What’s Innovation to Some Means Gentrification to Others

An anti-gentrification group protests a gathering of start-ups and developers in Brooklyn.

The innovation summit's morning session was held inside the unfinished City Point building.

The innovation summit’s morning session was held inside the unfinished City Point building.

Kikelomo Kendall has had a connection to Brooklyn for her entire life. Born to South American and Caribbean immigrants in Canada, she visited family in Flatbush throughout her childhood. When she moved here herself in 2007,  she was shocked by how much the borough had changed — new retail developments, taller buildings, and higher rents.

On Wednesday morning, Kendall joined several other business owners to attend a summit in Brooklyn that brought together developers and startups to discuss innovation and development in the borough. The event, the Make It In Brooklyn Innovation Summit, drew protests from the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, who say the summit promotes a form of economic development that displaces existing communities.

Kendall seemed genuinely troubled by the negative effects of gentrification, but believed innovation could ultimately help everyone.  

“On the one hand it leaves people out,” Kendall said, “but on the other, people need to be willing to see the bright side.”  

“The innovation of things that is something that’s accessible to everyone,” said Kendall, who launched a Brooklyn-based creative and advertising agency in August along with three partners.“We’re all on this planet with brains in our heads and can all think of new ideas.”

Protestors gathered outside the summit's evening event, a startup pitch competition.

Protesters gathered outside the summit’s evening event, a startup pitch competition.

About 25 protesters gathered in the chilly wind and drizzle outside of the summit’s evening event, a pitch contest for start-ups. Organizers don’t see the recent development in Brooklyn as innovation.

“The point of what we’re doing today is to show that there’s resistance,” said organizer Imani Henry. “If East New York now has million dollar properties, where are we going to live?”

He said developers and startups drive out entire blocks of brick and mortar small businesses that are part of the community.

Henry said that developers build more luxury units than are needed and too few affordable units. The city, he argues, should pay for more low-cost housing. He also said the negative effects of development fall disproportionately on communities of color.

The average rent for a one-bedroom in Brooklyn is just over $2,700 per month according to MNS real estate, a 20 percent increase in the last five years. From 2000 to 2010, downtown Brooklyn lost 19 percent of its Black population and 12 percent of its Hispanic population despite ten percent population growth overall, according to the census. Nearby Park Slope lost more than 30 percent of its Black and Hispanic population over the same period.

Andrew Kalish, who came outside to invite some of the protesters to observe the event, said he empathizes with the protesters concerns and supports their right to express their views. Protesters declined the invitation when Kalish said they would not be allowed to make a presentation at the event inside.

Kalish works for Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a not-for-profit local development corporation that hosted the summit. 

“We want to engage in a productive dialogue,” said Kalish, but he said the night’s event was focused on the young entrepreneurs who he hopes will create jobs in the community.

“I believe that you need to harness development for your aims,” he said.

One of the startups that was set to participate, justfix.nyc, dropped out after learning that real estate developers Forest City Ratner and JDS Development Group were involved. Co-founder Dan Kass wrote in an email that these developers were in many ways responsible for the displacement of low and middle income people.

MaryAnne Gilmartin (center) spoke on a panel with Michael Stern of JDS Development Group (left), moderated by New York Times Journalist Matt Chaban (right).

MaryAnne Gilmartin (center) spoke on a panel with Michael Stern of JDS Development (left), moderated by New York Times Journalist Matt Chaban (right).

MaryAnne Gilmartin, CEO of Forest City Ratner, said in an interview that more could be done to make affordable housing units in new buildings. She said there should be a partnership between policy makers and the private sector to create economic incentives.

“It has to make economic sense,” she said, “and that’s where I think the policy has to be in the mix.” She said she was not surprised to hear about the planned protest.

“I don’t know a lot about this group,” she said. “I can tell you that change is difficult. Change is disruptive. And people, you know, rally against change.”

Kikelomo Kendall doesn’t think these changes in Brooklyn can be stopped.

“They say, if you can’t beat them, join them,’ she said, adding that communities can come together to create programs for their own benefit.  “Instead of complaining about what’s not happening, make something happen.”

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