(Photo by Tyler Woods)
“Gentrification is not innovation!” protesters chanted Wednesday evening from the sidewalk outside the Make It in BK Pitch Contest.
About a dozen protesters in total held signs and banners reading “Displacement is not innovative,” “Whose city? Our city!” and a particularly clever reproduction of a Renaissance-era-looking oil painting depicting conquistadors in the New World whose flag had been photoshopped out for one with the Industry City logo.
The Make It in BK pitch competition featured startup founders pitching a panel of judges for a $5,000 prize for their company. It was the capstone event of the Brooklyn Innovation Summit, organized by business development group Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. It was held at the CoLab-Factory, a new coworking space on DeKalb Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn.
“I’m here because I’m protesting the rampant gentrification that’s taking place in Brooklyn,” said protestor Bob Landau. “Things are changing too quickly and there’s a ruthlessness with which the developers are treating people in this city. I think people who are entitled to their apartments are being thrown out of their apartments and there’s something very ugly about that.”
Down the protest line, A. M. Goodrich said he was there to protest against corporate real estate interests.
“It’s mostly Black and brown and immigrant communities,” he said. “They’re displacing the longstanding residents that have been here for generations.”
Protesters handed attendees of the pitch competition, some of them in suits and ties, leaflets from the group B.A.N. (Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network) which read, “Developers and artists come together to pat themselves on the back for being ‘pioneers’ or ‘thought leaders’ for the creative economy in Brooklyn. … Meanwhile, rents in Brooklyn are skyrocketing and displacement is rampant. These very same ‘Makers’ are displacing Brooklyn!”
Upstairs, one of the judges, venture capitalist Charlie O’Donnell, interrupted the scheduled event before the competition began.
“I’m from Brooklyn and I feel weird about what’s going on outside,” he said, sympathetically. “I think it would be cool if someone could invite some of the people from outside to come up and see these pitches, because I can’t imagine they would be anti the entrepreneurs and what they’re doing.”
And so it was done. Two women, Samantha Farinella and Amanda Katz, came up for the event, which you can read about here.
Afterward, we found the two women talking on a couch in the lobby.
“I think this is for a certain class of people,” Farinella said. “I don’t think the people here are evil or bad, and some of the things I heard were really positive, but I don’t think people understand there’s a connection to housing displacement and what that means to a neighborhood.”
At this point O’Donnell, who last month raised a $15 million seed fund, came out and sat down on the edge of the coffee table with us to talk with the two women. O’Donnell grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn and runs the largest venture firm located in the borough. Many of his investments are in New York-based companies.
“I grew up when Brooklyn was very different and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to come down here,” he said, speaking of Downtown Brooklyn’s less glamorous recent past. O’Donnell acknowledge the changes but said he wasn’t sure if the old days were all so good, really. “Like, we never left Bensonhurst. Not enough mixing happened. You stayed in your little area.”
The trio agreed that not mixing neighborhoods is not good and that there are serious challenges that come with the changes Brooklyn’s encountering. All was calm. That is, until a midnight Twitter war emerged between O’Donnell and @BANgentrifying, which tweeted at O’Donnell and nearly everyone else attending the event various forms of the message “There’s nothing innovative about #displacement.”
— B.A.N. (@BANgentrifying) September 29, 2016
What followed were invitations by both parties to attend meetings at their respective locations. B.A.N. accused the event of racism and sexism for not allowing its women of color leaders to speak in front of the event. O’Donnell criticized them for alienating potentially receptive voices in the business crowd.
@BANgentrifying If you're serious about change, you would take advantage of opportunities to win stakeholders over.
— Charlie O'Donnell (@ceonyc) September 29, 2016
Likely, this is not the final chapter in this story. Both the protesters and the capitalists seemed unpersuaded by each other’s arguments, but at least there was some talking. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were these glass condos.
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