Raised in Brooklyn, David Ehrenberg began telling me about himself without hiding any of his city-kid pride. “I’m a product of the NYC public school system,” he said.
After growing up civically engaged and working as a community organizer, the city kid became the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, four years ago. The Navy Yard was built over 200 years ago as an active US Navy shipyard, and for 150 years, built and launched fighting ships including the USS Maine, USS Arizona, and USS Missouri. Now, thanks to the non-profit Navy Yard Development Corporation, it is home to over 330 businesses where more than 7,000 people work.
After spending several years working for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ehrenberg is working to make the Navy Yard an innovative leader—in a thoughtful, equity-minded way. In a conversation with Motherboard after the Smart Cities conference Ehrenberg shares his experience.
Motherboard: What did you work on during the Bloomberg administration?
David Ehrenberg: A pretty wide assortment. The Applied Sciences Initiative. I helped establish the Citibike program in the city. I worked on what’s now called Essex Crossing, a project on the Lower East Side, which was in many ways was the project most near to my heart, because it’s a project that has a really long history. For urban planners, it’s a well known project that goes back to Robert Moses; It was one of his “slum clearance” projects, and a whole neighborhood was bulldozed. I and a team for the city spent a better part of five years or so—most of the time working behind the scenes with the community—trying to broker a solution to this very long-stalled project. After countless meetings with community boards and stakeholders and all that, we were able to successfully get that project back up and running. It’s now under construction for a mixed-use neighborhood that’s being built on the Lower East Side.
Would you say that’s been your most meaningful work?
That would be the one pre-Navy Yard. For more personal reasons, [the Brooklyn] Navy Yard is really kind of a dream job. Earlier, I’d been a community organizer, and deeply in a community providing direct service to individuals as part of that work.
Navy Yard is a rare example of community economic development that’s at scale, where we’re creating thousands and thousands of jobs at once and training hundreds of people a year for those jobs, but also focused on a very specific project and community and constituency. That’s a really special part of what we’re doing here at the Yard. It’s economic development that’s not just coming in and building buildings, but being really thoughtful about the details, and how they engage with the community. And it’s not just at a community board meeting here and there, but literally day in and day out. Thinking about real estate and development with a purpose, with a higher calling.
How would you define that community and constituency in the Navy Yard?
There are really two communities. There’s the constituency inside the Navy Yard, which is our tenants and employees. We’re trying to do is create an environment with an interesting, diverse set of tenants, which run from traditional manufacturers and artists, to some of the top technologists and media companies in the world [Editor’s note: asked for examples, the Navy Yard Development Corporation sent a list including New Lab, Ferra Designs, Honeybee Robotics, SITU Fabrication and Steiner Studios].
We’re trying to create a little world, a city within a city, where those companies can coexist and partner together, in an environment where that diverse community can thrive. The end goal for us is creating a large number of jobs, and particularly accessible jobs that everyday New Yorker can access.
But then we as a landlords turn to the other constituency: The community immediately outside the yard. We want to make sure all of that economic activity that’s happening in the yard is turned into economic opportunity for the community outside the yard. We have an employment center here that works with local residents and schools to train and place adults into jobs or students into internships with a focus on the hardest-to-employ populations within our immediate community. It’s not social service; We focus on the business needs of our tenants. But we do the hard work of training people and getting them ready with their resumes and all that to make sure those opportunities are widely accessible.
The Navy Yard’s been referred to as the “ Silicon Valley of New York, ” which is interesting because Silicon Valley has gotten a lot of heat for excluding the communities around it. But it sounds like Navy Yard is more mindful than that.
Yep. Last year, we places over 300 jobs in the yard, paid for summer stipends for over 100 interns. I think it’s an important model and one I’m really proud of, and a little bit of an experiment. Not to be too grandiose about it, but the more I think about it, this is a challenge for our city and our country that nobody is grappling with. Is innovation a force for inequality or equality?
Is innovation a force for inequality or equality?
There are a lot of soundbites about that, but there are very few models where people are really trying to be mindful. There tend to be violent reactions one way or the other: The robots are taking all of your jobs, watch out! Or, we don’t want any innovation because it’ll harm our community.
Both of those perspectives are completely reasonable, but what we’re trying to do is say, look, innovation has to happen. Cities that stop innovating whither and die, and that’s not New York. That’s not what New York stands for, and it’s not the best of our country or city. But you then have to turn around and think carefully about what that innovation does to the immediate workforce that’s here today, and the future workforce.
That world is upon us—we can either hide from it or rise to the challenge. The truly amazing thing about the yard, and what makes this my dream job and my life’s passion, is that of anybody out there we are at least equally situated to meet that challenge. We have 300 acres on the Brooklyn waterfront between Dumbo and Williamsburg, and we’re a nonprofit. We’re an amazing combination of being right in the middle of it, but a mission-driven nonprofit. I see our role as embracing all of that, but then challenging the innovation and the innovators, and doing the hard work ourselves, to make sure it’s inclusive and not exclusive.
What do think is going to be one of the biggest challenges to innovation in cities that we’ll see in the future? What will be the big roadblock in the next 10-20 years?
I see three. One: Innovation is, I fear, not going to move fast enough, because of regulatory hurdles and complexities. So I think there’s lots of reasons to fear that the opportunity it’ll come too slowly… and that it’s going to continue to tax the infrastructure of cities.
The second: As the system gets stressed, we’ll see the dynamic you talked about in Silicon Valley. That potential technology and innovation have to pull apart a city’s economy in two poles of the city’s economy is scary to me, honestly. I think something we, the collective we—I have a nine year old son who is very happy to tell me how my generation screwed it up for his generation and his generation’s going to have to fix it—I think this is another example where if we collectively don’t fix it… I worry about the city, any city, 20 or 30 years from now. I’ve really grappled with both sides of it.
Third—and this isn’t just because I’m a little bit of a luddite—I used to have a lot more conversations on the subway than I do now, or with cab drivers. It’s phones, I blame the phones. It’s stripping the city of something very fundamental about what cities are. Cities aren’t collections of people or infrastructure. Cities are public spaces, fundamentally. Differentiate these from suburbs or rural areas one hundred percent. There are streets that people walk on and see people who are not like them. If everybody’s looking down at their phone, they’re not going to see the people around them. I think there’s a lot of compelling, interesting smart city technology out there. I think some of it will just draw is farther into our phones or devices and away from the public commons. Since Socrates’ time, the public commons has been recognized as the cornerstone of a democracy. I don’t think you can entirely ditch that.
What are you excited to do in the immediate future?
Here are the yard, we’re at the cusp of a huge transition. We’ve been growing steadily for the last 20 years or so, adding a couple hundred jobs every year or so, and that’s wonderful and paved the way to our success. But in the next three years we’re gonna add more than 10,000 jobs more to the yard. What I’m excited about is returning the Navy Yard and what it stands for to a place with purpose. Returning us to a real employment center to rival others in the city.
Ten thousand jobs would be huge.
That’s 10,000 more jobs, adding to the seven thousand here now. There’s a lot of changes that’ve been talked about, but in the next few years it’ll become very real. Physical buildings that are completed and open and more workers getting on our buses every day. That’s going to make us pop in a way and kind of make it all very tangible what the vision of the place really is.
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