Best Practices Road Trip: Brooklyn

I recently joined the Greater Portland Inc sponsored, Best Practices trip to Brooklyn, NY. Randy Miller, a local businessman and philanthropist, has been orchestrating these trips for the last several decades. They have taken place all over the country and world. The trips venture to cities where interesting things are happening that can be compared against challenges and opportunities faced here in Portland. The group is comprised of leaders from business, nonprofit, education and elected positions.    
Brooklyn is an obvious destination for a delegation from Portland. Brooklyn is often compared to Portland when it comes to positive strides they’ve made in terms of technology start ups, bike culture, the maker movement and revitalizing old areas to become hubs of innovation. On our trip, we received tours at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, Fashion and Design Incubator, and DUMBO.  We also had speakers discuss history of Brooklyn’s comeback, parks and rec, and the Urban Land Institute.
As a first time visitor to NYC, it was a mind-blowing experience. The energy, scale and diversity of Brooklyn and Manhattan was a lot to process for this small town Oregon boy. I can certainly see how the city draws people from around the world. The energy is contagious. That said, I am happy to call Portland my home! I wanted to share five key takeaways from experience in Brooklyn:
  1. Size doesn’t matter.  If it does, we might as well give up now. The scale of Brooklyn is hard to wrap my head around. So much density in the 70 square mile footprint. It would be the 3rd largest city in the US were it not annexed to greater NYC. We toured building complexes that were 3 million sq ft and 6.5 million sq ft. While we don’t have aging properties of that magnitude, we do need to continue finding creative ways to revitalize areas like the Pearl, Inner SE and Industrial NW to meet evolving needs of our region. While minuscule in comparison, these efforts can have a massive impact on our region.
  2. Brooklyn is indeed bike friendly.  I have heard many good things about bike culture in Brooklyn. I was pleased to see that it lived up to the hype. There were bike share stations all over the place, sharrows on many streets and lots of bike lanes on even the busiest of streets. I witnessed massive cycling and running activity on dedicated bike/ped lanes that circle Prospect Park, Brrooklyn’s largest park.  
  3. Diversity is a beautiful thing.  I was fascinated by the tight neighborhoods of certain communities.  Some stood out more than others, such as the Hasidics. All seemed to enjoy a sense of acceptance and harmony. Never did I feel threatened. This is a far cry from old perceptions of Brooklyn. Our world could use more of this positivity.
  4. Leadership is not a popularity contest.  This notion came up many times during our stay. There were countless examples of positive change in Brooklyn’s history that came down to leaders making tough decisions. Yes, there were winners and losers, but a tough choice was made and good things came of it.  
  5. Invisible homeless.  I was amazed at the lack of homeless people I saw camped out on the streets of Brooklyn. I understand that much of this is due to strict sit-lie ordinances in effect since Mayor Giuliani.  Yet, I understand homelessness is 75% higher than it was a decade ago. This is the highest level since the Great Depression. Signficant increaases in housing costs receive much of the blame. Some 60,000 people stay in shelters each night. Several thousand others sleep in public spaces. A challenging situation with no clear solution.  
It was truly a transformational trip with friends, new and old.  I look forward to applying what we’ve learned as we continue shaping Portland in the years ahead. A huge thank you to the GPI crew that facilitated such a fun deep-dive into Brooklyn. I look forward to going back soon to explore the many riches of this amazing city.