Innovation in Action 3: Industry City, Brooklyn

For a concept that describes a business practice, innovation’s vernacular can be often remarkably detached from the market—that is, from the buying and selling of things and services, and the employment (or rather exploitation) of people. Brooklyn’s Industry City redevelopment is a case in point.

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Yoga amidst the warehouses. Brooklyn, a city of contrasts

The site in Sunset Park was largely abandoned by its industrial tenants during the post-war deindustrialization of Brooklyn’s waterfront, according to the history provided by the current main landlord, the real-estate developer Jamestown L.P. Jamestown now promotes the site as a hub for the “creative and innovation economy fields.” The Industry City website offers this unhelpful elaboration:

A microcosm of NYC with one distinction: we’re creating an innovation ecosystem that embraces the disruption created by advancing technologies.

Andrew Kimball, manager of the Industry City project, defines these as a combination of the arts and manufacturing: “the physical, digital, and engineered products, being driven by this creative class who wants to make things again.” The class-bound language of the “innovation economy” replaces the working class with the “creative class” and switches “workers” for “makers,” even describing the latter as a novel sort of class: “This new class of innovators and makers,” Kimball told Fast Company, “want to work in cool, old buildings with good bones and character.” One of the effects of this switch, of course, is the apolitical nature of a “creative” or “maker” class—these are groupings of individuals, and thus there is no solidarity among “makers,” like there is among “workers.”

 Elizabeth Yeampierre, a Sunset Park anti-gentrification organizer, asked the crowd at a rally against the gentrification of the neighborhood: “What did Columbus say? We made ‘fine servants.’ I think Industry City thinks that we make fine servants too — to their economy, and to the people that they’re bringing into Sunset Park.”  The appeal of the “maker” designation, of course, derives from its individualism and its distance from “workers” or “servants” or anyone else in thrall to someone else. The maker is in charge. And yet the “maker” ideal derives from a certain sepia-toned emotional attachment to manual and artisan labor. The “character” Kimball sees in the old buildings in Industry City, of course, comes from the men and women who once toiled there. The history that was once posted on Innovation City’s website (I found it reproduced on the website of one of its tenants) emphasized these ghosts of the waterfront workforce. Historic black-and-white photos of a bustling industrial waterfront framed this example of the bubbly, introduction-to-cultural-studies-Mad-Libs meaninglessness of so much innovation discourse.

The complex continues to emphasize its rich industrial heritage through an authentic aesthetic expression that is at once historical, referential and progressive.

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“Industry City,” American Field:

This chain of adjectives suggests that the development is itself an art project—a form of “authentic aesthetic expression”—rather than a real-estate venture. Industry City’s website no longer features this history, and while it still advertises for tenants, the site now emphasizes the retail, dining, and entertainment venues available to shoppers and visitors. As the Brooklyn news site City Limits observed two years ago, this is likely the planned future of the complex —as opposed to its long-stated purpose, to revitalize Brooklyn’s manufacturing waterfront.

“Innovation” is well suited to these cross-purposes. It is abstract enough to refer equally to tailoring, sculpture, or real-estate speculation. A planned hotel in the Innovation City complex, journalist Neil deMause noted in City Limits, would require zoning changes in the manufacturing district. “And so Jamestown is pursuing what it calls a ‘special innovation zoning district’ through the city Uniform Land Use Review Process,” he writes, along with $115 million in city money for infrastructure improvements. As deMause writes, the escalating real estate values that might result from such changes would eventually price our light manufacturing, which may be the point.

In any case: it’s hard to argue that appropriating public resources for private speculative investment under the guise of job creation isn’t some kind of “innovation.”

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