For Creatives, A Haven's Becoming A Headache

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With the city's fastest-growing creative freelance population, generating an estimated $1 billion in revenues and related services, the economic impact of self-employed creative professionals in Brooklyn is great, to say the least.

But the challenges of being a creative freelancer – even on the east side of the East River – are many, and the resources needed for daily work and life, while available, can be frustrating to access.

These were some of the implications highlighted at a forum last week called “Harnessing Brooklyn’s Creative Capital: The Impact of Self-Employed Creative Professionals on the Borough’s Economy,” organized by the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation and the Center for an Urban Future (City Limits' sister think tank).

The goals of the forum and panel discussion, held at Brooklyn Public Library’s Zweck Auditorium, in part were to shed light on a phenomenon that has largely fallen under the radar of policymakers, said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, which published a report in 2005 analyzing the economic strength of New York’s creative sector.

“We think that this is a growing part of the economy that deserves more attention,” Bowles said of the self-employed creative population in Brooklyn.

Indeed, the number of independent creative workers living in Brooklyn grew by 33 percent from 2002 to 2005, compared with 6 percent growth in Manhattan, according to forum organizers. In 2005 Brooklyn had an estimated 22,000 self-employed creative professionals clustered primarily in the creative western “crescent” stretching from Williamsburg through Dumbo to Park Slope and Red Hook. Seventy percent of those independent workers were classified as writers, artists or performers.

Kris Reed, director of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation’s Initiative for a Competitive Brooklyn, noted that the $500 million in taxable revenues generated by Brooklyn’s self-employed creative workers is a conservative estimate due to likely gross under-reporting. When the services and products that support creative workers are factored into the equation, the economic impact on the borough is closer to $1 billion, Reed said.

Yet in spite of the burgeoning ranks of Brooklyn’s independent creative workforce, the challenges of self-employment remain front and center for many. Panelists expressed the frustration self-employed workers face in any locale, such as finding health care and being paid in a timely fashion, as well as borough-specific hurdles, such as gaps in subway service and an unrelenting real estate market that many fear will price creative workers out of Brooklyn.

Panelist Sara Horowitz, a Brooklyn native and founder of the Freelancers Union, said Brooklyn’s independent creative workers are reflective of trends nationwide, where one third of workers are independent. “The nature of work is changing,” Horowitz said.

But she noted that freelance workers represent a paradigm shift for policymakers in that they do not look to government to provide answers to their problems, but rather want government to enable them to resolve issues on their own. “If policymakers can understand that, that’s a real profound change that will go a long way,” she said.

Panelists and members of the audience, which numbered over 100, agreed Brooklyn holds much allure for self-employed creative professionals: more space, relative affordability, close proximity to Manhattan, great restaurants, neighborly communities.

But many wondered whether Brooklyn, like pockets of Manhattan that also once served as a haven for artists, would soon become a place where few artists can afford to live.

Panelist Scott Adkins, a playwright who founded Brooklyn Writers Space in Park Slope, said many of his 125-plus members worry about the rising cost of living in Brooklyn. “The prospect of getting priced out of Park Slope is very real for us,” Adkins said.

“Having people leave Brooklyn is a reality,” said Alexandra Farkas, a freelance theater director who has moved from Carroll Gardens to Cobble Hill, Fort Greene and now Bedford-Stuyvesant in search of more affordable housing. “I want to know how it’s going to be possible for me to stay in Brooklyn.”

The fears and frustrations connected to housing were not lost on Reed of BEDC. She said after the forum that her organization would continue to track the trends, and would work with city officials to recommend ways to preserve affordable living and working spaces in Brooklyn for self-employed creative professionals, similar to past initiatives that preserved a limited number of affordable housing units for other categories of people, such as senior citizens. “That's a thought we are definitely going to explore,” she said.

– Michelle S. Han