Is the “New” Brooklyn Economy For Real?

Congratulations, Brooklyn—you are officially the white hot center of New York City’s labor market.

From 2000 to 2010, the borough’s employment rolls grew by 11 percent as more than 50,000 jobs were created. Manhattan, by contrast, saw its job count fall by 100,000, or just over 4 percent. Queens and Staten Island, meanwhile, were up 2.4 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively. The only borough to approach Brooklyn’s growth was the Bronx, which over the decade gained 19,600 new jobs, up 9.2 percent.

To regular readers of the New York Times Styles section (and, well, magazines like this one) this should come as little surprise. Brooklyn has become in recent years the epicenter of a certain small-scale, locally focused but widely heralded economic scene. This is perhaps most evident in DUMBO, where a growing collection of internet firms like Etsy and Small Planet, along with digital creative agencies like Huge and Big Spaceship, have led local real estate agents to dub the area “Silicon Beach.” The trend, though, extends borough-wide: jewelry-makers in Williamsburg, whiskey distillers in the Navy Yard, letterpress printers in Sunset Park, bars upon restaurants upon restaurants upon bars—new Brooklyn businesses abound like beards at a Bon Iver show.

It’s impossible, of course, to fairly characterize this activity in just a few sentences. But were you to describe the “New” Brooklyn Economy (as we’ve decided to call it), a few themes would emerge: it’s entrepreneurial and improvisational. It’s obsessive and passion-driven. It’s tech savvy but ploddingly (some might say annoyingly) deliberate. It values quality over efficiency and productive surprises over standardization. It’s the realm of autodidacts, fanatics, mad scientists, and geeks; a world of vintage coffee roasters, hand-made bicycle frames, and nine-dollar chocolate bars.

A person might argue—and certainly some have—that this is something of a sideshow, a game of make-believe put on by and for affluent brownstone-dwellers while the rest of the city, and country, go on making and spending their money the old-fashioned way—as entrenched members of the largely corporate, increasingly globalized order. And yet, over the last 10 years, more than 10,000 new firms have opened for business in Brooklyn. Which raises the question: can an economy of 2.5 million people run on iPhone apps and artisanal pickles?

3 Comment

  • Really happy to see this on-line, as I am having my students in a composition class at Kingsborough read this. I am very impressed with the quality of the articles I’ve read to date, and appreciate the subscription to the magazine greatly. I pass on my copies, as well.

  • @Meg
    Thanks, Meg. It may seem antiquated, but the thing we pride ourselves on the most is quality of writing (mainly because that’s the only thing we feel we know how to do…).

    Maybe it’s awkward/weird to offer such a thing in the comment section, but if you ever want someone to talk about why writing well is still (marginally) important in life (and the world) let me know. I love the sound of my own voice…

  • Brooklyn Magazine’s summer 2012 issue came in the mail yesterday, and I noticed, upon second reading, that while my historical-economic summary of how Williamsburg’s gentrification was omitted from my contribution to “Is the ‘New’ Brooklyn Economy for Real?” [Adam Bonislawski], the magazine included a breathless piece of Williamsburg demonology by Ashley Zelinski, allegorical but entirely ungrounded by fact and audacious in explaining the history of Williamsburg’s gentrification. The use of allegory is entirely legitimate but only when it corresponds to valid references and actual historical instances. Without correspondence to facts that allegory is itself transformed into “fact” and reaches another level of absurdism in the telling of how this gentrification transpired–it also again, and sadly so, substantiates that the agents of gentrification disdain history when it gets in the way of self-affirmation, self-importance, self-indulgence and the fantasies of “accomplishment” and “achievement” in Williamsburg–aka bimbo booster land. Let me disabuse and restore that historical summary in the hopes of blocking a growing mentality that it is better to resuscitate images from pediatric readings of classical mythology than it is to ACTUALLY LOOK AT WHAT IS ACTUALLY TRANSPIRING IN WILLIAMSBURG AND ACTUALLY REPORT ON THE FACTS:

    Ovid Metamorphoses 7.762

    All economy is “creative” insofar capitalism is systematic appropriation of imagination, so “creative economy” is euphemism for the gentrification of Brooklyn Williamsburg. It is that gentrification and its critical responses presupposing the most recent examinations into “creative economy” even though “creative,” “economy” and “creative economy” precede and exceed “Williamsburg, Brooklyn” as geography, milieu and idiom, not just since capitalism but since Brooklyn. Gentrification displaces the gentrified on behalf of the agents of gentrification, so monopolization of perspective on “creative economy” and “its value” by and through the agents of gentrification perverts sense. The full measure of “creative economy,” like Brooklyn Williamsburg, is yet.

    No single party instigated the gentrification of Brooklyn Williamsburg. The 1970s financial crises crippling New York tempered North Brooklyn’s mediation of Loisaida’s gentrification across the Williamsburg Bridge to the East and that of “brownstone Brooklyn” to the southwest. That mediation delayed reaching ‘gentrification’ as a discrete stage until 1979 when state and city politics turned with the new mayoral administration.[1] Rehabilitation of properties abandoned by absentee landlord lightning-givers shifted over to tenant advocacy organizations that were creatures of the area’s religious institutions. Los Sures HDFC on South 4th Street is one of the first groups in all of New York City, let alone Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to undertake large-scale rehabilitation of such distressed properties. Those tenant advocacy organizations in conjunction with [but independent in degrees of] the area’s religious institutions in turn emanated cultural affairs groups likewise aligned to but independent of antecedents. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice is an excellent example.

    These social developments were interdependent. This interdependence embodied in what was most discrete between community organization personnel and the communities they served and represented: literacy and education. The agents of gentrification protracted from this professional and semi-professional field—the spirit of the college campus, deformed without its correspondent ‘classroom,’ that underpins the gentrification of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Thus, when we speak of “creative economy”, we mean “economy” by this demographic emerging in this time period, simplified, but not negated in its simplification, as white, middle to upper middle class, recent college graduate. This is not to deny the existence of black, brown, yellow or otherwise agents of gentrification—this is to identify the particular agents of gentrification in Brooklyn Williamsburg. In fact, the agency of persons of color in gentrification cancels “white” as a priori for gentrification—education is preeminent and subordinates even class as a criterion for gentrification.[2]

    Hands down, the most “creative” of all the economies in Williamsburg since 1979 has been Real Estate. Its artifice cannot be easily measured. Needless to say, it is transaction in Real Estate and real estate holdings, and not any particular or general production that drives the value of the “self-employed” in Williamsburg. Gentrification apologists have improperly ignored the distinction.[3] The Internet and mobile connectivity have altered if not negated producers and managers inhabiting the same physical space in the “creative economy.” Thus, labor erodes from social production centers into belts of professional and semi-professional satellites—not factoring that labor’s transaction further removes from Williamsburg. Apologists likewise improperly conflate design conceptualization set outside Williamsburg with design labor in her new satellite belts. Whereas no significant agencies house facilities here, it is ludicrously believed “Design” as a whole orbits Williamsburg. Furthermore, it has yet to establish any medium or venue for production for any of those design protocols, in Williamsburg. Design in Williamsburg has been to cloak that Williamsburg designers are contracted and paid for designs transacted and executed elsewhere. All in all, manufacturing and jobs are in decline in Williamsburg, while financial values rise. The fact of three decades of hyper-valuation and hypertrophy of development has been lost on these calculations.

    Similar relationships and tensions were anticipated in “brownstone Brooklyn.” However, and this is where we get to the nitty-gritty of “creative economy from the perspective of the gentrified than a gentrified perspective,” the disposable income generated by agents of gentrification in Williamsburg is circulated through its “tavern economy.” It does not circulate through any significant large-scale cultural and public institutions, unlike brownstone Brooklyn with her Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Borough Public Library, Prospect Park, among many others. That tavern economy, along with the Bedford Avenue boutiques and the multitude galleries, poses no meaningful employment, production or education for community residents, especially Williamsburg youth. To demonstrate the absurdity of the past three decades of “creative economy,” note that Assemblyman Joe Lentol just awarded a 1.5 million dollar grant to “arts” organization Third Ward to develop their kitchen. This on the heels of Third Ward’s failures operating their “food truck” on Metropolitan Avenue and Lorimer Street. That’s fascinating, given that I’d be hard-pressed to locate community organizations in Williamsburg receiving million-dollar grants so soon after demonstrable failure in those particular fields unless one could find some agent/s of gentrification complaining about social parasitism. Then again, I grew up in Latino Williamsburg.

    [1] There are further reasons to designate ’1979′ as the ‘beginning’ of gentrification that are not encompassed by politics or commerce and are better argued elsewhere.

    [2] Note Suleiman Osman’s telling observation in the introduction to The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: “In 1971, a local civic group conducted a survey of 326 new brownstone owners in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The respondents were overwhelmingly whiter, wealthier, and more educated than the average New York resident. Whereas 30 percent of New Yorkers were nonwhite, bronwstone renovators were 99 percent white. While only 17 percent of New Yorkers earned more than $10,000, 98.3 percent of respondents had higher incomes. But more than financial capital, what distinguished Brooklyn’s new brownstone middle class was its cultural and social capital. In a city where just over 50 percent of people twenty-five or older were high school graduates, 99.9 percent of respondents had high school diplomas, and a striking 60 percent had attended graduate school. Surprisingly, historians have not paid much attention to this powerful urban constituency.”

    [3] Note this telling piece in The Appraisal, “Once a Rapper, a Ballerina or a Model, Now in Real Estate Sales,” that was JUST published by the NY Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/nyregion…