A new Silicon Valley in upper Manhattan?

A new Silicon Valley in upper Manhattan?

redlogoHarlem is one of New York’s most famous neighborhoods, known as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. In the past, it has suffered a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle. In the last decades, residents have been experiencing the effect of gentrification and displacement of the area.

But even so, Harlem community is strong and vibrant: an example is East Harlem Neighborhood Plan (organized by Hester Street CollaborativeNeighborhoods First Found and Center for Urban Pedagogy), a community-led initiative that expressed a community-oriented approach in urban planning. This approach is consistent with the aim of promoting a new institutional and economic system based on the model of collaborative urban governance. The development plan tried to replace the number of losing affordable housing and added more benefits into the community, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said. Their mission is to provide leadership in sustainable, technology led, economic development for emerging urban communities.

Turning to another issue, such as broadband access affordability, it is important to remember Silicon Harlem, a for-profit social venture that got started in 2008 that is pushing to make Harlem a hub of technology and innovation that will will thrive and inspire the global digital economy. Co-founder and CEO Clayton Banks said that high-speed Web is “the electrification of the 21st century”, so “the most pressing issue regarding broadband is affordability”.

According to Silicon Harlem website, this social venture “is an ecosystem that is inclusive and driven by positive growth” and “the Technological Future of Harlem is a comprehensive set of steps needed to transform the community”. The idea of “a hub of technology and innovation” means establishing co-working spaces, gigabit infrastructure, securing investment capital, and hosting monthly meetups for boosting economic and social advancement in a neighborhood that has become increasingly multi-ethnic. New York University’s Furman Center, indeed, claims that, for example in Central Harlem, Black people were 77% in 2000 and they decreased to 55% in 2014, while Hispanic slightly increased from 17% in 2000 to 24% in 2014 and White rocketed up to 15% from 2% in the same period. These data are also important because they showed neighborhood incomes and educations levels on the rise.

Then, Apps Youth Leadership Academy (AYLA) is another program created to enhance the skills and prepare students for their careers in global digital economy. According to the website, The Academy launched in 2014 and put 20 High School students through a 7 week summer program. The students learned a variety of critical skills including: how to build a mobile app, how to build a website, how to manage as a team, how to pitch an idea, basics of coding, basics of design, problem solving and feedback, and much more. Bolstering the technology proficiency of students is important in U.S. because there are 5 million households with school-age children but without broadband access.

Another interesting initiative is “Mission Possible” program created by WeWork and Silicon Harlem: here Harlem-based entrepreneurs can win office space and networking chances and opportunities:

  • Three to 12 months of space at WeWork Harlem;
  • Access to WeWork’ 80,000 members;
  • Participation in Demo Day pitch competition and other events;
  • Mentorship and professional advice from members and industry experts;
  • Reduced rates on health, payment processing, accounting, legal advice, etc.

Finally, CNBC reports that New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer considers broadband access the key to turn Harlem into the next Silicon Valley. In his opinion, broadband access creates wealth because it is inherently better to invest in human capital (especially for women and minorities) than merely to raise the minimum wage.

On this matter, Carrie Sheffield affirms that there is a diversity problem in technology: in Dropbox, Google, Facebook and Twitter only one or two percent of employees are black compared to African-Americans comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, according to CB Insights, a 2014 list of top tech venture capital firms shows just 1.54 percent of investors were black, and just 1 percent of tech startup founders were black. This isn’t to say we need rigid, racial quotas in tech, and in fact, economics tells us that sort of rigidity is bad for consumers. The key point is to build a robust culture around STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) and it is precisely what Silicon Harlem is doing in Harlem and in other cities such as Newark, Philadelphia and Haarlem.

According to this view, Silicon Harlem really have an opportunity to lower crime in Harlem, the potential to lower unemployment rates, increase quality education opportunities and grow jobs and bolster the neighborhood’s reputation as both a cultural and business force.