Opinion/Editorial: North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone

By William Harvey

This afternoon, I was reminded why I love this area: A culturally-mixed group—Hasidic, Hispanic, Polish, African- and Anglo-Americans—were playing a friendly pick-up game of soccer in McCarren Park. Where else does one see such a diverse group?

I hope this area of North Brooklyn will continue to be this diverse, economically, culturally, and ethnically. I write this to share an idea I have that might help to preserve and to enhance this diversity. I do not wish to divert attention from problems such as racism, economic discrim­ination, ecological disaster, affordable housing, and the lack of city services in North Brooklyn nor do I wish to be disjunctive in any way, I hope to share an idea that might benefit everyone in North Brooklyn.

North Brooklyn is in danger of losing its creative core, not today or next year, but in the next decade for sure. Many people share this viewpoint and some would argue the heyday of North Brooklyn is past. If we look at the physical spaces for creative enterprise lost in the past few years, we might assume the time will come when there will be no place for messy sculptors, loud musicians, welding shops, legacy businesses, creative start-ups, breweries, pop-up art scenes, jovial pick-up soccer games, or anything but nail salons, restaurants, bars, dog salons and drycleaners (which are not inherently bad things!)

Because of the intense development now underway in North Brooklyn, we need to think of new ways to ensure a diverse economic vitality for the area. Without a creative vision, North Brooklyn may lose the possibility of being a diverse and dynamic urban area. That is why I am proposing the creation of a North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone.

I moved to North Brooklyn in 1986, to a close-knit, diverse neighborhood where I could afford to put down roots. I have had the pleasure of living less than a mile from where I work for over twenty years. Among my friends in the area are small business owners, designers, musicians, techies, retailers, performers, community organizers, and artists; scrappy, entrepreneurial innovators and diverse stakeholders of all types who share my concern that the creative economy we have here is being lost.

Unlike most of Brooklyn, North Brooklyn has always been a mixed-use area. Residential areas served as housing for workers in the local factories or businesses. This model of living in the same area in which one works was created by a strong local culture of multi-generational residents. In fact, on my block, many of the homes have been in the same family since the mid-1800s, and until recently, generations of families worked in the factories and businesses nearby. Communities where people live and work in close proximity seem to be intrinsically vibrant and creative.

North Brooklyn has an unhappy history of victimization, racism, economic and ecological discrimination, and disenfranchisement, by leadership that divided our communities. In a city that until recently used the area as a trash, and human and toxic waste dump, a diverse community of immigrants—Polish, Italians, Irish and Hispanic, and many others—forged a community where peopled lived and worked together. These stakeholders forged a legacy, one where practicality, common sense, and hard work set the stage for the culture and commerce that is in evidence now.

Despite (or because of) being underserved and ignored by the local and regional government, North Brooklyn has become a driving force of innovation and creativity for New York City and the world. Among the diverse residents here are innovators and leaders in the arts, commerce, government, community organizing, technology, publishing, and academia from all ethnicities and backgrounds.

While recent history is not yet canonized, we know that for decades hard-nosed activists have fought racism and economic discrimination, fought for every community service, fought for every park and unit of affordable housing; and we knowthat for every major artist here, there are thousands of others who have lived and worked here, that galleries like Pierogi 2000 have spawned many more, that loft scenes like Arcadia have paved the way for Galapagos and newer venues, that for decades hundreds of small manufacturers, designers and crafters have toiled in what is now called the Greenpoint Manufacturing Center: and for every major North Brooklyn band, we know of there are thousands of other musicians who can claim roots here.

The whole idea of what is “creative” has been blown apart, reassembled, and reconfigured in North Brooklyn to include what used to be a dirty word for the fine arts world—commerce. We have seen Brooklyn Industries—founded here in 1995 on N. 11th St. by two struggling artists— grow into an industry-leading brand. Street-wear giant Triple 5 Soul was founded and headquartered here. Brooklyn Brewery established a foothold here as well. These enterprises and others led the way for the magazines, architectural firms, writers, bloggers, talent managers, furniture designers, foodies, and DIYers, trend-setting fashion designers and boutiques, and the innumerable new small businesses popping up and vying for spaces here.

These innovative business and cultural activities are shown to be engines of growth and upward valuation essential to healthy local economies. Most regions in the world are desperately trying to attract the type of people, businesses, and ideas that are here in North Brooklyn. But in our borough, creatives and entrepreneurs with new ideas seem to be grudg­ingly tolerated by those who prefer outmoded, top down urban renewal projects, sweeping zoning changes, and sport, franchises.

An example of counter-productive governmental intervention is the poorly planned zoning revisions that orchestrated a spike in value of local real estate. These zoning changes were done in conjunction with multi-decade tax abatements for developers and fueled a frenzy of real estate speculation.

The blanket re-zoning inhibits the possibility of North Brooklyn continuing to grow into a sustainable economic and cultural engine for the city, region, and world. Instead, North Brooklyn may become an inner ring suburb of affluent commuters to Manhattan with a local economy, based around mass consumption and low wage service industry jobs. I have nothing against affluent commuters per se, but we have the possibility here to have a more creative and inclusive economic community that could be a new model for urban neighborhoods.

We cannot stop market-driven development nor turn the tide back on the value of local real estate. Cheap space is a thing of the past in North Brooklyn. The question is can our diverse economic and cultural legacy be preserved?

Recently I spoke about my idea of a North Brooklyn Creative Economic Zone at the North Brooklyn Breakfast Club—a vibrant group, mostly new residents made up of artists, creative young entrepreneurs and techies. They represent exactly the type of enterprises and ideas that should be locating in North Brooklyn yet most cannot find space to house their new ventures and instead are being jammed in to cubicles in Manhattan.

“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, runs jauntseter.com and co-founded the North Brooklyn Breakfast Club

“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’s identity synonymous with opportunity, innovation and creativity; where a sustainable economic environment encourages entrepreneurs to locate high-tech incubators, green tech, media and design-based businesses in the area. Where partnerships with academic, business, government and cultural institutions help drive localized innovation, job training and job creation; where the schools reflect the core values of innovation and creativity, where newly constructed developments include below market rate housing for families and elder residents, as well as space set aside for creativity and innovative businesses; where commuters come to work, create and innovate; where the next generation of innovators can find space to start up, thrive and help other companies start up; where residents can work in the neighborhood where they live, where legacy families and new residents can learn skills, create networks and participate in a new economy.

“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 initial ideas:

  1. The North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone would be a geographical area not aligned with arbitrary political districts.
  2. Audit and map the mixed-use locations in the area; create a method to assist creative businesses and others find spaces.
  3. Shift the East Williamsburg Industrial Zone’s identity to focus on businesses that are creative, and that grow ideas, and hence jobs.
  4. Work for a net increase of mixed-use, creative use space available in area. More supply should help stabilize price and keep creativity local
  5. Review Department of Buildings restrictions and zoning; recommend changes that will encourage developers to include street level and upper floor commercial space creating new mixed-use buildings.
  6. Commercial rent control and incentives for creative endeavors.
  7. Encourage tech start-ups, incubators, and mature tech ventures to locate here.
  8. Work to help for our existing creative economy companies and organizations find permanent locations here.
  9. No business or endeavor would be excluded; if you like the idea, you’re in.
  10. Instead of poorly defined “community facilities” in new developments, design in mixed-use non-retail spaces.
  11. Development projects such as that proposed for the Domino Sugar site should include significant areas set aside for arts organizations, hi-tech start-ups, and business incubators created in partnership with venture capital groups and academic institutions,
  12. A North Brooklyn open WiFi.
  13. Incentive schemes should include creative job training programs, career enhancement, and skill building for residents with a focus on at risk youth.

“I started Main Drag Music, a retail and repair facility for musical instruments and equipment, as a 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. 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”Katherine Naplatarski, Community Activist and Educator

“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 Napthali Composer, Musician

These are my initial thoughts on a North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone. I hope that a sustainable, creative, high-tech, high culture, economic zone is an idea that will help ensure a vibrant and diverse future for North Brooklyn.

—William Harvey

William x Harvey is a designer and musician, and a resident of North Brooklyn since 1987. He was recently named “One of the Top 50 People Who Will Inspire Us In 2010” by “At Home with Century 21” magazine. Join the discourse, Facebook / North Brooklyn Creative Economy Zone