Are Tech Bros Taking Over Bushwick?

(Photo: Dani Zorzy)

When I first heard about a “hackathon” to be held in Bushwick, I had a bit of a meltdown. The idea that tech bros could be invading the neighborhood was unbearable. Residents are bracing themselves for an influx of luxury condos, and they’re already dealing with the effects of sky-rocketing rents. A bunch of new restaurants and bars with reclaimed wood and $12 cocktail menus have already popped up around Bushwick. Aren’t tech bros into that kind of stuff? Wouldn’t they just bring more of their yuppie comforts with them and transform all of Bushwick into a swathe of sparkly conformity?

With the horrors chronicled by Valleywag in mind, I worried that the arrival of techies could be the final blow to an already rapidly gentrifying Bushwick and transform the neighborhood once and for all into…  the Lower East Side.

I had to see for myself. Oh yeah, and I also had to figure out what the hell a hackathon even is. So last Saturday, against my better judgement, I trekked to Bushwick to check out this meet up. Contrary to my expectations, this was not some billionaire’s picnic sponsored by Google or Facebook, nor was it the opposite: Edward Snowden was not in attendance, no one was dressed like a mall goth or wearing T-shirts covered in Julian Assange’s visage and Taco Bell fire sauce.

The hackathon, which was open to the public and brought together members of an existing tech community as well as first timers, was held at Live Stream Public, a high-tech-equipped event space and educational facility that opened in the old Third Ward space in May of this year. Though the building itself has remained stationary, as buildings do, the same location that was once in East Williamsburg, according to former tenants, Third Ward, is now in “the heart of Bushwick.” Imagine that.

The programming has also shifted. Whereas Third Ward focused on more of a DIY, hands-on approach to art making and craft, Live Stream plays host to a variety of tech-related events. Since opening, Live Stream has hosted a variety of meet-ups for iOS Developers, music technology, General Assembly (a school offering business, tech, and design courses), CSS layout, and the Bushwick Entrepreneurs Club (co-founded by the editor in chief of Bushwick Daily). They even hosted a private concert by Jared Leto.

Needless to say the place was kind of perfect for HackBushwick, which was put together by the organizers of Code, Drink, Talk: Bushwick (Robin Camille, Daniel McGrath, and Nate Graves), a group for “tech-minded people” that meets once a month at bars in Bushwick. When I arrived at Live Stream on Saturday afternoon, Daniel greeted me and explained that about 65 people were at work, divided into several groups scattered throughout the first floor of the building.

From left: Robin Camille Davis, Daniel McGrath, Nate Graves (Photo: Dani Zorzy)

“We’ve got a bunch of really smart people working out problems,” Daniel explained. “Some of them have to do with current events around police brutality, and many of them are closely related to Bushwick.”

Given the fact the teams had only six hours to “hack” or design a tech project loosely related to Bushwick, I expected to encounter a flurry of activity and people who might be too busy to talk to me. But the atmosphere was relatively calm, even playful. And yes, when a couple of guys took a break from their “hacking” to play ping pong, like for real, I nearly lost it.

Besides the ping pong, I was surprised to find that many of my preconceived notions were unfounded. Shockingly, not all of the “hackers” were the basic white dudes that apparently populate Silicon Valley. I found a fairly diverse set of nerds represented–people of color and yes, even women! There was a 14-year-old, too, a boy named Maurice. I asked him if he was the youngest person around: “I think I might be,” he nodded.

(Photo: Dani Zorzy)

Though the hackathon was Bushwick-themed, most people I spoke with did not live in the neighborhood. They came from all over the city: Harlem, Astoria, Gowanus, Greenpoint, the Upper West Side.

Following a few hours of group work, the plan was to convene at 6pm, when the groups would pitch their projects, complete with live demo, for the chance to win prizes, which included cash, a bar tab at Miles, and classes at General Assembly. By 2:30pm, each group I spoke with had a solid idea of what they were doing. Some had a head start, working on pre-existing projects while others were working on brand new ideas and sometimes with one another for the first time.

I expected a bunch of business-oriented apps, but several proposals aimed to address social justice issues. The first group I spoke with was developing a smart phone app, HelpCare, that would help connect the elderly to volunteers in their community. “It will help them get groceries and things, and overall help them avoid nursing homes,” a developer named Rolando explained. “Users can tap into Churches, schools, and colleges to find people to help them. There are a lot of opportunities.” The app was even designed for easy accessibility–a large display and instructional videos would help people with visual or hearing impairments.

Another app took note of the recent Eric Garner demonstrations across the city, utilizing geo-data from social media sites like Instagram and Twitter, HashMap would provide data visualizations of protests across the country, “It’s so what’s already happened can be archived and people can get a better sense of what’s happening now too,” one team member, Yaritza, explained. “Because for activists and the general population, maps are cool.”’ Cool.

(Photo: Dani Zorzy)

But some groups pitched ideas that were… less impressive. A team with four members, two of which currently reside in Bushwick, proposed an app that made use of Four Square data to help users choose an ideal route home or to wherever else they happen to be headed. “It’s for both safety and convenience, but predominantly for safety” developer Colleen Lynch explained. The app would lead people down streets where businesses remain open and presumably well-lit. “It could be used anywhere, but for Bushwick it seems particularly useful because the neighborhood is changing so quickly.”

The app maps out which streets that are heavily populated with food, beverage, and hospitality establishments. “Because those are the streets you’d rather walk down alone late at night,” Lynch said.

Right. Because But what creeps me out way more than walking home alone late at night, is the thought of an app that would prioritize blocks that were heavily populated with Foursquare businesses, or places that tech-minded people feel worth “reviewing” or “checking in” to. In this world, my daily routine would be shaped by the opinion of “people like me,” and I would only past “businesses I would like.” This existence would not be so different from an avatar shuffling along, scattering money wherever it goes. This app envisions people as one drop in a stream of consumers, or worse, as predictable and simple as fireflies. Shudder.

(Photo: Dani Zorzy)

Social consciousness was admirably present, but creativity and sustainability were perhaps the biggest hurdle for many. For example, I could not figure out why on earth we’d need another site that aggregates ALL the shows happening in Bushwick or how an app (TAGGR) that keeps track of street murals might be anything more than a gimmick.

Though Code, Drink, Talk: Bushwick bears the name of the neighborhood, it seems more representative of a widespread community rather than one located in Bushwick specifically. I asked Sean Engelking and Cameron Hendrix, meet-up regulars who were working on a Google Chrome extension called “Internet Smoke Break,” whether they thought of Bushwick as the city’s tech center. They both shook their heads no and assured me that, though the events were centered here, the community was spread out all over the city. “But it’s nice to have a reason to come out to Bushwick,” Sean said.