Piers, Parks and Why White People Suck

There's a saying...

"There's nothing worse than rich white people living in luxury housing in a park than the rich white people living in luxury housing protesting against them."

Ok, well, there wasn't a saying, but there should be.  

Maybe you've heard about "The Battle of Brooklyn Bridge Park."  It's a long and winding tale that basically amounts to this:

There once were some unused commercial piers.  Someone decided they should become a waterfront park.  Parks are expensive to build, so it was decided to cleave off a little bit of the park for waterfront housing to pay for the park.  The plan worked and now the park is beautiful and extremely popular.  Like, ridiculously popular.  

Everyday, tens of thousands of people visit the park's many amenities--beach volleyball, picnic grills, a pop-up pool, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, roller skating, and sure, hills, trees, grass, and spectacular waterfront views.

This pisses people off.

Come again?

Actually, there is a small but vocal group of folks who never liked this version of the park--who wanted something more akin to a lawn for their Brooklyn waterfront property.  They want quiet people to tiptoe silently past their brownstones on the way to the park, and only during daytime hours.

These local folks are suing the park itself because of plans to build luxury housing in the park.  

At first glance, you'd think with everything I just said, I'd be on their side.  Doesn't the idea of luxury housing go against all this cool park activity?

No.  Actually, we wouldn't have any of that stuff if it wasn't for the housing plan.  

You see, building a park is a very expensive proposition--especially a waterfront park.  The piers, vacant for years, had to be repaired.  The cost for the park totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The city doesn't have the taxpayer dollars laying around to pay for such a thing, so it was decided to leverage the value of waterfront NYC real estate to create a self-sustaining economic plan.  Housing on the ends of the park will be created in order to pay for the park in the middle.  

The result, as you can see if you've ever been in the park, has been a tremendous success.  People use the park and people love it.  

Well, most people.  

Some of the people who live near the park who believe they're owed a quiet street in New York City aren't so thrilled.

Who are these people?

Mostly rich white people in Brooklyn Heights.  As of the 2010 census, it checked in at 77% white, as opposed to the rest of the city, which comes in around 45%.  The average household income is about $115,000, compared to $44,000 for Brooklyn as a whole.  The streets are tree-lined and the neighborhood was a bucolic sea of tranquility for long before anyone ever wanted to come to Brooklyn.  

And here's where it kind of gets ugly.  The underlying sentiment here isn't simply about luxury housing.

It's really about their issues with what kind of a park it is and who visits it.  The park as it is currently designed is serving the wider community of Brooklyn, not necessarily the people who live right next door who may have, at one time, thought of it as "theirs".  

Take a stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park on a weekend.  It is teeming with activity and people.  What's really obvious is that this isn't a just quiet, trees, and grass kinda park...

...or as I think about it, a boring white people park.  

The vibe feels a lot more like Riverside Park in the North 100's--a cross between a non-stop 8 year old Dominican girl's family birthday picnic slash Dyckman streetball tourney with a little Crown Heights block party mixed in.  It has a diversity way more reflective of the borough of Brooklyn as a whole than it's immediately adjacent neighborhood overlooking from the promenade.  

I run the free kayaking program in the park--and it's the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse thing in my life.  

That's why I love it.  

As an investor in tech startup companies, I wind up in a lot of situations with well off white dudes.  While I'm not necessarily at the same income level as my colleagues (my dad was FDNY and my mom was a para in the public school system) it remains a pretty vanilla professional existence.  

Spending time with the 5,000-6,000 paddlers we put on the water each summer is a breath of fresh air, to be honest.  I'd guess that a full 50% of the people who partake of our paddling program come from minority backgrounds, maybe more--and our volunteer base reflects a lot of that diversity as well.  It makes me feel like I'm actually in a park in New York City--versus a gated oasis for local rich people like Grammercy Park.  

So what does all this have to do with the Pier 6 housing controversy?

The complaints about the housing reek of a kind of protectionism.  "I found this spot and now it's for me and people like me."  Many of the protestors actually live in One Brooklyn Bridge Park--an old warehouse in the park that was converted to housing.

So, now that they're in, they don't want anyone else to partake--especially if the new housing blocks their view. 

The bigger issue and they don't want to be so obvious about it, is that some of the new housing is earmarked to go to "workforce housing", which, for a four-person household, means available to those with income of $67,100 to $138,440. 

This is where it gets ugly.

Locals started complaining that affordable housing would bring down property values and that the park economic plan shouldn't have to pay for "the ills of the city".  

How would you like it if your neighbor called you "the ills of the city"?  

The lead plantiff in the lawsuit is a local resident whose private equity fund manager boyfriend bought a $7+ million apartment near the park.  They want their waterfront view preserved--at the expense of the park's main funding source.  They don't want to live near moderately priced housing.  They only want to live near other rich people.

To recap:

Rich white people who live near a park frequented by a great socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of people want to block the main funding sources of said park, which include moderate income housing that won't go to rich white people, in order to preserve their quiet, isolated, mostly rich white waterfront neighborhood.

You might think I'm grasping at straw, but just listen to some of the people behind the lawsuit:

“There will be those maybe pointing at us, saying, ‘Aha, you don’t want low-income housing,’ ” Mr. Merz said from his sunken living room overlooking a Zen garden.

“That’s an old game because you know very well we do prefer low-income housing,” Mr. Merz continued. “But we don’t want it in the wrong place, meaning there’s a right way to build it.”

This is an actual quote taken from a recent NY Times article on the situation.  I wish I was kidding.

"In the wrong place."

What is this?  1958?

Oh, but everyone knows they love low-income housing.  This guy Merz defended himself by saying he developed some low income housing in Buffalo, far far away from where they live now.  

Kind of sounds like "I'm not racist... look how many black people I know." 

Look, we're all prejudiced in some way.  Some of us are just more self-aware and aspire to be more open-minded, more tolerant, and more accepting of change.

The way I see it, on one side you have people who expect a tax-payer subsidized backyard lawn for their rich white neighborhood--one that is less likely to attract a diverse population from other neighborhoods--and on the other hand, you've got the diverse population of people who flock to the park day in and day out who depend on an economically sustainable park.  

You don't see them complaining that One Brooklyn Bridge Park is housing or that there's a hotel going up.  They're just happy they have a place to play and come and enjoy the waterfront.  

The good thing is, despite all the protests, the idea of housing as a way to fund the park is a train that left the station a long time ago.  In a city facing a huge pension and benefit crunch, there's no other place that the money to fix the piers and build the rest of the park is going to come from.  

If these people don't like the park and the people that it welcomes, they're more than welcome to move to Connecticut.  I'm sure they'll have no problem affording something nice if they sell, given how high property values near the park have skyrocketed since ground was broken a few years ago.  

A Sign of the Times: Why Saving the Kentile Sign is Important #savekentile

There's a 60+ year old sign in Brooklyn leftover from a company that went bankrupt years ago.  The current owner of the property wants to take it down and has every right to do so.

So what's the big deal?

The Kentile Floors sign has become a mainstay of the Gowanus area.  F train riders pass by it everyday on the way to and from work.  It has its own Twitter personality.  There are Tumblr accounts of people taking pictures of it everyday as a routine.  It has even made it to a t-shirt designed by a company specializing in iconic Brooklyn images.  Not only does it give people a sense of familiarity and comfort in a constantly changing city, but it serves as an important reminder of Brooklyn's history as an industrial community--a place where things got made.  This is especially important as Brooklyn appears on the verge of an entrepreneurial explosion--one rooted in the maker and craft movement.

Brooklyn is attracting a generation of entrepreneurs who never saw Brooklyn in its industrial heyday, but feel like the borough is uniquely positioned and a historically fitting place to produce their products and serve creative communities.  Makerbot has a factory in Industry City.  Maker marketplace Etsy has agreed to take a huge space in the new Dumbo Heights complex.  Refactory is trying to create an end to end process from design to manufacturing for hardware on Sackett Street.  Distilleries, bakeries, ice cream manufacturers--all across the borough, it seems that someone is making something.  Even the old Pfizer headquarters, active as recently as 2008, is now home to the production of everything from microchips to pickles.  In the Navy Yard, they're making body armor to product our troops and solar streetlamps to light our streets.  

So while it's easy to think that the Kentile sign is a relic of a bygone era, it may actually be the symbol of a bright future for a growing manufacturing base.  It is a reminder to those who dare to create that yes, things can get made here--they've been getting made here for a long time and will continue to do so.  

So if you're an Etsy seller--the Kentile sign is your sign.

If you've purchased a Makerbot in the hopes that you might inspire your kids to be engineers, the Kentile sign is your sign.

If you're excited about the Ample Hills ice cream factory's new retail location--the Kentile sign is all yours.

If you've backed a Kickstarter to enable a craftsperson to make something locally--the Kentile sign is your sign.

Eaten from a local producer at Smorgasburg?  That Kentile sign represents everything good about producing things right in our own backyard.  It's all yours.

We've learned enough from neighborhoods like Dumbo that mixed use communities of commercial and residential can anchor each other to create dynamic ecosystems.  There are huge opportunities in places like Gowanus and Crown Heights to help New York City scale its entrepreneurial endeavors, in contrast to places like San Francisco which seem bottlenecked by geography.  That won't happen, however, if every last bit of commercial space is replaced by a glass condo tower.  

If you want to support local ecosystems of makers, producers and craftspeople--help us preserve the symbol of Brooklyn's industrial past and future opportunity.  Sign this petition sponsored by City Councilperson Brad Lander.

 

 

Chris Christie Should Own the Cone #trafficgate

I am stunned over this #trafficgate scandal where Chris Christie apparently caused a bunch of traffic with some fake road closures in order to strongarm another politico into getting his support.

Just stunned...  that people don't think this kind of thing goes on everyday.

And stunned that we think this is anywhere near the worst of it.  I don't know about you, but this seems like child's play compared to my assumptions around what probably happens in Washington.  

I mean, you guys have been watching House of Cards, right?

This is why all you have in Washington are fake political types--because, by the time anyone reaches that height, the only people left standing aren't the best people, they're the best at playing the game.  They aren't the people who accomplished the most--they're the people who avoided headlines and never get their hands dirty.

Well, maybe we could use a guy who gets his hands dirty and says some things he shouldn't now and then.  It's not like the current system works.  Wouldn't you want Obama to cause some huge traffic jam in Utah right now over their reversal on gay marriage?  What if, instead of having to curry favor by overspending on other people's pet projects, we could just settle this with traffic jams?   I'd love to see someone cause a few traffic jams in Republican districts.

If I were Chris Christie right now, I'd seriously consider owning this, because the media is never going to let him forget it otherwise.  They were dying to cast him as Tony Soprano--the fat guy from Jersey who breaks a few bones now and then.  Now the story is that an ambulence was delayed because of the traffic jam.  Didn't you know where it was going there?  The fat bully from Jersey kills people!  They tried to do that with Citibikes.  Same story.  Citibike racks caused a delay in getting a patient out of a building--bike sharing kills!!

That's what the media does--and boy, do we eat it up.  Christie Christie is now the mafia.  You don't want to elect a mafia president, right?

I dunno.

Maybe things would... actually get done.

If I were Chris Christie, I'd say, "Yes, I'm a fat guy from Jersey and in addition to causing traffic jams, we occasionally put horses heads in people's beds and send fish.  Sometimes, we get other politicians on board through fear and intimidation and that's how it works.  You don't like it, but does it really surprise you?  If you would rather pretend that we live in a world of puppies and rainbows, where politicians just work find ways to work together for the greater good of the people, cast your votes elsewhere the next time I'm running for something.  I want to live in that world, but that's just not reality.  You either play tough or you sell out.  Most politicians are sellouts.  If you'd rather someone build coalitions by agreeing to spend money on other people's pork projects, then I'll never be your guy.  Did we cause a traffic jam?  You bet your ass we did.  Am I sorry for it?  Not one bit.  Chris Christie is a guy not to be fucked with.  Elect me president and North Korea will experience the worst traffic jam you've ever seen."

Instead, he's going to deny the whole thing and lie to our faces.  Any hopes of putting a real person in office, not that I even supported him, will be dashed and he'll just become another huge empty suit playing the game.

Did I mention I could never ever get elected to any political office? 

Thinking About the Next Chief Digital Officer of New York City

When governments go through leadership changes, it is generally expected that their whole staff gets replaced.  It's a bit weird to comprehend for those on the outside.  When a new CEO for a company is hired, you might change out a few people, but you wouldn't replace all the key folks.  The turnover would be detrimental to company culture.  

Same goes for a baseball team.  You wouldn't hire a new GM and just immediately get rid of your All-Star players.  

But, this is government.  It's not the real world.  :)

That means that just about every position is going to be up for grabs, including the newly created Chief Digital Officer position held by Rachel Haot.  I was asked who I thought should get it, and my first response was, "So, what do you want that person to do?"  Obviously, each person is going to handle their job in their own way, but I thought it would be useful to go back to the first press release describing the job.

It says the job is about:

"...improving communication with residents and businesses by enhancing government transparency and working closely with digital media. Sterne will work closely with the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications as well as with individual City agencies and stakeholders to ensure consistency and accessibility of information. This is the first time the City has hired someone to streamline digital media communications across a broad array of City agencies. Sterne is tasked with helping to make NYC.gov more user-friendly, ensuring that agencies integrate social media opportunities and serving as an advocate for the digital media industry in New York City."

On one hand, it sounds a bit like PR...  mentions of communications, information, advocacy, etc.  I'd contend, though, that it's actually a product manager job.

Think about it...

 

  • Communicates with stakeholders--both internal and external
  • Works with tech
  • Insures consistency across products
  • Makes the user experience on the web better
  • Keeper of the vision of the digital experience that is the city government

 

That's what product managers do.  They figure out what everyone needs by talking to everyone, and then enables both business and technical stakeholders to work together--since, as Office Space taught us, you can't have the customers talking directly to the engineers.  

Plus, product managers excel at getting other people to work on things that are not their direct reports.  They don't have their own staffs, and tech doesn't report to them.  They're responsible for a product, but they have to work collaboratively.  That feels a lot like what someone working to coordinate the efforts of multiple city departments would have to do. 

Speaking of multiple city departments, the role currently sits within the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, but that's probably not exactly the right place for it.  It should probably report to both MOME and DOITT, the city's tech arm that actually builds and maintains the tech that the goverment users, at the same time.  That's usually where product sits--with dotted lines to both the marketing/business and technology functions of a company.

So who should it be?

Here's a name for you:  Jenn Vargas.

She's a product manager who is also a designer and developer.  She's from the NYC area (Bayonne, NJ) and she went to Cornell--the school at the heart of NYC's tech education expansion.  She spent time on the west coast, but then came back to work at standout NYC tech companies like Etsy and Birchbox. Jenn has also taught at General Assembly--and if you're going to get government online, you're definitely going to have to do some teaching.

Plus, she fits my two criteria for the job:

1) She's awesome.

2) She probably doesn't want the job.  (In fact, she has no idea that I'm writing this.)

This is the kind of job that would come with a ton of visibility so there are going to be a bunch of people who would want it.  That's exactly what you don't want--someone who wants the job to make themselves visible.

You would best be served to have someone who would absolutely dread getting dragged to press conferences and would rather just work to make a product great.  We've come a long way with our nice new website and better social presence, but there's lots of work still to do.  Bandwidth is at third world levels and open wifi is rare, to pick out an easy one.

Obviously, we'd need to consider a slate of candidates--and if this is truly a position that involves transparency, why not crowdsource some leeds?  Bill DeBlasio should just post a tweet asking for suggestions.  Get all the minds working!  If anything, that was a knock on the Bloomberg administration--doing whatever they wanted behind closed doors.

If you're going to break from politics as usual, why not have an in depth, public discussion about the role?  Heck, post it as a Quora question.  

Who should be the next Chief Digital Officer of New York City?

What Bill DeBlasio can do for NYC Tech: It's not what you think

I find the Mike Bloomberg NYC tech legacy story really fascinating.  

I mean, it makes sense, right?  Tech entrepreneur mayor presides over NYC tech during an explosion in company creation, job growth and venture funding.

Plus, we started all these tech schools, creating all these engineers, right?

Only, that's not quite the way it happened.

Don't get me wrong, I'm THRILLED that we're going to have some new engineering campuses in NYC and that will pay dividends to the NYC tech community for years to come--only, we only just started educating students in a small starter version of the Cornell program.  The multifold growth we've had in the startup engineering base of NYC happened before we even decided to build these companies. 

In fact, much of the groundwork of the NYC tech community's growth came before the late 2008 economic crash--when the city started paying attention to the tech community as the economic savior poster child.  

In many respects, what the Bloomberg Administration did *directly* for tech in NYC was to shine a light on a transformation that was already happening.  Education initiatives did not create the community.  There was no major city broadband initiative that created this ecosystem.  City money didn't spur on the massive venture capital investments that have been made by the private sector.  Spaces like General Assembly were basically funded with private dollars, and would have happened whether the city gave them a grant or not (See WeWork).  

*Indirectly* however, what Mike Bloomberg did for New York City's tech community was the greatest thing since sliced bread--and that was continuing and expanding exponentially what Rudy Giuliani did to make this a livable city.  If NYC crime didn't plummet, we wouldn't have a tech community to speak of.  DUMBO wouldn't have existed unless the Giuliani administration hadn't rezoned it to provide local developers an incentive to build a neighborhood here. Giuliani cleaned up the city, Bloomberg made it work and grow.  Bloomberg efforts like 311, Riverside Park, the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, improved walkability, bike share, ferries, the Atlantic Yards/Barclay's Center, etc have all contributed to making New York City an attractive destination to plant your roots and to invest economically.  

That is the single most important thing Bill DeBlasio can do for NYC--continue to improve livability--and he should do so with unwavering focus.  That's going to mean making sure union contracts don't bankrupt the city.  The current pension benefits system is economically unstable and threatens the welfare of this city.  Penion reform is unpopular, but necessary.  Yes, we all appreciate your efforts as a city worker.  No, we can't pay you out for 35 years after you retire at age 55 when no one in the private sector gets the same kind of benefit.  

That's also going to mean improving education from early on.  We completely overinvest in college educations when it isn't even clear that college is right for everyone, nor is it clear that the debt created by a college degree is worth it.  I applaud investments in early education, but we also need to make those investments effective.  We spend more per child than most education systems in the world, yet we don't get the same results.

That's going to affect our tech community--not a year from now, or even five, but if we can't educate and inspire our kids, we're going to fill this pain for decades to come.  

I think NYC tech has left the station--there's no turning back now.  Investors are here to stay and companies will continue to get build.  Are there issues?  Sure.  Issues like Airbnb and the taxi hailing will get solved with improved communication with city government.  We need to enable politicians to understand the repercutions of government intervention in changing markets.  

I'm less worried about DeBlasio enacting "anti-tech" policies than I am about the city facing bankruptcy ten years from now because too many people have their hand in the till, and no one ever likes being told no.  It's a tough road to reform, but the money for DeBlasio's "One City" agenda is going to need to come from all of us, not just a handful of rich bankers, who, by the way, have been footing the tax bills in NYC for quite a long time.  Anyone who understands local economics realizes that.