March 22, 2015

Why the TEDx–Livestream thing is the right thing for Bushwick

We should welcome any business that wants to do business in what we call our business zones. These will be our allies in preserving the industrial architecture of Bushwick. An "Industrial Business Zone" means just that. It does not mean "no gentrifying hipster videographers and web designers."

My neighborhood in Park Slope is protected by the Landmark laws of New York City. These stately rows of tree-shaded brownstones will always be a steam-punker's Shangri-La in the midst of the glass buildings that are rising all around us. We are a protected legacy of old New York, an architectural treasure, a cultural asset, a guarantee that tourists will always have a nice place to stroll in Brooklyn.

The magnificent warrens of warehouses and factory buildings in Bushwick and East Williamsburg are every bit as beautiful and historically significant as a row of brownstones. But the only thing standing between them and the juggernaut of slash-and-burn condo development, is that they are industrially zoned. What that actually means is that they are political feel-good zones. The designation has more to do with recoiling from gentrification and with nostalgic virtue-signaling, than it has to do with any serious attempt to fill these places with, well, industry.

So what happens when industrial space remains vacant or underused, and falls further into disrepair, while the demand for residential units continues to push in from all sides. You can only justify an "industrial zone" politically for so long if you've got industry to fill it. And this does not seem to be happening as fast as it should in Bushwick and East Williamsburg. There is still a lot of vacant industrial space here.

We need the heavies to help out. We need Google, Oracle, Microsoft, and major film and web houses to set up coding and production centers here. We need a viable push-back against the wholesale residential buildout of Brooklyn, and it has to be something more than wishful thinking and the museum of old Brooklyn factories that we call our industrial zones. That is, if we are to protect the architecture of these old manufacturing centers in the long run, and if we are to preserve a mixed-use commercial and residential borough with good jobs that you can ride your fixie to.

So, when a heavyweight web broadcaster takes over the storied "Third Ward" building on Morgan Avenue and hosts a TED talk, and one of the speakers suggests that Bushwick could become a "Silicon Valley" for the culture industry, it should come as no surprise that some people will bristle at the thought. 

Images of anorexic bimbos vamping Louis Vuitton on landing docks ... fly in the face of the bohemian imaginary. An "industrial zone" perhaps, but for the symbolic economy, not the productive one. It would be the hipster Dubai, and the work force for such a place would slam the already slammed housing market. Almost certainly there would have to be residential exceptions for some buildings within the industrial zone.

But it is the right thing to do. If we are to shape a future for industrial Bushwick, and not just whistle dixie to the idea, then we need to be bold. We need Elon Musk and Larry Page to buy up whole blocks of Bushwick and fold them into trusts to house startups, incubators, and firms for the infotainment and technoid economies. We need the burner billionaires on this one. These are the guys who will understand the value of preserving and repurposing a classic industrial neighborhood, who themselves have classic industrial taste, who can make fun and educational things happen, can create jobs, internships for local youth, and on and on. You'll get none of this from the local sharks in the real estate sector. If we love Bushwick, we need to act decisively. We need to pack the businesses in, create a scene, get traction fast and early, let the industry know we mean it.

The alternative, I fear, is worse. A slow burn with no vision. The eternal warehousing of space by successive generations of landed families. The long wait-and-see that was Williamsburg in the 90s, until they tore it all down and built towers anyway. Because we bullshat and were divided. Let's not do that again. Let's get the community and some real money behind a mighty vision for the future of industrial Bushwick.