This week in North Philly Notes, Tarry Hum , author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood, writes about the re-branding of Brooklyn.
New York City Mayor de Blasio was elected with a mandate to address the city’s deepening crisis of income and wealth inequality. Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 victory was echoed across the country as progressive candidates won mayoralties in cities such as Boston and Seattle. In light of federal inertia, the political will to tackle the troubling persistence of poverty and a diminished middle class has shifted to local municipalities. The first six months of Mayor de Blasio’s administration has been defined by important achievements in universal pre-K, paid sick leave, and a municipal ID. Moreover, Mayor de Blasio has stated that his approach to economic development will be premised on creating opportunities for all New Yorkers in the city’s high growth sectors including the technology industry which is essential to NYC’s creative and knowledge economy.
An example of the events that are taking place to engage in a public dialogue on New York City’s economic future took place last week at a half-day conference titled, Onramps of Opportunity: Building a Creative + Inclusive New York, with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and NYU-University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, the “rock star” author of The Rise of the Creative Class. Presenters described how the spatial geography of New York City’s creative economy is increasingly centered in the industrial waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens where factories and warehouses are retrofitted, wired, and modernized to accommodate tech, media, entertainment, and artisanal manufacturing. Almost a mantra, conference attendees were told repeatedly, “every future job is a tech job”. Tensions between the creative class and neighborhood gentrification were alluded to as several presenters emphasized the need for affordable housing. However, it’s clear that meaningful inclusion extends beyond the provision of affordable housing as evidenced in the Extell Development Company’s project which will have separate entrances for tenants of its luxury and affordable housing units.
The re-branding of Brooklyn as an epicenter of creativity, innovation, and artistic production has achieved international success. On a recent trip to Istanbul, I was astonished by the prevalence of Brooklyn branding in clothing and cafes. Numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Fort Greene are exemplars of the clustering of skills and talent and urban amenities such as bike paths, parks, and good coffee shops that support a creative economy and the lifestyle preferences of the creative class. The potential of this economic revival was recently explored in the PBS NewsHour clip “Could Brooklyn hipsters help save the middle class?”
The revitalization of Brooklyn may be the ultimate test for Mayor de Blasio’s vision of an inclusive urbanism. Acknowledging Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood as a nexus of the human and physical infrastructure necessary for equitable economic growth, Mayor de Blasio announced the formation of a Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force in front of the Brooklyn Terminal Army along Sunset Park’s waterfront. Heavily immigrant and working poor, Sunset Park’s Latino and Asian residents are largely concentrated in low paid service jobs. Sunset Park still retains a sizable number of garment factories that continue to rely on immigrant women workers. As Professor Florida described, these are the people that pour our coffee, take care of our kids and elderly parents, clean our homes, and make our food – jobs so essential to a creative city that Professor Florida extolled these workers as the “lifeblood of the city”. As one of New York City’s few remaining industrial neighborhoods, Sunset Park is now facing the challenges posed by a growing artisanal and creative economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the neighborhood’s extensive industrial building stock is being refurbished to accommodate a new Soho. Examples of tech and artisanal firms that now call Sunset Park home include MakerBot which manufactures 3-D printers, the internationally known Jacque Torres chocolatier, and the world’s largest urban rooftop farm on a former federally owned military warehouse. Even the Brooklyn Nets want to be in Sunset Park and are planning a 70,000-square-foot training facility with a rooftop terrace to enjoy the waterfront views.
The question of inclusion in New York City’s creative economy is essential to the future of neighborhoods like Sunset Park. Framing the afternoon’s discussion, Professor Florida stated that building an inclusive economy “will require all hands on deck” to formulate a new approach to economic development. Political will is just one of the necessary ingredients – policies that support unionization, affordable housing, living wages, worker cooperatives, workforce development and placement in jobs with avenues for economic mobility, and meaningful engagement in city planning and economic development decision-making are also essential. Working class, immigrant Latino-Asian Sunset Park is ground zero in testing the development and implementation of “onramps” for an inclusive creative city.
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