Last week I attended the Northside Entrepreneurship Festival. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. By combining the trendy, somewhat overused term “entrepreneur,” the hotness that is Brooklyn and a stark, industrial warehouse-type space, it could either be brilliant or a parody of itself. As Spinal Tap put it, there’s a very fine line between stupid and clever. After chaining up my bicycle up to a bit of stationary industrial debris, sipping self-serve artisanal ice coffee, and avoiding the port-o-potty village (what else would you expect in an abandoned warehouse?), it was more than just this dividing line I contemplated.
Let’s take one the most obvious ones: between Manhattan and Brooklyn. For the past year I’d been working right in the heart of the Manhattan tech biz for a software company that grew from a couple of guys around a card table to a fully corporate type of setup. It was seriously strange to be in the midst of a recession and see so much money and growth flowing in that industry. The rapid rise of tech in all corners of downtown Manhattan, the concentration of wealth and talent there, even when it gets applied to some questionable larks, is truly a thing to behold.
By contrast, while Brooklyn is going through a business renaissance, it seems to be one that’s truer to its roots, which is to say tougher, more homespun and more diverse. Talking to people starting their things in Brooklyn (and also paying a visit to The Yard, a fabulous co-working space in Greenpoint that holds a bustling hive of Brooklyn business), I started to get a feel for the distinctions.
Speaking on a panel called “The Business of Brooklyn,” Tom Potter, one of the founders of Brooklyn Brewery said the following about starting up in the Borough in a tough economic time:
“When I first was looking for space for the Brooklyn Brewery in ’89, ’90, I walked the streets of Williamsburg and there were hundreds of empty buildings. They were renting for three dollars a square foot and the choice was unlimited. It was because we were at the end of an era for a certain type of business.”
Maybe it’s just an overactive imagination, but I was struck by the image of a man crossing a frontier (let’s forget that I momentarily populated that frontier with wolves and thugs).
On the other side of that transformation is a vibrant new place, filled with lofts we can’t afford, bustling artisanal markets, art and reinvention. Nobody could see it at the time, of course. You just had to act on faith.
So I was completely caught up with the romance of this vision, partially because of the edgy lighting and clanging coming from outside, but also because I believe that we are at a point of historical transformation that is rocking commerce, self-expression, and of course, business.
That transformation is of course scary at times, filled with wolves and wind-swept blocks, at least metaphorically speaking. For something to begin, something else must end.
This isn’t just a New York story, of course. You could definitely say it about Portland, OR. But also Durham. And Omaha. And Bloomington. All over the country, you see pockets of it. People doing their own thing, in their own way, and getting paid for it.
The end of a certain way of doing business.
So what I want to know is, are you standing there on the edge? Can you see the other side?