10 October 2017

On New York: Brooklyn’s culture economy

Brooklyn was once the poor unloved borough of New York. It's become ludicrously expensive through exporting the hipster economy.

If there’s a place in the world that has rebranded itself more successfully than Brooklyn, I’d be interested to learn about it. Regarded, for most of the 20th century, as Manhattan’s poor neighbour – a rundown, often dangerous backwater for those who couldn’t afford to live in the ‘real’ New York – Brooklyn has undergone a staggering renaissance in the past two decades.

These days, the city’s most populous borough is also one of the most influential commercial and creative hubs in the world – with soaring property prices and a thriving startup scene to match.

Brooklyn’s business energy is nothing new. Historically, and to this day, the borough has been home to ethnically diverse and entrepreneurial communities, who have created their own bustling commercial hubs far away from the hustle of downtown Manhattan.

In the late 19th century, the borough was one of the leading producers of manufactured goods in the nation, housing the Domino Sugar Refinery – the largest of its kind in the world, and now a much-Instagrammed Williamsburg landmark and soon-to-be-launched housing, office and recreational space – as well as thriving dockyards, ironworks, and consumer goods factories.

While the post-war period saw the dramatic decline of this kind of heavy industry, Brooklyn slowly began picking itself up in the late 20th century in preparation for its spectacular 21st-century commercial comeback. In the new millennium, Brooklynites have been particularly successful in building the kind of service-based enterprises that affluent consumers crave in a globalised, homogenised marketplace: intimate, localised, and authentic to their founders and surroundings (whatever the word ‘authentic’ means in 2017).

In the early 2000s, it was Brooklyn that pioneered a style of independent business which has since caught on in cities around the world, exemplified by longstanding Williamsburg sister restaurants Diner and Marlow and Sons, and speciality chocolate makers, Mast Brothers. This locally-sourced, artisan-made style of branding has not only caught on but promulgated to the point of parody, in some instances becoming the disdained embodiment of all that’s pretentious about contemporary ‘hipster’ culture.

Whether you take your coffee Chemex-brewed or not, there’s no denying that Brooklyn-style restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques now have fans and copycats in hipster hoods from Paris to Taipei.

As in many revitalised global cities, Brooklyn’s post-industrial renaissance has taken place against a backdrop of large-scale development across the borough; from the glut of luxury apartment buildings in downtown Brooklyn, to the $700m expansion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once a dilapidated industrial park, the latter is now home to around 400 businesses housed in an array of developments, from a state-of-the-art, eco-industrial manufacturing facility, to the 60,000 sq ft public food hall Building 77, which will feature an outpost of Lower East Side’s iconic Jewish deli, Russ and Daughters.

All well and good for the big money developers, but with the average sale price of an apartment in Brooklyn now close to hitting $1m, what will the future hold for small business owners, who once crossed the Brooklyn Bridge seeking bang for their buck?

Artists have long been priced out of vast swathes of Brooklyn (gone, presumably, to wherever all the other priced-out artists around the world are) and it looks possible that smaller businesses might eventually follow suit. From here, who knows? Most likely to more affordable cities such as Boulder, Colorado, or Dallas, Texas, where startup scenes are newly thriving. Or perhaps they’ll even end up on Manhattan’s grand Upper East Side, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment at 72nd Street is now $500 a month cheaper than its Williamsburg equivalent. Oh, the delicious hipster irony in that.

Phoebe Lovatt is a New York resident and founder of the Working Women’s Club.

First appeared in issue 19 Oct/Nov