A few weeks ago I was in New York City for the weekend and had an opportunity to meet up with an old friend at a place with real implications for how we think about economic development and community renewal.
The Brooklyn Flea Market has been around since 2008, and now serves large crowds every weekend in three rotating locations. In growing to its current size the market has come to feature a diverse set of artisans, craftspeople, and other small-scale entrepreneurs selling everything from vinyl records to furniture and vintage clothing. There are a fair amount of food purveyors, as well; the food portion of the market actually became so popular that Brooklyn Flea also operates a separate, food-only market that takes place at two locations along the Williamsburg waterfront.
The image above is taken from the inside of the historic Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, one of New York City’s few iconic skyscrapers outside of Manhattan. From November through March, the market moves indoors to inhabit the ground floor of the historic former banking center, the upper floors of which once housed dozens of area dental offices and were converted in 2006 into luxury condo space.
Now, in addition to the re-purposing of its upper floors, the lobby and basement levels of this landmark building have become a local attraction, providing space for entrepreneurs and small businesspeople to sell their wares, along with a cavernous environment for weekenders to explore. Former teller booths now house pop-up shops with trendy clothing, shoes, and handmade goods. The basement is a series of narrow hallways that feels more like a maze than a place where people are buying and selling food and assorted secondhand items. It probably wasn’t used for much other than storage during the building’s former life, but it’s now a lively hub of neighborhood commerce.
Turning a historic old space into a community attraction and a place where entrepreneurs can find willing customers? Better yet, a place where real people can interact and sell real things to each other? Places like the Brooklyn Flea Market are the highest ideal of free market capitalism; a place where the proverbial butcher and baker meet and succeed on their own merits. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s one that can be applied to communities with a fraction of New York City’s population or historic assets.
To that last point especially, it would be easy to write the Brooklyn Flea Market off as a big city story; a place that can only be sustained by large markets with wealthy residents and lots of purchasing power. But this is both dishonest and misleading. At the end of the day it’s really about scale – in New York City, it might be the bottom floors of an ornately decorated skyscraper, but in smaller communities it could be an underutilized civic center, side street, or vacant lot. There are certainly plenty of the latter scattered across America’s urban and rural landscape, and there’s no reason that the heyday for these places should be thought of as any time but now. Every community has its own unique assets, and if the existence and success of something like the Brooklyn Flea Market represents anything, it’s the fact that if people are willing think creatively and act boldly, there is always the chance to take something and make it better.
What this is really about is finding innovative ways to build community wealth and opportunity for those who are willing to seek it. Not everyone will be an artisan, nor should they be. But not everyone should have to work in an office park or retail outlet, either. It’s about creating a healthy mix of jobs, which comes from ensuring a healthy mix of opportunities. Whether attracting a large outside enterprise or thinking of new strategies to build up the local business landscape, economic developers and community leaders must be creative about how they facilitate opportunities for people in their communities to accumulate wealth. Humans have used trade and exchange to better themselves and their societies since the dawn of civilization. What can today’s communities do to help make sure more of this sort of activity takes place under their jurisdiction?
Money is often referred to as a necessary evil, but there is something beautiful about the process of buying and selling, particularly when it involves things that people genuinely enjoy making, and places where folks genuinely enjoy spending some time on a Saturday. Economic Development has historically been thought of in very narrow terms – how to create a lot of jobs, quickly, and sometimes to the exclusion of other important community priorities, or any real thought about whether those jobs are good jobs, rewarding and gratifying jobs, or just 40+ hours per week of numbers on somebody else’s balance sheet. Maybe it’s about something a bit more fundamental: buying and selling, human exchange, and how to build communities that provide the opportunity to buy, sell, and exchange nice things. Maybe it’s about promoting local interactions as a way for us all to live more sustainably. Emphasize these priorities and maybe the jobs will follow.
There’s no magic bullet, and in the end communities must employ many development strategies successfully in order to succeed. But maybe just maybe there’s something that can be gained from an emphasis on what makes a place like the Brooklyn Flea Market successful. At a time when many communities are crying out for new sources of prosperity and renewal, maybe this is one place to turn for guidance.
If nothing else, it’s a great place to spend a weekend afternoon.