On the way to the airport today for a business trip with a colleague, we stopped in an alley, not far from Market Street. Through a locked gate and up three flights of stairs (no elevator) we entered a world that I would never have guessed existed that close to the financial district — or, in fact, anywhere in San Francisco.
A large room was filled with Chinese women on sewing machines. There was plenty of natural light and an apparently friendly atmosphere. My friend is in start-up mode for her own fashion label (business trips like ours help pay the bills) and she needed to check some of her production. She looked at having her work done in China, but decided the ease of involvement with something just over the Bay Bridge more than made up for the slightly higher costs.
I met the owner, an amiable Chinese man who apparently works seven days a week. The women sewing don’t speak English, apparently. The fourth-floor walk-up in the heart of San Francisco didn’t evoke for me the classic images of a manufacturing sweatshop, but it’s hard to think of another word for what I saw at the top of the stairs.
How extraordinary that apparel manufacturing like that can survive in one of the most expensive cities in the US.