The Little Georgia Town That Covers New York City in Turf

THE NEW YORK SUN — January 7, 2008

DALTON, Ga. — With a population only twice the number of people who work inside the Empire State Building, this self-proclaimed carpet capital of the world appears to have very little in common with the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Delfino Cruz, above, moved to Dalton, Ga., from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago and now works 70 hours a week for FieldTurf Tarkett, one of the largest turf manufacturers.

But Dalton, which is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, has forged a most unusual connection to New York: It has, literally, become crucial to the ground on which many New Yorkers walk and play.

The town has carved out a niche for itself as the manufacturer of New York’s “grass” — the artificial turf that the city has been laying increasingly in parks and asphalt lots and, most recently, public housing projects.

Since 1997, when the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation began turning to turf, Dalton has knitted, tufted, and coated thousands of feet of it and loaded it onto trucks for the 800-mile journey to the five boroughs.

To date, the city has replaced 90 of its 800 grass or asphalt ball fields with artificial turf, and another 23 are scheduled for conversion.

“Anywhere you’re going to look, there’s a 100% chance that’s it going to come from Dalton,” the president of Elite Synthetic Surfaces, Mike Gismondi, said about turf around New York City.

Until a decade ago, Dalton was a sleepy, white town where residents and carpet barons piled into Baptist churches on Sunday mornings. But in the last 15 years it has become a magnet for Hispanic immigrants and, in turn, an even more important manufacturing community. At the same time, New York’s manufacturing industry has virtually disappeared.

With that in mind, the progression of Dalton from the “carpet capital of the world,” which claims to manufacture more than 75% of all American-made carpets, to New York’s artificial turf capital makes more sense.

The $14-billion American carpet business includes artificial turf, and its proud capital is a town where the main highway is lined with billboards advertising outlets such as Carpet Express, Carpet Barn, and Super Carpet.

Adding to Dalton’s ability to turn itself into New York’s main grass exporter is that its changing population has given it a strong manufacturing labor workforce.

Worshipers now pack the pews at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for three Sunday Masses in Spanish. Two newspapers print weekly Spanish editions. Mexican bakeries, grocery stores, and taquerias line the east side of town.

In 1990, just 6% of the population of Dalton was Hispanic. That number ballooned to 40% according to the 2000 census, with the actual number estimated to hover closer to 50%. The incoming kindergarten class this year was 70% Hispanic.

Lured by good-paying jobs, Mexicans started making the 1,000-mile trek from the border about 15 years ago to work in the area’s 150 carpet mills. While the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has occasionally made well-publicized raids, immigrants still manage to find jobs.

Delfino Cruz, 39, moved here from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago after his brother made the journey. “It’s a good place for the work,” Mr. Cruz said while tufting yarn for a football field at FieldTurf Tarkett, one of the largest turf manufacturers.

He works 70 hours a week and makes about $800. In Mexico, he said he could make maybe $200 a week working in construction. “Before, there was nothing here,” he said, describing the town when he first arrived. “Now there’s a lot of businesses, a lot of fun.”

When asked what he thought about the grass being shipped to New York, he shrugged and simply said: “I have a cousin there.” (Artificial turf isn’t Dalton’s only connection to New York: The preppy killer, Robert Chambers, lived here for several months working in a dye factory after getting out of jail in 2003.)

New York has spent $150 million on artificial turf so far, and it is one of the biggest consumers of artificial turf in the country.

As the immigration debate has raged in recent months, both New York and Georgia have been on the national stage. In New York, Governor Spitzer’s failed proposal to give illegal immigrants drivers’ licenses found its way into a presidential debate. In Georgia, new legislation went into effect this summer making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get access to health care, welfare, and Medicaid benefits, and requires local law enforcement to notify INS upon arresting anyone living in America illegally. Many illegal immigrants say they are afraid to drive to work for fear that they will be arrested for driving without a license and then be deported.

While the influx of immigrants has diversified this 33,000-person town in a very New York way, it has also sparked tensions. While manufacturers welcome the workers into their factories with open arms, the traditionally Appalachian workforce fears that they’re being replaced, and they often blame immigrants for bringing gangs and graffiti.

“Run like fire from Dalton Georgia,” one man recently posted on a local Web site. “The carpet barons have given it away to illegal aliens for the sake of cheap labor.”

Unlike other manufacturing that has moved overseas, the carpeting business has remained in America, attracting immigrants.

“Immigration saved this town, whether legal or illegal,” Darby McCamy, the vice president of marketing at Evergreen Synthetic Turf, which has installed several fields in New York, said. “Smaller textile industries have gone to China, but immigration has saved us from outsourcing to China or other places.”

Dalton started making carpets because, according to local folklore, a young woman revived the colonial art of “tufting” in the early 1900s. She made a tufted bedspread for her brother as a wedding gift, and it was so popular she started selling them. Later, the whole town started making these colorful bedspreads and sold them off porches along the highway, earning Dalton the nickname “Peacock Alley.”

At the Depot, a former railroad station turned restaurant in downtown Dalton, trains still rattle the windows about every half hour. Tom Peebles, whose family owns AstroTurf, said all workers are treated the same, but that he doesn’t want to see the “culture and language” of Dalton changed. “We pay them like any other Southern Baptist white boy,” Mr. Peebles said about the Hispanic workers. “But if I could wave a magic wand, I would make them learn the culture and the language so that ours doesn’t have to change.”

In addition to AstroTurf, Mr. Peebles’s family, which arrived in Dalton six generations ago, owns about a dozen other carpet-related companies (he carries eight different business cards in his wallet). Artificial fields have changed drastically since the invention of AstroTurf, a scratchy green rug that was first used in professional sports in 1966 when grass wouldn’t grow inside the Houston Astrodome. Companies now use new varieties that are more grass-like and easier to maintain, in addition to using antimicrobial protection and rubber infill.

While artificial turf is more expensive than ordinary sod, it saves money in the long run because it requires less upkeep and lasts for about 10 years, according to the deputy commissioner at New York’s parks department, Liam Kavanagh.

The parks department started turning to turf as New Yorkers began abandoning the traditional sports seasons and using playing fields for increasingly popular sports such as soccer all year long. Manufacturers claim it is environmentally friendly because it uses recycled materials and does not require chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

Critics worry that artificial turf is harmful to the environment, contributes to the urban heating problem, and gets too hot during the summer.

When New York City’s Parks Department announced several years ago that it would be replacing the grass lawns in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights with turf, the community formed a vocal opposition group and targeted the local City Council member, David Yassky. At a rally last year, more than 100 protesters gathered in the dusty park and chanted: “Hey Mr. Yassky, no fake grassky.”

The parks department installed the artificial turf last year, and in November it named Cadman Plaza the park of the month and crowned it the “jewel of downtown Brooklyn.”

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