Recently in New York, as in other cities, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred an urgent shift from working in offices to working at home and given a massive boost to digital platforms for telecommuting, teleconferencing, and online teaching. Yet the tech industry has also generated some of the most significant spaces for face-to-face interaction of recent years. These are the hackathons, meetups, startup accelerators, and innovation districts that make up a globally hegemonic innovation complex.
As the second-largest startup ecosystem in the world and a superstar city of jobs using digital technology, New York hosts many of these spaces. Numbers vary according to who is counting, but both city government officials and organizations that represent the tech “community” claim the city has more than 9,000 startups and between 150,000 and 300,000 tech workers, half of whom work in non-tech companies. There are 70 tech accelerators, some specializing in fields like health or finance, 44 coding schools, and more than 500 programs for tech training and education. While Big Tech titans like ‘Amazon, Google and Facebook’ are expanding their footprint in Manhattan, each by one million square feet, a recent study showed the Brooklyn waterfront to be the second fastest-growing “innovation economy” in the United States.
I immersed myself in these spaces. But I was shocked to see how few friends or colleagues knew where they were, how they worked—or, indeed, anything about them. So, with documentary filmmakers Alice Arnold and Gary Griffin, I set out to create a visual journey around New York’s tech ecosystem. We wanted to show how broadly tech production has spread in New York and how it is changing the character of many neighborhoods. This is not the same tech-led gentrification that has roiled San Francisco or the corporate power that has been exercised against taxes in Seattle, but it is a new landscape of power.
Despite risk from floods and rising water levels, a significant portion of this landscape is on the waterfront. Small-scale computer hardware startups, media platforms, branding agencies and production studios for film and TV production are on the East River in North Brooklyn from Greenpoint to Sunset Park, with an epicenter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Google has a big beachhead near the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Chelsea and is building another in the old printing house district called Hudson Square. To the north, Facebook has leased space near top financial firms in the newly built, high-status district called Hudson Yards. Meanwhile, companies like Conde Nast and Spotify are in the newly reconstructed office towers of the World Trade Center near the Hudson River in lower Manhattan. From river to river, the historic financial district at the tip of lower Manhattan has been transformed into a tech and media hub.
A couple of years ago, it looked like Amazon’s plan to build a second North American headquarters on the East River waterfront in Queens was a done deal. But the project’s defeat, mainly because of local legislators’ anger at being excluded from the governor’s and mayor’s negotiations and communities’ disgust at the size of public subsidies offered to the trillion-dollar corporation, changed expectations of immediate economic development. Yet I suspect Amazon’s withdrawal will delay but not derail the city government’s long-held dream to develop a biotech district on either side of the river. The city’s major life sciences research centers and teaching hospitals already stretch along the Manhattan side, and in 2017, Cornell Tech, a graduate school for software engineers and business students, opened on Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the river between Manhattan and Queens.
To shoot the video, we traveled to different locations in the tech ecosystem on ferries that have been initiated and subsidized by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The journey shows not only how the various parts of the ecosystem are linked, it also offers a dramatic view of the emergence of a new urban landscape on top of the remains of the industrial economy and the dominance of the financial sector. The new landscape of power is produced by real estate development, continued growth of tech jobs and city government support—not a surprising combination for New York, perhaps, but one that is not often talked about in current discussions of innovation. Yet this combination of public and private power is building the innovation complex in cities around the world, reshaping social communities and political commitments.