The Awl and the Rise of Downtown Brooklyn

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Choire Sicha, co-founder of the Awl.
All photographs by Erin Albrecht

In 2002, when Robert Iannucci and Sonia Ewers bought 325 Gold Street, a building most people in the area call “the Clocktower” after the brown-on-beige clock face on its eastern side, the seven-story cast iron building was close to derelict. Just off Flatbush Avenue near the Manhattan Bridge, at the far edge of what could reasonably be called “Downtown Brooklyn,” it had shattered windows and there were pigeon droppings everywhere. Its deteriorated condition hadn’t stopped some former commercial tenants from living there illegally. It was, in short, a major project.

Iannucci and Ewers set to work. They fixed the windows and redid the floors. They negotiated exit terms with their squatters. They began attracting industrial tenants who could use its yawning, open spaces: a metal fabricator and a company that manufactured mannequins. Then, in the mid-00s, things began to change. The city rezoned the area and began aggressively marketing it to different kinds of businesses. In 2006, a small startup called Etsy requested a relatively tiny 600-square-feet in the Clocktower. In three years, they’d grow to take up three entire floors, and for a while were in talks to lease the entire building and make it Etsy’s official headquarters. (Eventually, they left altogether for a cavernous space in Dumbo.)

Today, the building is home to fashion designers, animators, and graphic designers. They tend to be small businesses looking for small spaces, and Iannucci and Ewers have subdivided their floors into cozy spots of a few hundred square feet suited to businesses whose products are zipped out over the Internet, not shipped in tractor-trailers. “A lot of them are coming from their brownstones, and this is their first stop,” said Lauren Forman, general counsel and property manger for Iannucci and Ewers’s company, Clocktower Properties.

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Companies making this journey from apartment to office, from barely-in-the-margins to real-world prominence, are increasingly looking to Downtown Brooklyn, the ill-defined area stretching from the Manhattan Bridge to Barclays Center, down to Borough Hall and the Jay Street Metrotech area, and seeping sideways to Fulton Mall. It’s becoming one of the most popular and fastest growing locations in the city for certain kinds of mid-sized businesses, including tech startups, websites, and magazines (this one included).

Among those new tenants is literary-ish longform-writing site, the Awl. “We’re moving to the greater wig district,” said the site’s founding editor, Choire Sicha. Its new office will be the home not just for the Awl (where, full disclosure, I have been an irregular contributor for several years), but also for the entire group of wordy, obsessive websites under the loose umbrella of the Awl Network, including product reviews site the Wirecutter, personal finance site the Billfold, female-skewing general interest site the Hairpin, comedy news Splitsider, and the Awl itself, a website whose most popular recurring features have included a sex- and relationship-advice column, bear videos, cleaning advice, poetry, and chatty recounting of classic Hollywood gossip (cross-posted to the Awl, but actually living on the Hairpin). The site is popular with those who work in media, and it breeds book deals and more lucrative writing contracts for its contributors; to write there and never receive even an offer is to know, with certainty, that the right people are seeing your work and simply don’t find it very interesting.

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The Awl’s appeal begins with Sicha, former editor of virtually every one of the New York City media outlets most popular with New York City media, including Gawker, the New York Observer, and Radar. His style, pioneered in the early 00s at Gawker and since adopted around the Internet, challenges the idea that if you have something serious to say, you have to say it in a way that’s stilted and drained of life. In his hands, a data-heavy analysis of the comparative revenues of various social media platforms includes asking readers to consider them by “that crazy out-of-fashion metric: by the money they make? I made you a chart!” and goes on to describe the Time Warner-Comcast merger as being significant because “THEY HAVE MONSTER BUSINESSES with an ASSLOAD OF MONEY FLYING AROUND.” Anne Helen Petersen, a former professor at Whitman College whose work on the network has led to a book deal and job at Buzzfeed, describes this way of writing (which she admits to imitating) as “Choire Style,” and says it is essentially “sincerity, but with exclamation points and caps lock and inside jokes.”

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Petersen is the writer behind the popular “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” feature, where she retells, from a contemporary point of view, the seedy gossip of the 1920s through the 1960s, more or less. Subjects have ranged from Fatty Arbuckle to Robert Redford, Barbara Stanwyck to Errol Flynn. (“What a skeezy, totally hot bastard,” Petersen writes of him.) Peterson does more than simply rehash forgotten scandals­—she throws light on the social and political movements and mores the stars found themselves championed by or crushed under. This broader sociological and psychological frame largely comes from the fact that classic scandals were the subject of Petersen’s dissertation.

She’s always found the site to be unusually supportive and unconcerned by things that vex web outlets with more traditional outlooks, like a piece’s length. When submitting her pieces, she says, “I’d be like, ‘This one is 6,000 words, maybe it should be shorter?’ And Emma [Carmichael, the Hairpin’s current editor], is like, ‘This story should be as long as it needs to be. If someone’s gonna read this story, it doesn’t matter if it’s 4,000 words or 7,000 words. What matters is the story.’”

It’s anyone’s guess how this outlook will change in the very near future. Sicha and his cofounder, Alex Balk, have recently stepped down as editors of their flagship site. They’ve hired the New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan and Buzzfeed’s John Herrman to replace them. While Sicha and Balk have committed to staying on at the site in some capacity, Sicha’s coy about exactly what their role will be, and how the site(s) will change under the new leadership. “I have no idea. I literally have no idea,” Sicha says. “And I actually think that they should shake it up a little bit. Me and Balk started a long time ago on the web. The web has changed a lot in the last three years; it’s certainly changed a lot in the last 10 years. And they should do what they think is best. They know what to do. They shouldn’t treat it the way we treat it.”

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The site will be undergoing a heavy redesign in the coming months, led by a designer involved in the reworking of the New York Times, says Sicha. Again, Sicha claims to have no idea how the redesign process will go and what the eventual result will be. However, it’s hard not to notice the site experimenting recently. The Maria Bustillos piece on the outstanding Cartoon Network show Adventure Time, which got its own stand-alone website complete with sidebars, music and video embeds, and huge high-res photos, may be a hint at how a redesigned Awl will look.

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This approach is very popular with people who love words, if not with the vast majority of the general public. Unique visitors hover just under one million per month, according to web-traffic monitoring service Quantcast. This places it well below Gawker; Quantcast estimates The Awl has roughly one-sixtieth Gawker’s audience. In its first five years, the site’s physical situation has been equally precarious. It’s been run out of shared workspaces, apartments (either one central apartment or the contributors’ and editors’ various homes), and only one brief stint in its own stand-alone office. Now, the Awl Network has found something of a permanent home, having signed a five-year lease in Downtown Brooklyn. “We wanted a certain amount of space, but not too much space,” Sicha said. “We wanted a certain price that wasn’t too high. We wanted it to be livable and sort of pleasant. We wanted it to be a little dumpy, too, because that’s sort of our MO.” He found everything he was looking for in Downtown Brooklyn, or “DoBro” as he half-jokingly calls it (“Isn’t it great? It makes me laugh. It’s not a thing. I bet it becomes a thing now.”), with the added bonus that all of the site’s employees will have relatively short commutes.

These qualities—an abundance of comfortable spaces, easily reached from other local neighborhoods, and affordable rent—gets at the heart of what’s made DoBro (heh) such an appealing destination. “We’re now down below Manhattan in terms of vacancy rate,” said Vivian Liao, Director of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the nonprofit local development corporation serving the Downtown Brooklyn area. Despite that low vacancy rate—under 5 percent—office rents in the neighborhood average around $28-$35 per square foot, still well below Manhattan averages of roughly $63 per square foot. Of course, a Manhattan average is deceptive—prices vary wildly by neighborhood and by building, with some spaces over $100 per square foot and others as low as $35 (and those are just the listings it’s easy to find without a broker). “Not anywhere in Downtown Brooklyn are you going to be finding spaces that are $50 or $70 a foot,” said Alan Washington, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnerships’s Director of Real Estate and Planning.

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People in the city have noticed, and businesses of all kinds are moving in. Longtime residents like JPMorgan/Chase are beginning to add space, shifting staff from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Washington says that technology, healthcare, and education firms are all moving into the area at a relatively fast pace. More visibly, ground-level consumer businesses have been popping up over the past several years: Shake Shack, Panera Bread, Hill Country BBQ (virtually the only venue for live music in the area). Also highly visible: the range of condo towers that has sprouted over the last decade. This development is far from complete: Washington says that the area has 3,300 residential units currently under construction and another 9,000 in the pipeline.

Downtown Brooklyn has not always been a desirable neighborhood. Its buildings are spaced out, and the area can seem deserted at night. The district and federal courts in the area are housed in beautiful buildings but attract bail bondsmen and pawn shops and other businesses people about to go to jail might find useful. Fulton Mall is an historically discount shopping area that stayed vital throughout the city’s many dangerous decades, but not without acquiring something of a grimy, mashed-together feeling; bright and cheerful children’s clothing stores sit near shops that sell watches, mixtapes, and cheap-looking stereos.

The city has been trying to “revitalize” Downtown Brooklyn since at least the 1980s, when Bruce Ratner helped helm a project aimed at luring tech businesses to the area. (This is when the appellation “Metrotech” was invented and applied.) In 2001, New York Senator Chuck Schumer began a campaign to thoroughly rezone most of the area—the boringly named Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan. It aimed to encourage business, commerce, and residential development, as well as allowed much taller buildings to be constructed. It promised to create 18,000 new jobs. This project is mostly why Downtown Brooklyn today is so different from the Downtown Brooklyn at the turn of the century. A press release announcing the 2004 adoption of the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan called it “the cornerstone of Mayor Bloomberg’s economic development strategy for regional business districts” in the city.

That same press release also specifically singled out the Clocktower’s area. The plan will include “the re-landscaping and development of both sides of Flatbush Avenue, making it a real gateway to the borough, serving the area’s workers and residents as a more pedestrian-friendly connector,” before closing, a bit derisively, with the observation that “the thoroughfare is now largely viewed as a vehicular route off the Manhattan Bridge.”

It’s easy to want to be cynical about these changes, and to look for the people for whom they have been harmful. For now, new businesses and old seem to coexist relatively peacefully. Groups of teens of all colors and (at least apparently) all socio-economic levels crowd into the Shake Shack. The Court Street movie theater still has bafflingly long lines for the box office on Friday nights, many people apparently unable to pay for their ticket any way but in cash. The Clocktower is still there, serving its tenants. When I suggest to Forman that they could likely sell the building for a lot of money to some condo developer, she looks at me blankly for a few moments, before finally asking, “Why?”

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