built a residence to accommodate his expansive family, calling it “The Wigwam.” There he remained attentive to all his children and partners until his death in 1875. Through his inventive ingenuity, he seems finally to have achieved his first aspiration to be a successful actor!
1927 MAP OF ELIZABETHPORT NEIGHBORHOOD (1ST TO 2ND STS)
By 1873 the Singer company had determined to move its extensive industrial production to a more suitable site, near to its New York Central offices (149 Broadway) but accessible to both railroad and water transportation. It was Inslee Hopper who pushed hard for the site of Elizabeth NJ (and eventually putting his first name on a street nearby the plant) . The railroads had been a presence in Elizabeth since the 1840s and had made Elizabethport a desirable urban getaway, with its large hotel, water access (the Arthur Kill), access to fresh fruit and vegetables, not to mention fresh seafood. But of course, the importance of the Arthur Kill’s proximity to ocean going commerce and coastal shipping made the affordable industrial site especially attractive to the company’s international ambitions. In 1871, for example, overseas sales had for the first time exceeded domestic consumption, legitimating the earlier (1867) decision to construct factories in Scotland (first at Kilbowie, then in Clydebank) and in England at Brighton, where Singer became Britain’s largest manufacturer. These plants lowered worker wages and reduced the expense of transoceanic shipping charges, not to mention production costs.
By the time of Singer’s arrival in Elizabeth in 1873 the corporation produced more sewing machines than all of its competitors combined and was an industrial giant. Its arrival also meant that Elizabeth easily weathered the economic depression known as the Panic of 1873 that elsewhere caused great economic hardship and job loss.
What actually did Singer’s impact have on Elizabeth? By 1873 America’s industrial achievement had transformed the work of manufacturing familiar to Americans before the Civil War. Up to 1860 the average “manufacturer” in the United States was still comparatively very small, involving no more than several dozen workers. A corps group of employees indeed often boarded in the residence of their employer, who expected to monitor employee behavior, attend to education and training where necessary, provide for intervention in the case of illness and in general to extend the sheltering arm of a family about these unrelated individuals. Since the late 1820s there were exceptions to this “moral economy of labor” with the rise of textile mills in Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts. But even there, where the workforce consisted largely of farmer’s daughters, employers provided special dorms and mature matrons to oversee matters of education, diet, welfare and recreation. This proprietary tradition became one of the principle casualties of the American Civil War. In 1860 American soldiers in uniform comprised about 15,000 individuals. By the end of the war that number had exceeded five million. The rocketing increase of American production to prosecute the Civil War meant industries for mass production of uniforms, arms, ammunition, boots, buttons, saddles, canned food, boats, trains, etc. In this crisis of survival America had discovered its industrial capacity and had transformed it into a mechanism beyond anyone’s imagination.
SINGER FACTORY WITH RAILROAD ACCESS
Women Sewer’s inside the Singer Factory
Not least of of these changes was the relation between manufacturing employer and his employees. As employers attended more and more to technical innovation, organizational tiers, marketing outreach and international branches, employees were left to their own devices. Hardly surprising that after the Civil War, not only did workers began to initiate their own defenses via unions and mutual support associations. Many Protestant and Catholic churches began to expand and shape a new role as voice for workers in their congregations, culminating in movements historians now call the “Social Gospel” and eventually the Progressive Movement.
But even the more active of the churches tended to be congregation specific, more attentive to the ethnic and racial composition of their members than to a broad vision of a multiethnic, multiracial America. By 1900 employers who sought profitable gains in lowering worker wages could expect to be met with organized and occasionally violent resistance from their employees, a rare consequence in the years before the Civil War.
The first group of Singer presidents – all but the figurehead leader, Inslee Hopper – were born in the generational space between 1811 and 1822: Singer himself, Edward S. Clark and later (1882-1889) George McKenzie, a Scotch immigrant, who rose through the ranks and as president professionalized the bookkeeping for the company’s 40,000 employees and introduced employee profit-sharing.[i] Many kinship ties held together these early leaders and managerial staff and that circumstance perpetuated an older paternalistic attitude toward the Singer workforce.
The second generation of Singer leadership – Fredrick G Bourne (1852-1919) and Sir Douglas Alexander (1864-1949) – came to their maturity during Singer’s first major industrial success and gave the company leadership for nearly sixty years, from 1889 to 1949. These two individuals, who lived on large estates far from Elizabethport, faced an aging workforce and proceeded to reorganize the company to take advantage of engineering schools like MIT.
These new university graduates became a cadre of managerial experts, committed to the values of efficiency and technical innovation, men like Edwin H Bennett, a Cornell graduate, who would manage the Elizabethport plant for many years.
SINGER WITH SINGER EXECS: GEO McKENZIE AND INSLEE HOPPER
SINGER PRESIDENT, FREDERICK BOURNE
Bourne also created an advertising department which promoted Singer’s ubiquitous icon, the Red S. He also introduced a cabinet-making competent to insert his machine into a furniture worthy container and created a research department to guarantee a steady supply of adaptations – like the device for making buttonholes – to keep his product cutting edge.[i]
One major development of these years was the consequence of another immigrant talent, Phillip Diehl, (1847-1913) of Dalsheim, Germany. His first work in NYC machine shops gave him the credentials to work for Singer’s but he then moved on to Singer’s Chicago facility, where he experienced the city’s famous fire of 1871, narrowly escaping death. He returned to Singer’s Elizabeth plant in 1875 to take charge of experimental improvements.
Among his early inventions was an incandescent lamp, with some interesting variations on the device of Thomas Alva Edison, who coincidentally lived for a time on Morris Avenue in Elizabeth not far from Diehl’s long-time home at #508.
Diehl’s lamp was used on the sewing machines and was sufficiently different from Edison’s to evade his patent strictures but sufficiently close that Westinghouse, the holder of the Edison patent, arranged a $25,000 settlement with Diehl.
PHILLIP DIEHL, INVENTOR
PHILLIP DIEHL’S MORRIS AVE.
But more important for Singer, Diehl developed an electric motor for the sewing machine in the 1880s and in 1889 connected the motor to the machine’s foot treadle. His motor eventually was adapted to ceiling fans for homes and Pullman cars and myriad other uses. In 1887 Diehl founded his own company, (after 1909 the Diehl Manufacturing company), which became a major supplier to Singer’s as well as to Sears for its hand-held drills and bench grinders. In 1988 the company was acquired by the Japanese corporation, Ryobi Motor Products Corporation.
In these years the Singer conglomerate continued not only technical innovations but its purchase of competitors (Wilson and Wheeler) and overseas expansion. At the insistence of George Neidlinger, who began work as a water boy at the Mott St plant but later managed Singer’s branch in Hamburg, the company created its first Russian factory, which in a few short years became Singer’s third largest and enabling the company to build a 6-story structure in St Petersburg.
In 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power and in 1918 nationalized the Russian branch, inflicting a $115M loss on Singer, the largest financial loss of any corporation to that date. Under its then president, British-born Douglas Alexander,
Singer quickly converted its machinery to war production (airplane parts, tanks, shells etc). At Elizabethport the factory produced 75mm cannons, in appreciation for which King George V made Alexander a baronet and gave him the title “Sir.” In the wake of the war Alexander capitalized on further industrial advances in Australia, the Philippines, Burma and China. At home Alexander cultivated mail-order links to Sears and Montgomery Ward to make the Singer machine a ubiquitous presence in the American middle class home.
SINGER PRESIDENT, SIR DOUGLAS ALEXANDER
He also hired a young Michigan State graduate with training at Harvard Law, – Milton Lightner (later Singer president from 1949-1958) to streamline the connection to public high schools. Part of this outreach took advantage of the Great Depression, with many people making their own clothes, as well as capitalizing on the proliferation of the auto (eventually company cars) and expanding the geography of their market salesmen.
During the presidencies of Bourne, Alexander and Lightner one major feature was the increasing unrest of its workforce and corporate efforts to impose a new discipline.
In 1911 Singer’s Clydesbank factory went on strike, following the introduction of scientific management measures to intensify the workpace and to lower wages. Twelve female cabinet polishers struck in protest and – to everyone’s surprise – 11,000 employees at all levels and configurations struck in sympathy, an unprecedented solidarity and the “first significant strike ever waged against a multinational corporation.” [i] Alexander’s first response was to increase production elsewhere to circumvent the Scottish plant. He then promised the strikers equity, settled the strike and fired 400 workers, while reducing the pay and responsibilities of others. The Alexander presidency set the pattern, for what one later employee characterized as a “tight-wad” policy. Regular interruptions, including corporate lockouts,[ii] became regular features of both Singer and the American corporate landscape.
Alexander’s completion of the 1908 Singer skyscraper in New York City, originally intending to flaunt the company’s power and influence, became shadowed by their actual corporate behavior. Still, during Alexander’s long tenure of 44 years (1905-49), the company continued to welcome and assimilate a variety of ethnic and racial newcomers into America’s corporate culture.[iii]
While Alexander and most of the 20th century Singer presidents resided on large estates, far from the city, for many years Singer benefited from longtime Elizabethport superintendents, like NJ-born Lebbeus Miller, who resided in the city for all the years he managed the plants (1880-1910)
The Singer Sewing Machine Company impacted all of Elizabeth and especially Elizabethport for all of its history. The Historical Society tried to examine its impact more closely by studying a select neighborhood close to the plant itself: Ripley to Clark place and First to Third Streets. Our sample included 450 residences in 1910 and over 600 for 1920 and 1930 samples. The census grouping permitted us to observe the changes in the neighborhood demography and to get a sense of transformations in both the city and the industrial corporation. The most dramatic shift was the increase in skilled workers between 1910 and 1920, from 42% to 54% of this sample neighborhood.
OCCUPATION STATISTICS, 1910-1930
NATIONAL ORIGINS STATISTICS, 1910-1930
Skilled labor, especially for a largely unionized population, meant family wages. In addition, in this neighborhood it also meant walking to work. As we have documented in other studies of Elizabethport neighborhoods, few had garages or the need for them ie automobiles. Even with the constrictions of the oncoming 1929 depression, skilled labor stayed high, at 44% in 1930.
So in spite of fluctuations in the national economy, Elizabethport and the Singer neighborhood homes experienced a relative stability in these turbulent years.
The ethnic composition of the neighborhood experienced a dramatic reorganization in this same period. The ratio of European residents to native-born resident remained relatively constant at 76% to 24%. However, by 1930, unlike 1910, many of the native-born residents had European born parents. In addition, the substantive 18% German population in 1910 had become a mere 5% by 1930. Similarly Austro-Hungarian Elizabethans – 15% in 1910 – were reduced to 2% by 1930. On a similar parallel, the Irish-born 15% in 1910 became 4% in 1930. All these groups were displaced by an influx of Lithuanian and Portuguese householders: 25% for Lithuanians in 1930 and 11% Portuguese.
In 1910 there is but one Portuguese family in our sample neighborhood, Manuel Pedrosa, living in a four family structure at 133 Inslee Place,( now not extant but likely similar to its extant neighbor at 133) . Pedrosa resided there with his wife, two children and mother, Rosalina. Manuel is a 30 year old Captain of a Tug Boat, undoubtedly plying the waters of the Arthur Kill and New York Harbor, resources that made Elizabeth so attractive to corporations like Singers.
Enterprising Portuguese in later censuses like 33 year old Candido Martinis (226 Ripley Place) who worked in 1920 as a proprietor of a boarding house for 23 Portuguese ( several born in Brazil) Singer laborers. By the 1930 census Portuguese residents had increased substantively and would continue to do so through and after World War II. Councilman Manny Grova has testified to his father’s work in the Portuguese navy, introducing him to Norfolk, Virginia and other ports of call. When his naval term was complete, his thoughts turned to the US and to an uncle resident in Elizabeth, where he subsequently made his home.
It should be noted that throughout the 19th century Portuguese sailors became familiar with the US – esp in New England and California – because whaling ships often stopped at Portuguese ports in Lisbon, Photo: Lisbon Harbor in the 18th century] the Azores or Cape Verde Islands to fill out their crews. Individuals who joined such ships evaded their 8-year military service to the Portuguese state. Sailors became the mainstay of Portuguese communities like Fall River and New Bedford Massachusetts as well as Pawtucket and East Providence in Rhode Island. These communities stayed in touch with their homeland and provided havens for residence and work to a steady stream of immigrants into the 20th century. However, after World War I the US congress passed, first the Immigration Act of 1921 which put a 2500 limit on Portuguese immigrants. Later in 1924 the Reid Johnson Act reduce this quota to 204 individuals.
131 INSLEE PLACE
He would continue his work until March of 1924. In that year he was succeeded by Brooklyn-born Lithuanian priest, Rev. Joseph Simonaitis, who in the 1930 census is 30 years of age, resided at 211 Ripley, now worth $20,000. He would serve as pastor until Feb 1953. In 1930 214 Ripley Place now houses Sr. Mary Paul, age 34. superior of a religious community of 7 nuns and two candidates,- the Order of St Francis from Pittsburgh, Pa – all born in the US of Lithuanian parents, all listing their occupations as school teachers.
This parish would root the Lithuanian community with sufficient depth that from 1969 to 2005, Sts Peter and Paul parish would be led by two priests who had been born in the parish itself, Rev Peter F Zemeikis and his brother Rev. Alfred T Semeikis. Eventually Sts Peter and Paul would merge with St Adalbert’s Church in 2009 under the leadership of Polish born Rev. Krzystof Szezotka.
In 1981 the original 152 foot steeples of St P&P were removed, weakened as they were by years of overhead plane vibrations. The result was an abbreviated but still striking church structure.[i] .
The Lithuanian surge of the 1920s resulted from early immigrants staying in touch with select homeland towns. The number of Elizabethport immigrants early on was a function also of the prospect of mandated service in the Russian army. In spite of little English many Lithuananians embarked for America and, closely attached to their church, formed a tight community. One memorable feature of the community, according to Anna Baronas and Lorraine Staboris, was the role of tatas, literally aunts but functionally neighborhood monitors. “Whenever you needed help for anything,” Anna Baronas explained, “a tata was ready to help.” Tatas also observed and commented on child behavior, often to parents, which had an immediate corrective effect and served as a powerful cohesive device for the neighborhood. Similarly whenever tragedy struck a family – factory injury, illness or death – , a neighbor simply took over the kitchen and maintained routines. In some instances, children became part of families with whom they had no blood connection. “No papers, no lawyers, ” Anna Baronas explained, ” they became brothers and sisters without fanfare.” [ii] Throughout the community, Lorraine Staboris recalled, “we found our entertainment in small things – lemon filled candies, local parades, sport events, etc – and each other.”[iii]
One important feature of the ethnic reconstruction involved the proliferation of German-Americans and native Americans in the managerial positions of Singer’s.[iv] The Germans also served as proprietors of the many Trumbull S saloons and boardinghouses across from Singers. Frederick Grampp, for example, who emigrated in 1884, ran a saloon in 1910 at 100 Trumbull St and lived above with his wife, three sons, his mother and his mother-in-law. In 1920 the saloon has become an expanded boarding-house – containing all the 1910 occupants plus a daughter and three servants to accommodate 15 boarders from a range of countries (Holland, Poland, New York and of course, Germany). By 1930 Frederick has passed away, his wife Mary is head of household (which is now worth $70,000 with son Fred listing his occupation as hotel keeper. His older brothers, William and Walter, shifted out of the saloon business into a more reputably associated hardware business that flourished as Grampp’s on Elizabeth Avenue until the 21st century.
This boarding house option for new emigrants can be found throughout our sample neighborhood but most often as an option for female widows. The 7-9% of neighborhood residents who listed their occupation as “None” or “Own Income” very often were female heads of households with many boarders. The boarding house options permitted women to convert a residence into a place of business where she could also monitor family members and children. One such example would be Anna Matusaitis, a 45 year old Lithuanian émigré with a son and daughter and two boarders (one a moulder, the other a city fireman) – both of Lithuanian parentage – at 213 Inslee Place in 1930.
STS. PETER AND PAUL
213 INSLEE PLACE
During World War II Sir Douglas Alexander still served as president of the Singer corporation. There was little his World War I experience could do to obviate the further bombing of his plants (for example, at Clydebank) or the Nazi confiscation of his German facilities. The Singer losses to World War II have been estimated at $50M. Returning soldiers, trained in a range of new technologies, did not always return to their Singer jobs. In addition, the US trade agreements to encourage Japanese manufactures further eroded Singer’s profit margins. Alexander tried to offset these problems with a diversification of Singer products in the domestic sphere: vacuum cleaners, clothes irons, electric appliances and, a gesture to the commercial sector, plastic laminating machines.
He also cut back on door-to-door salesmen, preferring to invest in advertising and thereby becoming the first American corporation to spend a million dollars for ads in a single year. Alexander’s successor, Milton Lightner. would finally liquidate Singer’s Japanese factories, which began immediately to produce cheaper models to flood the American market. These competitors eventually displaced Singer as supplier to Sears in 1957. In spite of all these impediments, Singer remained the largest sewing machine company in the world in 1949 producing 2500 different models and employing 7000 workers in Elizabethport, working three shifts, around the clock. It also worked to maintain its corporate culture by paying the college tuition of select employees.
In addition, corporate agreements with employees to avoid strikes during wartime in exchange for post war promises often proved unrequited, setting the context for a spate of postwar labor strikes. On May2, 1949, shortly after Milton Lightner succeeded Alexander as Singer president, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Local 401 struck. Days later they were joined by Local 227 of the same union, striking the Bridgeport plant. Worker demands included $500 increases to counter wartime losses , as well as 40 hour pay for 35 hour week. After 168 days, with both sides adamant, workers voted to return to work Lightner issued a $25 Christmas bonus but could not contain worker resentment or the threat of future strikes. Family members of both strikers and non-Singer neighbors in Elizabethport still recall the impact: thousands of workers receiving no checks had a major ripple effect upon Elizabeth business. Collateral commerce – grocery, hardware, cleaners, repair services, etc – all felt the brunt of the 1949 strike. Elected officials and religious leaders continually sought middle ground with both sides to no avail. The postwar period, converting industry from wartime to peacetime production, made jobs scare. Even skilled workers found it difficult to find part-time employment to tide their families over the period. Many families expected every member to do their part, with complete indifference to the 9-5 workaday routine.
WORKERS INSIDE THE SINGER FACTORY, ELIZABETHPORT
SINGER STRIKE HEADLINES, 1949
In the face of foreign competition, Singer’s leadership, esp Lightner and his successor Donald Kircher (1915-78), sought to diversify their sewing machine expertise into related electronic devices. Kircher kept his focus on diversification, increased profitability but took Singer stock public in 1959. The new problematic dimension of his corporate leadership then came from the Singer board, demanding not technical or competitive innovation but larger stock dividends. Kircher tried to balance both demands, expanded further into Europe, Asia and Mexico, and invested in R&D. Most of all, he converted some Singer plants into microwave and test measuring equipment. In 1963 he entered the computing and data processing business as well as gas meters and electronic devices for aircraft. Several of his plants began producing not only Craftsman tools but infra-red cameras, radar navigation and devices for military defense. By 1960s Singer was the fifth largest electronic manufacturer in the US. Although the value of the company had increased, Kircher’s Singer had a stagnant bottom line and the Board sought his replacement.
From 1975 to 1982 Singer’s leadership sought to placate Singer stockholders with dividend increases. Joseph B. Flavin (1928-1987), a graduate of Columbia Business School and with Xerox experience in international relations, became president and wrote off many operations, like slow-paying third world markets, and sold off many of the diversified portions of Singer’s global enterprise. He began a phase-out of the core sewing machine business and concentrated on lucrative military contracts. He moved Singer’s central offices from New York to Stamford Connecticut and replaced Singer’s experienced managers with his cronies. By the 1980s Flavin had increased profitability and dividends but remained unphased by the closing of many Singer plants including the historic Elizabethport plant on December 1, 1982, the last to produce its iconic product, the sewing machine. Unexpectedly in 1987 Flavin died at the age of 58.
The Singer Corporation, now focused largely on aerospace products, experienced a downturn in product demand in the 1980s. Its weakened stock position enabled a corporate raider, Paul Bilzerian, a millionaire real estate speculator from Florida, to capitalize on his Singer stock and become its owner with $500M plus of junk financing. He began a process of selling Singer assets to cover the indebtedness he created to purchase the company. His financial manipulations attracted the attention of NY Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani and the Security and Exchange Commission. Eventually the SEC indicted Balzerian for issues unrelated to Singer but which impacted the company when its owner went bankrupt, was fined $1.5M and was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four years in prison. The Singer remains were then purchased by James Ting, a Hong Kong businessman, keen to capitalize on Singer’s global reputation. By 1998 he had once again made Singer a major sewing machine manufacturer with 40% of the world market, correcting the misguided leadership of his predecessors and the myopia of Singer’s corporate board from 1957 to 1989.
Of course, Singer’s restoration came too late for its old Elizabethport flagship factory. Indeed, even as the company’s troubles went public, Elizabethans hoped against hope that the companies longevity would set the context for imaginative leadership and continuity. “When Singer’s finally closed its doors,” one witness, a Singer needle inspector, has testified, “it was still a great shock.” While many of its labor force, which consisted heavily of old-timers in 1982, faced retirement or alternative work, the Singer properties opened an opportunity for businessmen, like Newark-based Warren Grover.
SINGER PRESIDENT, DONALD P. KIRCHER
While the red-brick Singer plant became largely a distribution or warehouse facility, Grover converted one of Singer buildings (333 First St) to operate his successful direct-mail order business. “I was attracted not only to competitively priced space, but to the existing skilled workers who lived in the Elizabethport area,” he explained. His business over time employed 150-250 individuals of all races and ethnic groups. “I never had any problems with my workforce; they labored hard and responsibly all my years in the city.”
However, not all residents of Elizabethport rebounded well from Singer’s closing and the economic depression it caused. The Public Housing program that produced 12 buildings known as Pioneer Homes in 1940 and 8 additional apartments known as Migliore Manor in 1960 – a total of 1678 units – had shifted over the years from a desirable, appliance filled modern residence to a basecamp for illicit drug distribution. Councilman Manny Grova recalled , Pioneer Homes were “state-of-the-art” initially, but later in the 70s, it was normal at his parents’ home (132 Magnolia) to hear gunfire during dinner and later at night in Elizabethport. “. .. when it got bad in the early 90s, it was very fearful downtown. Burglaries were up … it was horrible.” When citizens formed Blockwatchers Associations, the situation was so bad, Grova recalled, that three or four hundred people came to the meetings, seeking resolution. Eventually the First Ward Development Fund provided resources to pick up trash, remove graffiti, clean up eyesores – all measures Grova included in his successful political campaign for councilman in 1994.
With the new housing of the last few years and new educational facilities, Grova felt that, though more needs doing, Elizabethport is very different and improved from its late 20th century history.
SINGER PRESIDENT, DONALD P. KIRCHER
The influx of drugs and crime beginning in the 1970s was not caused by the Singer’s economic mismanagement and troubles, but it fragmented the financial basis of city routines, disrupted a major fiscal resource for the entire city and left many able workers jobless. The result was a context for increasing criminality and exploitative patterns. During Singer’s agony in the 1970s, religious leaders and elected official like US Congressman Matthew Rinaldo, met regularly with Singer managers, trying to find ways of sustaining the old corporate-socioeconomic connection. Once the Elizabethport plant closed, the churches worked with their existing congregations for individualized solutions. What could Elizabeth’s mayors or elected officials do without the manufacturing resource? After 1982 another witness to the debacle claimed that elected officials were forced to become “reactive,” (not proactive) responding to resources – local, state or federal – wherever they found them.
However, during the 1960s and the development of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the federal government experimented with a less reactive response to poverty and jobless ness. The government devised strategies for funneling anti-poverty money and retraining resources directly into the community, bypassing state and county political machines which always received a cut. With embedded patterns of behavior, such resources did not transform communities overnight. However, one of the major gains of the OEO endeavor was the training of community leaders in grassroots organization as well as in ways of dealing with government regulations and bookkeeping strictures.
In 1966 Reverend Joseph Garlic, a NJ native, was sent by the Elizabethport Presbyterian Center (an org separate from the Greystone Presbyterian Church) to work with troubled youth and with both local tenant groups and the NAACP. Especially during the riots of the 1960s Garlic arranged for adult walkers in Elizabethport, to patrol the streets, sometimes all night, and talk with youths they encountered. The strategy of residents’ own presence became a constant in his work with concerned figures like Stephen Sampson, Graville Nesbit, Nida Thomas, Harriet Bloomfield , Paul Brown and Pauline Shirley. Did roving bands of youth listen to your message? “Sometimes they did,” the Rev. Garlic admitted, “sometimes they didn’t.”
In 1985 Garlic created an organization, Brand New Day, which formalized many of his activities and strategies over the years. BND’s particular priority was housing, finding dilapidated buildings, rehabilitating them (cf First St Project) and offering them at accessible rents. Grass roots initiatives, encouraged in 1985 by NJ Governor Christie Whitman, drew the attention of local banks, esp Harmonia, as well as the owners of the Singer plant, which helped with meeting space and other resources. Early on many businesses contributed both resources and manpower to turn the critical situation around.
ELIZABAETHPORT COMMUNITY ACTIVISTS
One strategic change, the Rev. Garlic, felt, was the closing of many popular First St stores: Levy Shoes, Tony’s Bakery, Sammy’s Grocery, Third Street Hardware, etc. First St’s prominence gave way to Elizabeth Ave when it was transformed by immigrant Latinos after 1950. But BND was a major influence throughout the last years of the 20th century, largely by organizing adults to walk the streets, sometimes all night.
Brand New Day sought the eventual removal of Pioneer Homes and Migliore Manor and their replacement via the federal Hope VI program, with 600 attractive and affordable apartments and single-family town houses, a number with views of the Arthur Kill. “I put a lot of years into this effort,” Garlic remarked. Where do citizens like Rev Joseph Garlic come from, one participant was asked. “The Rev. Garlic,” Elizabethport activist Pauline Shirley, responded, “was a gift from God.”
Similarly the Puerto Rican community, which dated back to the 1920s, sought a separate grass roots initiative, originating out of the local PR Club (f. 1954). Until the founding of PROCEED, Puerto Rican activity concentrated on the work of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (on East Jersey and Second), especially with their nursery and child care for working parents by Sisters Phillipini. Local citizens (Ines Caneda, Luis Matos, Carlos Leon, Phillip Garcia, and Jose Rodriguez), however, felt a greater outreach was necessary, one which extended beyond their congregation alone. The later nonprofit organization (1970), PROCEED (PUERTO RICAN ORGANIZATION FOR EDUCATION AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT), gathered organizing skills learned in earlier endeavors to calm urban violence and locate local resources.
PROCEED, Jose Cuevas has explained, works with housing and weatherization but also extends its resources to individuals with AIDS (1987), homelessness, joblessness and abuse. Not unlike BRAND NEW DAY, PROCEED has reached beyond its single group origins to include multiple ethnic and racial groups.
The combination of new housing, new schools, and new inclusive social service organization have restored an earlier sense of community, broken by the departure of Singer and the arrival of drug-related criminality. Rev. Joseph Garlic believes that the reduction of that criminality is the one major change in his Elizabeth experience. Similarly Councilman Grova finds the communal élan a special resource and bedrock to Elizabethport’s social fabric. “I think,” he has said, “the most important part of a neighborhood are your neighbors … People who have been in that community with you for so long. They always say that Elizabeth is a big city but a small town… a neighborhood is made up of friendly neighbors … the minute you stop doing that, well, it takes a big hit on the whole society.”[i] There is an important corollary to Councilman Grova’s sensible observation. When a corporate or even a political entity loses its sense of history, usually also lost is a sense of geographical roots and responsibility to workers who guarantee the organization’s products. Such organizations cease to be neighbors and become instead communal liabilities. There was obviously a loss to the closing of the Singer factory in 1982, but in retrospect there was also an important gain: a heightened sense of neighborhood ownership of Elizabethport on the part of its citizens, a new civic fabric with powerful economic and cultural advantages. In a sense Elizabethport businesses became more varied and diverse, as varied and diverse as its multi-ethnic and multi-racial residents. Their grass roots initiatives have produced a still more vibrant and historical sense of neighborliness and mutual responsibility. Just as the closing of Singer’s was in part an unneighborly judgment by its management, the neighborly interventions of its own citizens have taken back their neighborhood and discovered resources among themselves, the practical knowledge of how to make a small city great.