The Urban Manufacturing Edition

On small business, cities, and making stuff

Robin Sloan (RS) is a novelist, olive oil maker, and internet tinkerer. He contributed his Monday Media Diet in May and in June wrote a WITI that, like this one, was a "reply" to a previous edition. - Noah (NRB) 

Robin here. Colin's WITI on mushroom leather mentioned its maker, Bolt Threads, which is familiar to me; I walk past its office nearly every day on my walk to the post office in Emeryville, California, a skinny town mashed between Oakland and Berkeley, bellied up to the bay.

Like Colin, I've been following Bolt Threads with interest. Last year I emailed them, asking if they offered samples of their mushroom leather; I'd made my own travel bag from Dyneema (a DIY rip-off of this beauty from Outlier) and figured some mushroom details would make it even more futuristic. The company's reply was friendly but firm: no, all of our mycelium is for Adidas.

Here's a sampling of what else I see walking in this compact neighborhood:

So far, so good; this could be a lively sliver of any city in America. Ah, but then I see:

Of course, there is also, at the start and end of my post office loop, the bright yellow shipping container that serves as Fat Gold's logistics hub. Both of our neighbors are houses—just regular houses—but across the street, it's a sprawling, worker-owned solar panel installation concern.

There's no question that the neighborhood's beating heart is the Geo. M. Martin Company, which occupies several large brick buildings on Emeryville's northern edge. Martin is one of those unglamorous but very successful intermediate manufacturers: it designs, assembles, and installs the complicated, expensive machines that other companies use to produce… wait for it… corrugated cardboard boxes.

Geo. M. Martin operates a small fleet of factory carts, like miniature flatbed trucks with grippy smooth wheels; every day, they shuttle between those buildings, zipping across the road or down the sidewalk. You'll be biking along the greenway—of course there's a greenway—and ahead you'll hear a polite toot-toot and spot one of the carts, yellow or orange, trundling through. Bicycle riders, stroller pushers, dog walkers, factory workers—we all share the space.

There is, additionally, an old-fashioned steam whistle that blows at 7:30, 10:30, and 3:30; its hollow, appealing note is audible across the neighborhood.

Why is this interesting?

More places used to look and feel like this. A hundred years ago, every American city had manufacturing mixed in; today, nearly all of it is either relocated or gone. I'm grateful that the vicissitudes of history marbled these activities together here in my neighborhood, and even more grateful that history failed to separate them out again.

It isn't by chance. Emeryville's industrial zone followed the direction set by the 1993 plan for West Berkeley, its neighbor to the north, aimed at preserving the area's manufacturing base—a counterbalance, inscribed in policy, to the commercial gravity of services and retail.

I've lived in other neighborhoods that were pleasantly jumbled, but never with quite so many neighbors who were making things in a serious way. I am here to report to you: it's fantastic! A layer of tangible energy; a set of unique resources. On a walk to the post office, I stopped in at Gasket Specialties to inquire about some custom seals for our olive oil drums. We got them, and they work great.

The realtors have tried to dub this nexus NOBE, for North Oakland-Berkeley-Emeryville, but it hasn't caught on. People don't really call it anything. I think the neighborhood pizza spot, just around the corner from the Geo. M. Martin buildings, suggests the best alternative. It is called Rotten City Pizza, for the famous (possibly apocryphal) phrase from Earl Warren, who during Prohibition might have dubbed Emeryville "the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast."

I like the name, but not because it's accurate, of course; just the opposite. Last summer, in a two-week serial story published in Bay Area newspapers, I fictionalized Emeryville lightly:

Annabel Scheme kept an office in Rotten City. The locals love to call it that, insisting endlessly on their neighborhood’s sinister character; in fact, it’s utterly sweet, a mix of old houses and new condos, espresso bars and metalworking shops, all of it softened by trees: plum and palm and ginkgo.

I'm writing this at my dining table, and outside the nearest window, across the back alley, there's a small warehouse. Every morning they open the big roll-up door and begin to pull shipments out on pallets, and the chirp of the forklift mingles with the chirp of the birds. I love it here. (RS)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Robin (RS)

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