The classic narrative of a business launching in a suburban garage isn’t a New York story, where in many neighborhoods space goes at such a premium that finding both the room and the equipment necessary to make and create can be challenging. Industrial districts that once fulfilled these demands increasingly feel the pressure to absorb residential growth just as the worldwide maker movement is on the rise and more non-professionals are seeking out space to make.
Recognizing the serious implications these constraints have for economic development and the health of the city’s artistic community, shared workspaces and business incubators have proliferated in recent years. The faltering of high-profile 3rd Ward in Bushwick was a setback, but the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center saw such demand that it has expanded to an additional space on Atlantic Avenue. Spaceworks, a City-created non-profit that develops affordable art studios, recently opened new spaces on the second floor of a Williamsburg library. And the City’s Economic Development Corporation now supports a city-wide network of business incubators covering everything from food production to biotech engineering.
The only node in that network on Staten Island is the Staten Island MakerSpace, a two-story, 6,000 square-foot warehouse under the tracks of the Staten Island Railroad in Stapleton, two stops south of the ferry terminal where space is (for now) affordable. Founded in 2013 by DB Lampman and Scott Van Campen, the MakerSpace’s members run the gamut from professional metalworkers to street artists to technologists. Here, Lampman describes the MakerSpace’s place in the changing context of the North Shore — where a giant Ferris wheel, outlet mall, and real estate developments are all in process — and its role in fostering new creative ventures through workshops, equipment provision, and business development. –J.T.
What is your background, and how did you come to found the Staten Island MakerSpace?
Scott [Van Campen] and I are both artists. I have a background in physical arts and arts administration and previously worked as a program director at a local museum. Scott was an architectural metal worker, so his bread and butter was building stairs, railings, et cetera. He used this space as his shop for twelve or so years, and I also used it as my art studio. We spent a lot of Sundays working on projects, with my son coming and working on stuff as well, and we started a conversation about how it would be interesting if other people could have access to the equipment. The average New Yorker doesn’t have that luxury.
Then we were flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and for a few months we were cleaning up and re-thinking what we do. Right about the same time the City put out a request for proposals for a small business incubator on Staten Island. There were already incubators around the city but not one here. We thought that our idea for turning the shop into a community workspace might actually fit what they were looking for. Our premise was if we can teach people to make things, they can develop small businesses from there.
Our proposal won, we got some startup funding from New York City Economic Development Corporation, and we plunged in. We expanded into a vacant part of this building, and through a large volunteer effort cleaned it up, shifted things around, built cubicles. We worked with local architect David Businelli of Studio 16 Architecture to do the build out. In addition to the wood and metal shop we had before, we now have a computer lab with 3D printers and a large format printer, a sewing studio, and meeting spaces. Now about a year and a half in, we’ve got about 60 members — artists, engineers, home brewers, people tinkering with tech projects.
How do you compare with other incubators in the city, and what’s the goal of the space?
Beyond providing the space and equipment, how are you supporting businesses and entrepreneurs?
We have a six-month residency program for three teams of creative entrepreneurs, and we help them launch a product. If we don’t know how to help them on a certain issue, we connect them with partners in the community. The Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island assists with business plan writing and financial advice. We’ve also got a patent attorney we consult.
It’s also interesting to see how different groups in the space interact with each other. There’s a lot of collaboration happening: we’ve got a group called Toilets for People, which builds low-cost composting toilets for international communities without access to toilets. We’ve also got another small business called City Tree Guards, which builds tree guards out of 100% recycled plastic. The two of them have begun developing a new toilet built with recycled plastic and geared toward the American consumer market.
What other projects are in process here?
One of our members, Kevin Mahoney, is a street artist who runs a collective called Robots Will Kill. They have some great anti-bullying murals up around the city. He came here primarily as a painter but was interested in learning metalwork to create stencils. He started taking welding classes and really got into it. He’s also an IT specialist and he’s combined his artistic and technical sides in a project called COM-MON, which stands for community monitor. He takes recycled computer monitors and sets them up with microcomputers that broadcast emergency information and places to get shelter and food for people who don’t have reliable access to computers. The monitors will sit in storefronts and public locations, and Kevin has invited artists to design casings to house them.
We’ve also got a group of home brewers. They run a local brew club called Pour Standards, and they’re transitioning from hobby brewing into a small craft brewery. And in addition to those that have dedicated studio spaces, there are always carpenters and metalworkers coming and going, building small jobs.
How does the MakerSpace relate to Stapleton and other surrounding communities?
We try to be a community space and reach out in various ways, partnering with local people and organizations. We did a kite-making workshop with Freshkills Park, and then went and flew what we made there. We partner with some local small business owners — for our class Women, Welding, and Wine we cross-promote with Honor Wines, our local wine store.
Does the wine come before the welding?
No! It’s a bonafide welding class. We’re trying to offer an entry point for women into a male-dominated activity. At the end, Lori from Honor Wines comes in with a wine tasting.
What other community partnerships or programs has the MakerSpace been involved in?
We’re helping the local branch of the New York Public Library build a book bicycle they can use for community outreach. We do programs with local schools, some of which are really fantastic. This spring we had 6th and 7th graders from P.S. 48 in here three times a week for 16 weeks. They had to design and prototype products that could help make a difference in the world, hackathon-style. The 7th graders were reading a book about children in Sudan who have to travel miles to get drinking water, so their challenge was to design and build systems that could clean water, transport water, or use it to better serve agriculture. They came up with really creative solutions, including desalination and aquaponics systems.
This hands-on experience is exciting for the kids, as is seeing engineering in action. I think learning these skills empowers people. Most people that come in and take welding are never going to be professional welders, but it gives them a wider view of what’s possible.
We often host meetings for people working on social issues in the neighborhood. The site of an annual community festival called St. George Day is right by where Eric Garner was killed. This year the festival became a special cause, and we helped build the festival’s dragon puppets and things like that.
We worked with landscape architecture studio SCAPE when they were putting together their winning Rebuild by Design proposal to create breakwaters from oyster beds on the South Shore. They wanted to create a scale model, so we helped facilitate a public build where we invited the community to hear about the plan and spend a day drilling into oyster shells and stringing them together for the model. SCAPE then used that model to promote and explain what they were proposing. We also work with New York Harbor School, who was also involved in that project, to build oyster cages. They trained teachers on how to set up and maintain their oyster cages here.
The de Blasio administration has started touting the North Shore as a future tech hub. At the MakerSpace you have artists working alongside people in tech, and collaboration between the two. In some other parts of the country, particularly the San Francisco Bay area, tech companies and local artists are almost considered antithetical. Is there any fear that the City’s tech vision for the area would trump the arts community that already exists?
It’s been interesting as an artist having to quickly learn about the tech scene now that we’re involved with it. I find the two scenes to be very similar. The whole startup culture of trying to come up with ideas and launch a business is really not that different from an artist trying to develop a new idea and make it happen. It’s all about creative thinking. I think they benefit each other — the tech guys benefit from a critical, visual kind of thinking, and the artists benefit from people who are more entrepreneurial. I don’t see Staten Island necessarily being infiltrated by Google any time soon, but it depends on how quickly that kind of tech growth happens. I hope the artists don’t suffer for it — they have played a really big role in even giving tech companies the incentive to come here.
The North Shore is also undergoing a good bit of real estate development right now — where does the MakerSpace fit into this changing context?
I don’t know — we’re part of it all just by way of our location and the timing of our coming online. It’ll be interesting to see how things change. The New York Wheel and the Empire Outlets development don’t necessarily cater to Staten Islanders; that’s a tourist thing. I know Staten Islanders are concerned about how it will influence the ferry and other transportation. We know Rich Marin, the CEO of the Wheel — he’s spoken here, and he’s a great guy. What I respect about the Wheel is that Rich had this crazy big idea, and he’s doing it. But I don’t know how it’s going to impact us.
The URL development is a whole different thing, because they’re building 900 apartments across the street and trying to connect it with the existing community. It might be beneficial to us, and we’re certainly happy about the prospect of new people that could come in and use this space. On the flip side, we don’t own our building and the landlord wants to sell, so in a few years we may find ourselves in a position where we have to look for a new space. We could get pushed out; that’s a real fear. Hopefully by the time that becomes an issue we’ll be enough of an anchor here that community and political support will help us find a new space and survive.
I think everybody on the North Shore is waiting to see what happens — it’s coming at us like a big wave, so it’s exciting but a little scary at the same time. There’s been a lot of back and forth, a lot of concern about what it will mean for the community. We’ve been here almost 13 years. We previously lived in Williamsburg and got pushed out. We were looking for a place that we could afford where we could raise a child, and we ended up here without really knowing much about Staten Island.
What’s happening here feels different than that in some ways, but maybe it’s not. In Williamsburg a lot of things happened all at once very quickly, so a lot of people were displaced. Here, most of the development is happening along the waterfront, which is underutilized to begin with. It feels like we’re getting an addition to the neighborhood, rather than someone coming in and taking something existing away from people. It’s sort of this weird experiment — let’s see what happens if we just pile all this stuff into a corner of Staten Island.
Unless otherwise noted, photos by Jonathan Tarleton.