Industry City

50 Favorite Places #23
Industry City: it’s complicated. Is this still one of my favorite places, or is it a nightmare of hyper-gentrification? If I write about it here, am I encouraging its transformation into the kind of “destination” I despise? Should I move on to something less complicated, like parks and bakeries?

But Brooklyn is all about complications, and so is this blog. In the end I decided to include it for what it has to say about the past, the present, and possible – contested – futures.

Besides, Industry City is already part of every post I write: this blog’s banner features a detail of one of its buildings, circa 2010 or so. Even before I moved here for good, the complex and its surrounding blocks were one of my favorite destinations for easy runs. I love old industrial architecture – it’s the Detroiter in me, I suppose – and the Sunset Park waterfront is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in factories and warehouses. It’s lined with hulking, yet oddly graceful, multi-story factory lofts, interspersed with lower-rise warehouses and knit together by abandoned railroad tracks. Some buildings are, if not abandoned outright, underused. Others hum with activity, from the production of customized t-shirts to building supplies to beer. Smaller businesses sell live poultry, rebuild cars, and machine the components that go in those rebuilt cars. Truck traffic bumps along the uneven, block-paved streets.

Against this backdrop, the Industry City complex rises between 32nd and 37th streets like something conjured by a wizard or a movie director . . . or a developer. Oh, it’s real enough: the buildings date from the 1890s, when Irving T. Bush was pioneering the integration of transportation, manufacturing and distribution (you can read more about Bush and his legacy here). But today, they stand apart from the rest of the waterfront neighborhood. They’re in it, but not of it.

Production or consumption?

Item: the Design Within Reach store whose products, while definitely designed, are not exactly within the reach of most New Yorkers (including this blogger’s).

Item: Camp David, a co-working space that gives off the vibe of a luxury hotel of the old-fashioned, clubby type, with sofas, library tables, and bookshelves that glow from within.

Item: Avocaderia, opened by a trio of avocado-obsessed Italians and billed as the world’s first “avocado bar.” Their avocado toast comes with hemp seeds, salt flakes and jalapeño “citronette.” (I’m sure it’s delicious, but I’ll continue to get my avocados from one of the small grocers up on Fifth Av, thank you very much.)

According to its slick website, Industry City is “a creative ecosystem of experiences, eateries, events and everything in between.” Manufacturers are “makers” here, and duly celebrated, but the real drivers of the development are high-end retail and office space for technology and design firms. The buildings – each designated with a number, as is customary in manufacturing complexes, military bases and MIT – surround courtyards decked out with Edison bulbs, lush plantings, and eateries and drinkeries. Tech workers can unwind on the petanque court in Courtyard 5/6, or play ping pong and arcade games in Building 5 (or at least they could before Covid). In Courtyard 1/2, which was undergoing renovations when I visited last week, a miniature golf course was either coming or going. There was also a yurt, which if you ask me, is taking this whole “digital nomad” business too far.

Work in the new Industry City

It all makes for a pleasant hangout for tech and design workers and, back in the pre-Covid days, for occasional concerts and special events – but it’s far from the daily lives of the neighborhood residents I see dragging folding shopping carts to less glamorous destinations on adjacent streets. It’s as though those Edison bulbs are flashing “Keep Out.”

I mean, I like Edison bulbs and great coffee and craft cocktails as much as the next Park Sloper, but even I feel a bit uncomfortable in the new Industry City.

To witness old industrial buildings put to new use is bittersweet. I’ll go ahead and admit it: being able to enter them, to wander loading docks and ride those old freight elevators, is a kick. And who doesn’t enjoy looking through big glass windows at a candy maker’s production floor, as you can at Li-Lac chocolates in Building 4? But the potential of manufacturing to deliver good jobs while addressing needs more urgent than chocolate cravings gets short shrift in the new Industry City.

It’s not an either/or proposition, of course. One can envision a complex with room for chocolatiers and bakers and ceramacists and candle-makers alongside other manufacturers, alongside design and engineering offices, alongside training facilities for jobs in the green construction and energy sectors, alongside recycling operations, alongside a revitalized green port facility.

Which is essentially the proposal put forward by some in the community as an alternative to the massive, retail, hotel and office-focused rezoning proposal pushed – and just today withdrawn – by Industry City’s developers. The CEO blamed the city’s current political environment for scuttling his expansion plans. Business organizations wrung their hands. A city councilmember accused the project’s opponents of “standing athwart history yelling stop.”

This is, of course, a caricature. The debate over Industry City’s rezoning was never a contest between the future and the past, but between different visions of the future. Nor was it a fight between clear-eyed realists and fuzzy-thinking utopians – at least not along stereotypical lines. It was the proponents of the rezoning who clung to their (never well documented) projection of 20,000 new jobs from the complex’s expansion, even as the city’s hotel, retail and restaurant sectors collapsed and offices emptied out. At the moment, it’s their vision of the future that seems stuck in a lost past. Meanwhile, with the West Coast burning and the Gulf Coast under water, a “Green Resilient Industrial District,” as proposed by Industry City’s community critics, seems increasingly clear-eyed and realistic.

So yes, Industry City is one of my favorite places – for its history, its contrasts, its enduring grit and its still-to-be-determined possibilities for renewal.


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