Is New York City Home to a Technopolis? Or a Tech Bubble?

A scene from last year's TechCrunch Disrupt NY conferenceEXPAND
A scene from last year's TechCrunch Disrupt NY conference

For years, New York City has aspired to rival Silicon Valley. Starting in the mid 1990s, wannabes coined the term "Silicon Alley" for parts of Manhattan and Dumbo.

This tech size-envy only got worse.

In 2014, Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, told Crain’s New York Business that "the term 'Silicon Alley' is so diminutive. That name is from like 1998. No, we have really become a Technopolis."

Well, Technopolis didn’t exactly catch on. But the city keeps trying.

This week, 2,000 techies have descended on Red Hook for the seventh annual TechCrunch Disrupt NY conference, to showcase their ideas, products, and efforts to expand the tech community in New York. And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio marked what his office calls a "major milestone" for Google, the city’s largest tech company, with 5,000 employees — the Google campus is set to expand at Pier 57.

"We are thrilled to advance the Pier 57 project and work with companies like Google to make New York City the global capital of technology," de Blasio said of the $350 million rehab of the pier using private money.

On the same day, the de Blasio administration broke ground at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard for the "Dock 72 Tech and Innovation Hub...[a] $380 million project [that] will support the rapidly emerging technology and creative industries in Brooklyn."

So maybe New York is catching up.

But it might be good to keep in mind another number in this race: $3,560.

A Lego mural at Google NYC
A Lego mural at Google NYC

That’s the median rental cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. In New York, the same unit rents for $3,290, according the The Zumper National Rent Report for May. New York clocks in at number two, behind the City by the Bay, as the most expensive rental market in the country. Between the finance sector, oligarchs, and hedge fund managers already driving up housing and rent prices, more Google millionaires might only make things worse.

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But there is one difference — New York is "pre-gentrified," says Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. He says the growing number of deep-pocketed tech workers in the city contrasts with their emergence in San Francisco.

"The untethering of rents from ordinary wages in NYC began under Bloomberg. The tech bubble just accelerates the trend. Apartments had already shifted from residences to an asset class. Once real residents were in competition with real estate speculators and investors parking capital, there was no hope of maintaining a livable city."

The good news, says Rushkoff, is that this era will pass.

"Most of these companies’ profits are based in advertising or big data, and we know those industries are unsustainable. But these buildings will be reused for other purposes someday, just as Google uses the factory floors of the Chelsea Piers for YouTube today."


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