Williamsburg Greenpoint News and Arts
Towards a North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone: Preserve, Enhance and Create
By Bill Harvey
I am an artist, musician and writer not a politician. My ideas originate by observing what is and sensing where things are going. I am afraid that North Brooklyn is in danger of losing its creative core, not this week or this year but certainly in the next decade. My observation is not unique, many people share my fear and some would argue that the creative hey day of North Brooklyn is in the past. I don’t share that viewpoint but having lived here since 1987 looking around at the places for creative enterprise we’ve lost in the past few years I can imagine a time soon when there will be nowhere for messy sculptors, loud musicians, poorly funded start-ups, funky breweries, pop up art scenes or indeed anything but nail salons, high fashion boutiques, restaurants, bars, dog salons and dry cleaners. These are not inherently bad things but arguably they aren’t the highest and best use of the space in this neighborhood.
When as a young artist, I moved to North Brooklyn it was a close-knit somewhat unwelcoming neighborhood where I could afford to put down roots. I’ve had the pleasure of living less than a mile from where I work for more than twenty years. Among my friends in North Brooklyn are small business owners, designers, musicians, techies, retailers, performers, organizers and artists, scrappy entrepreneurial innovators and stakeholders who share my concern that we are losing the creative economy we built here.
North Brooklyn is a unique area in a unique borough whose cultural and economic demography defies definition. More than a hundred and fifty years ago Walt Whitman observed that “no man can know Brooklyn” which is still true and as my roots in the area have deepened, I am continually struck by the complexity of cultural, political and economic histories and viewpoints represented here.
The shared history of North Brooklyn is industrious, innovative and recently it has been creative. Latino, Polish, African American, Italian and many other groups, workers, small businesses, manufacturers, engineers, visionaries, inventors, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs have made North Brooklyn a vibrant city unto itself. Most folks who live and work here whether they are employed in good blue-collar jobs, in a profession or are a struggling artist recognize and love this dynamism. North Brooklyn has for more than twenty years been the place to be for artists, creative entrepreneurs, designers, scholars, musicians and small business visionaries. People from across the globe want to come and be a part of what we have here.
Because of the intense development underway in North Brooklyn, prompted by Mayor Bloomberg’s poorly conceived zoning changes, we need to think of new ways to ensure a diverse economic and cultural future for the area. Without a prescriptive and creative vision North Brooklyn will lose the possibility of being culturally and economically diverse and become just another bedroom community with local business limited to the serving commuters.
Unlike most of Brooklyn, North Brooklyn has always been a mixed-use live work area. Our working class neighborhoods were underserved and largely ignored by the city government. Residential areas served as housing for workers toiling in the nearby factories. This model of living in the area you work created a strong multi-generational local culture. On my block many of the homes have been in the same family since the mid 1800’s and until recently families worked in the factories nearby. Communities where people live and work in close proximity seem to be intrinsically vibrant and creative.
Despite or perhaps because of its isolation North Brooklyn has become a driving force of innovation and creativity in New York City and the world. Many residents here now are innovators and thought leaders in the arts, commerce, government, community organizing, tech and academia. While recent history is not yet canonized we know that for every major artist here there were thousands of struggling artists who lived and worked here, that galleries like Peirogi 2000 spawned many more, that heady loft parties like Arcadia paved the way for Galapagos and many newer venues, that for decades hundreds of small manufacturers, designers and craftspeople have toiled here and for every band that has gained fame we know of there are thousands of musicians who claim roots here.
For instance, we’ve watched Brooklyn Industries founded here in 1995 by two struggling artists grow into an industry-leading brand. Bands like Interpol and street wear giant Triple 5 Soul and enterprises like Brooklyn Brewery were founded here. Following these innovators innumerable creative small businesses are vying for the limited space here.
Studies show these kinds of economic and cultural activities are key to cities thriving in the post-industrial era. Creative start-ups and bootstrap businesses grow faster the environment we have in North Brooklyn where the density of talented people in close proximity means new endeavors can leverage skills and economic assets. These type innovative business and cultural activities are shown to be engines of growth essential to healthy localized economies. Most regions in the world are desperately trying to attract the kind of talented people, businesses and ideas that are already here in North Brooklyn. But our community leaders grudgingly tolerate the new vitality. Old-line leaders prefer top down projects like sports arenas, big box shopping centers, monolithic residential only zoning and promoting the myth of a local manufacturing economy while ignoring the inclusive, creative live-work neighborhoods that are growing naturally in North Brooklyn.
An example of counter productive governmental interventions are the Bloomberg administration poorly planned zoning changes of 2004. These zoning changes done at a time when interest rates were at historic lows, in conjunction with multi-decade tax abatements for developers fueled a frenzy of real estate transactions, shock and awe demolition and orchestrated a spike in local real estate valuations radically changing the nature of development in our area. Bloomberg’s zoning changes constrained the possibility of North Brooklyn growing into being a sustainable and diverse economic and cultural engine for the city, region and world. Instead, North Brooklyn may become just another a bedroom community for people commuting to Manhattan with a local economy based in consumption and low wage service industry jobs. Nothing against commuting per se but before Bloomberg there was the possibility of a more creative vibrant and inclusive community developing here that would be a new model for urban neighborhoods.
Jane Jacobs said, “When rich people move into a neighborhood they make it so boring even they don’t want to live there.” I appreciate her sentiment but it seems to me that many of the new more affluent new residents in North Brooklyn desire what our complex community offered. Do rich people make a neighborhood boring or do neighborhoods become bland because of unimaginative urban planning and mono-zoning and usage rules that only allow high-end residential housing? Perhaps what Ms. Jacobs was saying is that a monolithic community of high-end residences without mixed-use spaces, unusual businesses and industry destroys the vitality and texture of an urban neighborhood.
New York City is dynamic and economically driven. We can’t stop market driven development nor turn back the value of local real estate. The question is can our diverse economic and cultural legacy be preserved? We can’t simply hope that there will always be a place for the artists, creative and innovative business. Economic reality makes it inevitable that without prescriptive planning we will lose the vibrancy we love here. In North Brooklyn cheap space is a thing of the past but perhaps we can make sure that there is space and place for complexity in business, entrepreneurship and creative endeavors.
I recently spoke about my idea to establish a North Brooklyn Creative Economic Zone at the North Brooklyn tech meet up. Its a vibrant group of mostly new residents including artists and creative entrepreneurs that should be locating in North Brooklyn, yet most can’t find space in North Brooklyn where they live. Instead they rent cubicles in Manhattan or work in their apartments.
"I live in North Brooklyn and I love working here, too. There's an intimate community of creative types, from computer programmers building the next cool mobile app to new media types figuring out how to distribute content online. The best part is how open everyone is to helping each other and welcoming new people to the fold. It'd be ideal if the city recognized the burgeoning entrepreneurial scene here and helped make North Brooklyn - and New York City at large - a place where startups come to flourish."
Dorothy McGivney, co-founder North Brooklyn Breakfast Club
The people in North Brooklyn have the energy and creativity to imagine a new inclusive equitable model for the area’s future. We can create a framework for development and deployment existing physical assets that will add to the economic and cultural life of the area.
“Creative companies are at the forefront of driving economic revival and growth. North Brooklyn has been the perfect breeding ground for entrepreneurs, new business concepts and ideas. However, without community and government support, many of these burgeoning concepts don’t fully get off the ground or reach their potential. As a community, our mutual investment back into creativity can fuel jobs, new economies and growth. This is the wave of the future, and the way out of the current economic malaise.”
Lexy Funk, CEO Brooklyn Industries
The North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone
Imagine: North Brooklyn is known world-wide as a place that spawns opportunity for all it’s residents, where innovation and creativity and a sustainable equitable economic environment that encourages entrepreneurs to locate incubators, green tech, media and design-based businesses in the area. A place where businesses create jobs and provide community based job training and skill development for local workers, bringing the benefits of participating in the new creative economy to all. Where partnerships with academic, business, government and cultural institutions drive localized innovation, training and job creation. Where public schools reflect the core values of equity, community, innovation and creativity. Where innovative startups are located in close proximity to rehearsal spaces, recording studios, legacy businesses, affordable housing, design firms, green tech, artists and cultural entrepreneurs. Where new developments include affordable housing and space for creative innovative businesses. A North Brooklyn where commuters from Manhattan and all over come to work, create and innovate. Where the next generation media companies find space to start up, thrive and find long-term homes. Where residents have the opportunity to work in the neighborhood where they live. Where legacy families and new residents can learn skills, create complex new networks and participate in the new economy.
By proclaiming the North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone, perhaps we can begin to create a sustainable, equitable and inclusive community vision for the future of North Brooklyn.
"Being in Williamsburg for my business is an active choice. The dynamic atmosphere fosters true creativity; initiatives like this will ensure that creative businesses have the support they need to get started. The reality of high rents creates high tenant turnover--even among national chains-- and a lack of cohesion in our community. Why when Manhattan has antiquated economic zones (think manufacturing on Bond Street) can't we have incentives that make sense?"
Ashwin Deshmukh, A.D. Capital Partners
A few of ideas about initiating a North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone:
The North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone is not geographically aligned with political districts.
Initiating an audit of mixed-use space in the NBCEZ and create a web-based data set to share information about real estate to assist creative businesses and others find space and locate here.
Shift the usage focus of the existing IBZ’s: the North Brooklyn Industrial Zone and the East Williamsburg Industrial Zone towards business activities that are creative and generative that grow new economy jobs and provide a sustainable future for all residents.
Review Department of Buildings restrictions, rules and zoning in North Brooklyn. Engage City Planning agencies in a dialogue and educate them about our vision and goals.
Encourage developers to build street level commercial space in new buildings and to create buildings that include residential and commercial uses. The dynamic mix of living and working in close proximity is what made this area desirable. Creating new mixed-use spaces will help ensure a mix of commerce and living that were effectively zoned out of the area by the Bloomberg administration.
Work to increase the net amount of available mixed use, creative commercial space in North Brooklyn. More supply should help stabilize price and help keep creativity local.
Encourage tech start-ups, incubators and more mature tech ventures to locate here. Many of their employees already live here. Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick should and could be places people come to for high value added work. Creative companies should be encouraged and enabled to find permanent locations in our area.
Promote the “L Train Corridor” as the new place where tech and content are developing in innovative ways.
Instead of low value community facilities mandated in development, include small office and mixed-use space.
Major development projects such as proposed for the Domino Sugar site should include significant amounts of affordable housing, space for arts and community service organizations as well as mixed-use workspace.
Initiate and promote development of small business, creative entrepreneurship spaces with mandated community facing programs and job training.
More bandwidth in North Brooklyn! Open street level Internet access.
The North Brooklyn Creative Economic Zone shouldn’t exclude anyone or any type business.
"I started Main Drag Music, a retail and repair facility for musical instruments and equipment, as a small one- man operation 13 years ago. I now have 2 stores, 2 partners, and 18 employees. In an era of corporate mega chains and online outlets, that's a testament to the incredible community of artists we live in. I think something like the NBCEZ (?) would be a great recourse for the continued development of businesses like mine, both old and new. Business in the city is hard enough- why not join forces and create an environment that makes it easier for all of us to flourish?"
Karl Myers founder, Main Drag Music
“This is a great idea to strengthen, protect and build on the ingenuity and vitality of the amazing creative energy and ideas of this community"
“The kind of support that could be created with something like this is enormous, and could help keep artists and musicians in Brooklyn and New York."
Dafna Naphtali Composer, Musician
The idea of a North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone can only grow in collaboration with many local stakeholders. If you like the idea join the discourse. Perhaps collectively we can create an equitable and sustainable local community and ensure a vibrant creative and generative future for our area.
Bill Harvey is a designer and musician: a resident of North Brooklyn since 1987. Recently he was named “One of the Top 50 People Who Will Inspire Us In 2010” by At Home w C21 Magazine.
A few related studies:
Creative Cities and Economic Development
Paul Hall, Urban studies magazine
Defining the Creative Economy: Industry and Occupational Approaches
Ann Marcuse University of Minnesota
The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators
Philip Cooke, Luciana Lazzeretti
Spatiality, Built form and Creative Industry Development in the Inner City
Thomas A Hutton
Culture that works? Creative Industries Development in a Working Class City
Creative Industries and Cultural Industries
P. De Berranger, MCR Meldrum