Urban Fiber: The Loom provides a model for modern manufacturing
In Port Richmond, a former textile mill now houses the region’s largest collection of artists, small manufacturers and creative entrepreneurs. Always a place where things were made, today the mill holds true to its original mission. And the kicker is, you’ve probably never heard of it.
Located between I-95 and the elevated Market-Frankford line, The Loom is a massive 250,000 square foot facility that stands as a reminder of Philly’s proud industrial past. Formerly home to the Masland Carpet Company, as well as numerous other manufacturing operations, the Loom pays homage to its history not just with its name, but also by the way the buildings are operated—owners and tenants weave together a diverse set of goals, creating a community of makers in a neighborhood rocked by post-industrial decline.
During the 1980s, manufacturers began leaving the facility in earnest, which led to high vacancies and lower rent. "The rent was so low that it quickly became attractive to artist types looking for space," explains Brian Murray, a partner in The Loom. "Because it was so cheap and because the space is full of industrial character, through word of mouth alone, more artists and entrepreneurs began moving in."
According to Murray, The Loom "just sort of happened," without any marketing efforts or a push from city officials. "It’s the definition of organic urban development," he says. Today, the complex is one-hundred percent occupied, with over eighty tenants conducting business in everything from woodworking to visual arts to flag making to bookbinding to ceramics to jewelry manufacturing.
"A community has formed," says Allen Geiser of Allen Geiser & Son, Inc.
The company, which specializes in bookbinding and graphic finishing, is constantly updating their services for a more modern economy. "We’ve been lucky to operate at this facility for over thirty years," explains Geiser. "We’ve seen ups and downs of our own, and we’ve seen the complex do the same."
Geiser has been delighted by the facility’s new manufacturing-meets-art mantra. "We’ve seen this place grow from twenty tenants to well over eighty," he says. "A big difference is how much the businesses are working together on joint ventures, probably more than ever."
Other tenants agree. "My sewing contractor is here, so now I’m here," says Anna Marino of Freckled Sage
, a local business specializing in oilcloth accessories such as handbags and patio décor. "There’s a definite advantage to having so many different businesses under one roof. We’ve used photographers and sewers and other manufacturers here to help get our business up and running."
For Marino, supporting local business is the real benefit behind The Loom. "The Loom provides affordable space to do work that you wouldn’t be able to do in other parts of the city," she says. "We’re proof that you can still manufacture locally and support small businesses while making some money in the process."
Building off these success stories, Murray and his partners have began investing in the facility and thinking long-term. "There’s a unique ability to collectively cross-pollinate manufacturing, creativity and art here that you can’t find anywhere else in Philadelphia," explains Murray. "We want those assets to flourish."
To accomplish this, Murray and his team are building out event spaces and a café (to be dubbed Big Jane Café after its operator Big Jane Foods
). Murray hopes it will directly benefit the artists and artisans at The Loom who work on a daily basis with no food or coffee options in the surrounding area. An added bonus will be the ability to host events and showcase tenants' work. "The idea is to get outside the Center City/West Philly bubble of entrepreneurship and create a social innovation destination for North Philadelphia," says Murray.
The future of the facility is particularly exciting to Sari Widman of Art/Assembly, the latest tenant to move in at The Loom. "We’re a bit out of the way," says Widman, "so bringing events here and giving the tenants additional reasons to open up their studios to outsiders will be a big plus."
Once the café and event spaces are fully functioning, Murray and his team can tackle the next big thing. "We’re not exactly sure what The Loom’s long-term future is, but we have some ideas," says Murray. "Ultimately, we want to have a bigger impact in the surrounding community. What that means and how we get there has yet to be fully realized, but with so many tenants backing our vision, we’ll figure it out."
GREG MECKSTROTH is Flying Kite's development news editor.
All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO