hey bk

S2 | E10 | Chad Dickerson

Narrator:                   
Hey BK with Ofer Cohen

Chad Dickerson:              
I was recruiting an engineer and he was making a choice between Apple, obviously in Cupertino, California and Etsy, you know, it's hard to recruit against Apple. So I got to know him and I was starting to understand what he was into and he was really into music and hip hop and my closing line that got him over the line to come to Etsy was how much hip hop are you going to see in Cupertino, like run to Brooklyn.

Ofer Cohen:                          
On today's episode of Hey BK I talk to Chad Dickerson, former CEO of Etsy, the ecommerce site of handcrafted goods that started in Brooklyn and became a multibillion dollar success. Chad now has an executive coaching career and he's teaching at Cornell Tech, he got his start in silicon valley but grew up in North Carolina. In our conversation you'll hear that after just 11 years, Chad has found, his place in Brooklyn and considers it a real home.

Chad Dickerson:              
I lived in the south until I was 23. So like that was pretty much all I knew. And, I didn't visit New York until I was 26. So, you know, I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a place called Greenville and my kind of early childhood, still very farm and oriented. Um, both sets of my grandparents were tobacco farmers, like livestock, pig farmers. And so that was kind of the world that I was used to. And, my maternal grandfather, was unable to read or write, you know, my grandfather would get his birthday card and I at, you know, from age five until much later, like I would read his birthday card

Ofer Cohen:                      
That's incredible

Chad Dickerson:              
That really made an impression on me. And eventually, you know, I ended up going to Duke, scholarship kid and I actually, I majored in English and graduated with honors focused on Shakespeare. So I just never forgot just how important reading is. And it also, I think, growing up in that environment, really gave me kind of a deep appreciation for, can't think of a better term than just like regular people. And so since then, obviously, I mean you know, the guy, I rung the bell at Nasdaq and like took a company public and you know, met famous people and all that stuff. But you know, I'll never forget kind of where I came from. And you know, when I left at Etsy, one of the things that I was proudest of is that, you know, the people who cleaned the toilets and the security guards, and those people, you know, told me as I was leaving that they really appreciated, you know, how I related to them.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So you spent 10 years in California? In between, the south and Brooklyn

Chad Dickerson:              
Yeah at that time in the bay area from 98 to 2008, I went through the whole ".com" boom and bust. I would say what's in some ways, like the most formative time of my life, like I was 3000 miles away from where I grew up in California in great ways and negative ways. It's like living in a different country and, I just learned a lot there.

Ofer Cohen:                      
You worked for Yahoo.

Chad Dickerson:              
I worked for Yahoo. I went out there in 98 to be the CTO at salon.com, which was really an online innovator at the time. And, you know, I went, you know, this kid who grew up in the south, I went from that to, you know, being in a newsroom with people who worked at rolling stone in the 70s and you know, just sort of crazy lefty San Francisco. I say that with a lot of affection.

Ofer Cohen:                      
And then again, your name was Chad so they, kind of embraced you.

Chad Dickerson:              
Well, they thought that, a really close friend of mine out there said, when I joined, you know, I had just worked at CNN, I'd like graduated from Duke. My name was Chad and I came from the south. He said he thought that I'd come from some kind of aristocratic southern family and we laugh about it because as he got to know me he got to know what kind of mind and personal stories I had.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Though Chad had a successful career at Yahoo and was living the good life on the west coast. A friend who had invested in Etsy convinced him to interview at the Funky Brooklyn based startup.

Chad Dickerson:              
So I finally went out to Brooklyn in July, 2008 and I emailed a couple of my friends and said, you know, I'm going out to Brooklyn to talk to Etsy. I'm never going to move to Brooklyn. I'm like a California guy now. So I totally fell in love with Etsy. I met Rob Kalin, the founder. I went from kind of not being that interested in it, just totally entranced. And a big part of it was Brooklyn. Brooklyn in 2008 was a really exciting time. And so my wife and I came back to California and we'd just been married for like a year and we decided to move to New York.

Ofer Cohen:                      
That's incredible. You know, you took a shot and look this interview that he didn't even think.

Chad Dickerson:              
Yeah. And like, I mean it's easy to sit here in 2019 and Etsy is probably, I haven't looked lately, but probably like an $8 billion company, right? It was not an $8 billion company. You know, Etsy was all about handmade and the office was handmade. I mean Rob the founder, uh, I think he actually did the plumbing and the office. Um, cause I remember one day early in my tenure there, like there was like a clog in the sink and rob the founder went and got his tools and said, okay, like I know how to fix this because I put it together. So the office itself was handmade and uh, and very, I mean people talk about startups being scrappy. Like there was not much going on in Downtown Brooklyn at that time. You know, there was one bathroom for the whole company, like one toilet. Um, and so if anyone had to go, like, you just had to wait and there was a sign on the toilet paper that said, you know, if the toilet paper runs out, go buy some. So if you're the lucky soul to go in there and you know, the toilet paper runs out, you had to go, you know, somewhere in that area in Downtown Brooklyn, you could probably buy toilet paper in a hundred places around there now. But you had to go like on a trip just to like find a place.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Yeah. so when you, when you came, how many employees?

Chad Dickerson:              
I think it was about 40 employees. Um, it was like a really small office and you know, companies, startups have lunches and such. And when we had, our weekly lunch, everyone could sit around a table. So, you know, when I joined it was three years old, but it was still incredibly, incredibly small. And, it's one of those things you learn in life. I remember walking in and feeling like I was joining late because I was like employee number, I don't know, 45.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Chad to help build Etsy for nine years and felt like a founder. Eventually Etsy became the biggest success story for tech in Brooklyn. He started as a CTO and in 2011 became CEO until his departure two years ago. At the beginning he faced typical startup challenges, like faulty technology. Not to mention this was the midst of the great recession.

Chad Dickerson:              
That technology was in really rough shape. Like a lot of startups, like the company was scaling, and the team was building as fast as they could, but you know, you don't always build perfect software in that case.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Was it harder to at that point and to recruit tech talent, you know, to work in that space in Brooklyn

Chad Dickerson:              
It was somewhat difficult. So, you know, I had a couple of former CTO's come in and do some consulting work for me, the kind of Silicon Valley folks to kind of look at the tech stack and everything. And one of the things that they wrote up in their report was that they believed it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to build a first rate technology team in New York. Right. And so Brooklyn at the time, especially if you know the geography of Brooklyn, that space was in that neighborhood was not, you know, full of coffee shops. We had terrible Internet service. Like the Internet was going out constantly when I was there. And I think part of it was, you know, there were two high rises being built, one on either side. And just so the building for my first year, the building was shaking pretty much the whole time we were there and there were two pile drivers just like boom, boom. And so it's kind of an unstable building. There are two huge skyscrapers there now, but the Internet went out all the time. And one of my first task, a CTO, you think you're going to come in and be like really strategic and all this stuff is, I think I went down to the Verizon store and bought a bunch of, you know, wireless Internet cards so that developers could keep working. You know, I had just come over from the west coast where I had to fine career and you know, could have done a lot of things there. I stepped into Etsy, the technology was in worse shape than I thought. I honestly, I call it a couple of friends back on the west coast and it's like, oh, I think I might've made a career ending mistake by joining Etsy. It turned out to be the opposite. But, um, yeah, Lehman brothers crashed. Like I really felt like I had come, to the east coast in general, absolutely the wrong time. And fortunately I think this is kind of an under appreciated aspect of Etsy. Etsy is not, and never has been a hugely capital intensive business. So Etsy even in 2008 was running pretty close to break even, especially by today's standards. And I think in 2009 or so we did break even during one period. So it's like a very good business and, there was no need during that period to raise venture capital. Um, in 2008 and, you know, it turns out that a downturn is also a great time to build a company.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Chad describes what felt like an uphill battle trying to recruit talent to build a major tech company in Brooklyn. So he got creative.

Chad Dickerson:              
What I learned is I learned how to pitch Etsy really well. I hired some of my former colleagues on the west coast and convinced them to move to New York.

Ofer Cohen:                      
How did you do that? You're not even sure if you made the right choice?

Chad Dickerson:              
Well, interestingly, and it took me a little while to learn this. I ask myself like, why, why did I come and obviously Etsy, a great company to work for, really interesting, but I would say a huge, huge part of it was New York. Like I wanted to live a more exciting life and you know, like I said, I got a degree in English with a focus on Shakespeare. So I was interested in things like theater and art. And even in, in 2008 you could see the bay area in San Francisco started to become like too tech focused and you know, the arts getting squeezed out and that kind of thing. So, um, it was really as much a lifestyle decision as anything. And so I'll give you an example of like I was recruiting an engineer who, um, was graduating from Carnegie Mellon and he was uh, making a choice between Apple obviously in Cupertino, California and Etsy. And uh, you know, it's hard to recruit against Apple, like everyone's using Apple products and everything. So I got to know him and I was starting to understand what he was into and he was really into music and hip hop and my closing line that got him over the line to come to Etsy was how much hip hop are you going to see in Cupertino, like run to Brooklyn? And that was it. And I use some version of that pitch 100,000 times later I'd find out what someone liked and New York has everything.

Ofer Cohen:                      
That's amazing. From my experience, there's a component of if you're a real entrepreneur and if the bay area is already established to do a tech company in Brooklyn feels like even more entrepreneurial.

Chad Dickerson:              
Absolutely. And that really kind of counterintuitive thing about New York tech is that like New York is, you know, 8 million people, largest city in the United States. But the tech community is incredibly intimate and you know, everyone knows each other. And it's also really, diverse in terms of industries. So right when I was in the bay area, I knew a lot of engineers, a lot of product managers, a lot of people who worked at tech companies. But in in New York, I know a lot of journalists, a lot of attorneys, a lot of artists, a lot of business people of all stripes. And so it's a much like broader view of business and I think it's much more connected to reality. And I think it's also much more connected to just just sort of the global world that we live in because New York in some ways is almost like a physical representation of the Internet. Like you have this grid of streets and you know, you can practically go to different countries like every day just walking in different neighborhoods, going to different restaurants. My name is Chad. I got into a lyft once and the driver was like smiling and laughing and he said, Chad, I am from the country of Chad. And, uh, we just had a great conversation.

Ofer Cohen:                      
But I think the overall notion in our industry that it's still, we still need to pitch the idea of tech, especially big tech to establish their headquarters offices, you know, studios, whatever in Brooklyn. Why is that?

Chad Dickerson:              
I actually think there's less need to pitch it every day. And I would say five years ago I felt more that way, but a few things have happened. I think, you know, one is a number of companies that were started in New York have gone public and hit the public markets. And I think that's a big moment because it creates liquidity for people who live here and it also creates kind of the next generation of investors. And so there was a time when, you know, the DoubleClick folks were kind of the big story, but now you could say like Etsy and Mongo DB and Yext and like all sorts of companies. So that happened. Um, you know, something I'm involved in Cornell Tech. Um, the University on Roosevelt Island is now been established and I think really amazing tech focused academic institutions are a big part of the equation. This sounds crazy if you live in New York, but I would, five or so years ago you could start to pitch people that it's less expensive to live in New York than it is in San Francisco. Like those, the monthly rent lines crossed at some point. Um, and I think, there's also been a backlash against, uh, the tech industry and I think there is a desire to kind of, you know, kind of do something that's more connected to the world and isn't kind of in the kind of ivory tower of Silicon Valley. And I think New York is kind of the perfect place for that. So I think New York has become, you know, really easy to pitch. If there was ever any question that this cycle was going to happen in a very Broadway in New York, I think that question is already answered. And these things have a way of just snowballing and continuing. So I think, uh, what I like to say is New York is not the next silicon valley. New York is the next New York, right? The tech ecosystem I think is, is very much maturing right now.

Ofer Cohen:                      
I'm assuming there's a notion of, you know, Brooklyn, as part of New York City, but Brooklyn enables you to have different kinds of neighborhoods and different kinds of experiences and the pricing points and lifestyles and which could be very attractive for different people and different kinds of sides of the tech spectrum.

Chad Dickerson:              
Absolutely. And I think, you know, I think that in some ways our eras and really every era has defined by kind of like a search for meaning and connection. And one of the things that I've noticed in the tech community in New York is it's very, connected to the civic life of the city. And so just using me as an example, when I was CEO at Etsy, Etsy was obviously a big international company, public company based in Dumbo, but I was also on the Dumbo Business Improvement District Board. And that was really important to me to be, you know, Etsy was a business, but also front street pizza was a business and, there are businesses all around us and so I spent time with the local business owners, in that context because I was one of their peers and I'm still on the board at Saint Anne's warehouse.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Chad is working closely with founders and chief executives as a coach. He received the same kind coaching when he became CEO of Etsy and is sharing his experience going from a small startup to a public company. Meanwhile, Chad is finding himself immerse in a lifestyle of Brooklyn. He and his family have made at home in Carroll Gardens where a CEO of a major company, just another regular guy.

Chad Dickerson:              
One of the things that I really love about New York is that no matter how big you are in any industry, the capacity for people not to care is really high. When I was running at Etsy, obviously, you know a big company here in New York. And when people cared about, like my, one of my neighbors a long time a New Yorker and native came to me and said, so, uh, like you work on the Internet? And I was like, yeah. He's like, can you help me fix my Wifi? So like it's like I don't care.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Did you?

Chad Dickerson:              
I did. Yeah, I know how to, if anyone out there needs Wifi help, I'm your man. Something that was surprising to me now, having lived in New York for 11 years is New York is fast and people talk quickly and like all those things. But um, it is the friendliest city in the world as far as I'm concerned

Ofer Cohen:                      
Because you could actually talk, you can start a conversation with anyone anywhere.

Chad Dickerson:              
Yeah. The thing I liked the most about it too is you get to know the various merchants around the neighborhood too. So my son who's seven years old, takes piano lessons at the place called rock school on Smith Street. It used to be called musicians general store. And, uh, you know, Mingo, the owner is been in the neighborhood since like the late fifties. And so when my son is in his piano lesson, I talked to Mingo about music and the neighborhood and you know, when he used to play in battle of the bands, those places are really kind of, not just kind of service providers or stores, but they're also social institutions. And, you know, I like it so much. I actually started taking piano lessons about a month ago. Almost like, you know, my, my son's grandparents are in North Carolina, but he's got several grandparents on the block and that's just really, really nice. And so, yeah, I feel like, um, he, and we have a community that, uh, in this big city of 8 million people that's really, really, really intimate. You would see this maybe a little in San Francisco, but not, not as much in New York. Like I'm walking around anywhere and I just like run into people because there's very much a walking culture in New York. And so I feel like it's so much easier to kind of stay in touch with people. Like most of us don't spend much time in cars and, that kind of like street life in the civic life of New York, really encourages a lot of chance interactions. I'm still all 11 years in incredibly surprised at how intimate a city of 8 million people can be. You know, my wife and I kind of have a joke, like sometimes we want to go out to a bar and have a drink and talk to each other, but we kind of say how long before we run into someone that, you know, and that's a beautiful thing.

Ofer Cohen:                      
But that is cool, and it's been only in 11 years.

Chad Dickerson:              
I mean, yeah, it's just such a social environment. And a friend of mine who lived here for a while before I moved here said, you know, one of the great things about New York is like you'd go to a bar or something, like the person next to you to start starts talking to you. Right. And you know, I haven't spent a lot of time in the bay area recently, but if you go to a bar in San Francisco, you kind of, everybody sits and looks at their phones until they're friends arrive and then they socialize. But it's all very like, yeah.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So it sounds to me like you, you, you actually wouldn't want to do it anywhere else, but in Brooklyn, right?

Chad Dickerson:              
Definitely not, I mean, I was talking to a friend who's been in New York for probably 30 years and we were talking about like New York has kind of, almost like an addictive quality, like the things that you like are things that you just can't get anywhere else. And so I find even on the kind of a basic level, you know, I like track my steps like everyone else. And I find that when I go to another city, like my step count goes way, way down. And in New York, you, you're walking like five, six miles a day and without even noticing, right. And while you're walking, you're running into your neighbors and you know, walking into shops. And that kind of thing. And so I think that social network and that social environment, um, is something that you just really can't replicate anywhere else or I haven't seen anywhere else you can do that. And maybe one day I'll start a company again. Uh, but, I'm really enjoying this and as I mentioned, I'm, taking piano lessons and so I decided to carve out a little time to do something creative. And, uh, as a CEO, you can't take piano lessons.

Ofer Cohen:                      
You already told us about the piano lessons, but I do ask at the end of every show, uh, to tell me something that nobody knows about you.

Chad Dickerson:              
Oh Gosh. Now I'm worried

Ofer Cohen:                      
Yeah, the piano was like a perfect one.

Chad Dickerson:              
I'm gonna have to think for a moment on this. Gosh, I guess I would just talk too much about myself in public. Um, well, one thing that may be surprising, I'm a person who's like very pro gun control and that sort of thing. But I grew up in the south and grew up in a culture where you were taught to like to shoot weapons. And I'm, if you were to like give me a rifle and a target, I'm like a really good shot. I don't own any guns. I'm very much pro gun control, I know guns well. And you know, I've shot a variety of them and that's just part of the part of the culture that I grew up in. And you know, at heart I'm basically a pacifist. So the idea that like, I'm a good, a good shot, at a target with a weapon is probably a little surprising.

Ofer Cohen:                      
I can totally see that. Thank you Chad.

Chad Dickerson:              
Thank you Ofer

 

S2 | E9 | Dick Zigun

Narrator:                   
Hey BK with Ofer Cohen

Dick Zigun:                         
It was fully formed from day one. The first parade in 1983 had everything you'd see now. It had the empty cars, it had the king and queen, it had tongue in cheek contest, not beauty contests for most Beautiful Mermaid, but mermaid costume, the beach putting pouch and all of that was their from beginning. It's just gotten bigger.

Ofer Cohen:                      
On today's episode of Hey BK, we move on to South Brooklyn to talk to Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, the tattoo covered, Yale-educated playwright runs the Coney Island Museum along with the Mermaid Parade, which he founded 37 years ago, the giant art parade in late June, showcases as an array of memoried customs and Coney Island pride. It's the largest parade in the United States. Growing hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. Dick moved to New York City in 1979 and has been an advocate for Coney island ever since.

Dick Zigun:                         
Coney island has always been a little bit off beat, a little bit weird. It is a place where New York City residents from all five boroughs come to enjoy themselves. Coney Island is different than just about any spot in New York City, except perhaps Times Square where everyone co mingled. You go on a roller coaster and Hassidim are sitting next to homeboys.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Where did you grow up?

Dick Zigun:                         
So I grew up not that far away, but not in New York City. I'm a native of Bridgeport, Connecticut. A shortcut to understand me is Bridgeport is the hometown of PT. Barnum. Barnum not only ran the American museum in downtown Manhattan, not only started Ringly brothers Barnum and Bailey circus, he was Mayor of Bridgeport. And when I was a kid, there was a month long Barnum festival and there were parades, there was a carnival that would come to town. There was a competition for young school children to impersonate midgets, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren. And when I was a smart ass seven years old, I was already a Barnum scholar. And I knew that elephants and little people were patriotic. Um, I left Bridgeport at 18. Got a fancy smancy education, a very artsy fartsy Bennington college and then Yale School of drama. I knew that if I was going to make a living in theater, the only place to attempt that in America as seriously as New York City. Um, so I moved to New York but I had this idea that instead of aspiring to Broadway, I would check out Coney Island is a staging ground, as a framing device for my obsession with popular culture rent side shows and burlesque. I moved to New York City in 1979 signed a 10 year lease on a loft down surf avenue directly across the street from Astro land. Put several months on a lot of money into renovating and then the building burned down.

Ofer Cohen:                      
That was an unusual choice in the 70s. If you wanted to do theater in New York City. I mean, I would, I wasn't born here, but I would go through Greenwich Village.

Dick Zigun:                         
I had some early success as a playwright right out of Grad school and one of my plays was put on in California. One of the other plays in this festival that my play was put on was by a playwright named Len Jenkin. And the play, um, called kid twist about a Barelas from murder incorporated was full of Coney Island imagery and I was hanging out in California enjoying the beach, enjoy nature, knew I was headed back to New York City and I had this epiphany standing on the Santa Monica pier looking into an arcade building for rent and thinking about theater in a beach amusement park context. Then decided, when I get back to New York I'll check out Coney Island and 40 years later, I'm the permanently unelected mayor.

Ofer Cohen:                      
And so tell me about the Coney Island that you found.

Dick Zigun:                         
The Coney Island I found was the archaeological remains, of the world's original amusement park. I'd like to say that there was more left of ancient Rome, then turn of the century Coney Island. But although a lot of the infrastructure was already gone, like steeple chase park was gone, Luna Park was gone. There's something about those salt air and the fresh air in Coney Island, even though it rots the mind, it preserves the body.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So you're describing as somewhat desolated kind of place.

Dick Zigun:                         
Well not totally even, at it's worse than the 70s when it was burned down, bombed out, graffiti, full of gangs and arson. Millions of people would come, their businesses were open. It was an incredible sea of humanity. Which it is to this day. Um, but it was broken. Because I'm an advocate of popular culture because it is Coney Island trying to figure out what to do when Coney Island, after those initial steps, I essentially was apprenticing myself, um, to people in Coney Island and learning their style and learning their language and all of that fed into creating Coney Island, USA the not for profit arts organization, which says that its mission is to defend the honor of American popular culture through innovative exhibitions and performances. So that gave me a framework and a justification for getting involved and advocating and experimenting with culture that a lot of people were embarrassed by. A lot of people thought that should be forgotten. Things like burlesque, things like freak shows, um, powtoons, all of those things which are incredibly popular now.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Dick says he was launching a movement, so he decided to do something completely different. He went to the city to start the first mermaid parade.

Dick Zigun:                         
The idea became, well, let's make a statement. Let's take over the entire neighborhood one day a year. I went to the community board, the local police precinct, the local politicians and said, hey, I want up running a 4th of July parade. Dude waited a little bit funky and weird and they laughed at me, not because they didn't think I could do white puppy because 4th of July was the busiest day of the year. Ironically, the Mermaid parade now rivals 4th of July for the busiest day. But not back when we first did it in 1983 they told me I couldn't do 4th of July, but I can pick any other date in the summer calendar. I decided, um, to round off the summer solstice to the weekend. And when I made up the name Mermaid parade, even before the first parade happened, people were laughing because mermaid don't have feet. How did they march in a parade?

Ofer Cohen:                      
It sounds to me like your vision of the mermaid parade has kind of evolved.

Dick Zigun:                         
No, it got bigger. It was fully formed from day one. The first parade in 1983 had everything you'd see now it had the empty cars, it the king and queen, it had tongue and cheek contest, not beauty contests for Most Beautiful Mermaid, but mermaid costume, whether it was ugly or beautiful, as long as it was creative, the beach cutting pageant and all of that was there with the beginning. It's just gotten bigger. I think biggest parade, uh, we've had so far has been about 800 thousand people, which means that the mermaid parade is bigger than Boston.

Dick Zigun:                         
Wow. So throughout the 37 years, tell me one struggling moment.

Dick Zigun:                         
Oh, I've tried to kill off the mermaid parade over the years and fights back . So it is expensive to throw a free party for New York City.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So just to kind of pay for it?

Dick Zigun:                         
So the parade, uh, costs well over $100,000 to put on this parade. As the parade gets bigger, we have, not only an obligation to make good art, but there's also a civic obligation. We disrupt bus routes. We, I don't know how much money the city spends on overtime from NYPD. Um, homeland security is there. The Mermaid parade is a very expensive ordeal for New York City. And because Brooklyn is cool, Brooklyn wants the mermaid parade and loves the Mermaid Parade, I've had to adapt over the years. At the beginning. The antique cars could drive on the boardwalk. They can't do that anymore.

Ofer Cohen:                      
You just said, um, you know, because Brooklyn is cool and the Mermaid parade is cool, Brooklyn wants the mermaid parade. And I could totally see how hipsters from Bushwick and East Williamsburg are, uh, you know, finding their way through the mermaid parade every year. Brooklyn was not cool 36-37 years ago.

Dick Zigun:                         
Let's talk about the former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, when he was a New York state senator and running for, um, Brooklyn borough president. He wanted a march in the mermaid parade. And I told him, as I told him, tell most politicians, if you wound a march in the parade, you have to wear a costume. He didn't wear a costume. He showed up anyway and worked the parade route. Um, he got elected borough president, I think he loves the Mermaid parade more than I do. And Mayor Giuliani tried to shut down the mermaid parade.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So how did you prevail?

Dick Zigun:                         
Marty Markowitz helped, the local politicians made it clear that the mermaid parade as important. You know, there was a certain amount of harassment. Uh, we weren't closed down and then there was a new mayor the next year,

Ofer Cohen:                      
Beginning of the 2000 was a big turning point for Brooklyn in terms of, um, how other neighborhoods started to change and demographics started to shift.

Dick Zigun:                         
Sure and Mayor Bloomberg, who, no matter what you think of his politics is known for being very smart and recruiting very qualified people. Uh, was working with Daniel. Dr. Roth, in terms of major rezoning of New York City neighborhoods, including Coney Island,

Ofer Cohen:                      
Was that intimidating at all?

Dick Zigun:                         
It was probably the hardest thing I've ever navigated. And at the same time, people will tell you that you were born for one moment in your life. I had no idea going into with that. I would be the major figure who all sides were vying for, first of all, I have an obligation to the not for profit. I started and I worked for Coney Island USA and this was our moment to go from being a fledgling arts organization to institutionalizing ourselves, which is the desire of a successful not for profit. So that was my main priority. My experience taught me that Coney Island, the way it was was broken. It was not sustainable. Things did need to change. Um, and then mayor Bloomberg made me a mayoral appointee to the Coney Island Development Corporation.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Every rezoning in New York City has a, especially a neighborhood wide, rezonings has somewhat of a debate.

Dick Zigun:                         
So the big debate was the day that, uh, directors of the Coney Island Development Corporation, including myself, got a 10:00 PM phone call saying, we want to give you a heads up that tomorrow there will be a front page article in the New York Times about how the city has struck a deal with Thor Equities and is going to shrink the already shrunken proposal in the rezoning for the tourist or amusement section that would be city owned, that is now Luna Park. Instead of being 15 acres, which shrinked to nine acres where as originally, um, in the rezoning from the 60s, Coney Island tourist amusement area with 66 acres. Now I said, uh, already on this podcast that Coney Island was broken and not sustainable. Out of that 66 acres, a lot of it was empty property for the weeds and broken glass, shrinking 66 acres to 27 acres, 15 of which would be a city owned amusement park shrunk to nine acres. I resigned from the Coney Island Development Corporation. I joined the opposition. The rezoning went through. But the advocacy and the noise we made after and through the rezoning led to a lot of additional compromises. That nine acres in reality is back up to 15 acres or even more, all ready in 2019, 10 years after the rezoning. In terms of activated property, we already have more than we had before the rezoning. We've lost the empty lots full of garbage weeds, broken glass, but we're definitely thriving. And on the upswing, my organization succeeded, didn't get him three buildings landmarked. There were already were landmark rides protected by the city. The parachute jump, the cyclone roller coaster, the wonder wheel, uh, prior to the rezone, no buildings where landmarked. We got the Ford amphitheater, which was a derelict building landmarked. It's been rebuilt. Our own building, the former child's building, that Coney Island USA had been renting, got landmarked and we've put a couple of million into restoration and the shore theater across from Nathan's. Um, we got landmarked and it's about to start a major renovation and turn into a 50 room hotel.

Ofer Cohen:                      
When you look at where we are right now in terms of the redevelopment of the broken Coney Island of the 70s 80s and 90s, it's gone.

Dick Zigun:                         
It's gone. But especially when the shore theater turns into a hotel and about two years the shore theater will be done and Luna Park will finish their build out, which is still in progress. Uh, within two years, if you walk around Coney Island, there will be nothing derelict.

Ofer Cohen:                      
So how do, how do you see the rest of the development around Coney Island?

Dick Zigun:                         
They're adding a lot more people to the island and considering hurricane super superstorm Sandy. And what happened there, what happened to my business, my pickup truck, my home. It's sort of surprising that flood zone A is adding that much housing but I guess is New York City comp resiliency. Um, they're going to have to build some kind of storm surge barrier between, uh, the Rockaways and somewhere in New Jersey to block that. Supposedly the new housing high rises will have parking garages in their center core. I don't think it's gonna work. I think they're going to have to deal with some type of people moving and mass transit. But otherwise, um, you know, having spent 40 years of my life at Coney Island and reconciled myself too with being the place, the time and real estate developers forgot suddenly like only can happen in New York City. When the real estate gets hot, it happens fast. It's certainly every inch of Coney Island seems to be under construction and the sidewalks, the streets, the sewers, I'm pretty happy with the way it's going. The rezoning has five other hotel sites not all of them aren't going to build hotels. Um, personally I think one of them should have a casino. Um, but that is by far not a universal opinion.

Ofer Cohen:                      
I was about to ask about that. So I'm happy you saying your hope that the casino in Coney Island would sort of make it a lot more of viable a year round destination.

Dick Zigun:                         
Of course it would. The state constitution or ready allows for written the next couple of years three casinos in the Metropolitan New York City area. Even with the decentralization in the metropolitan area of casinos. The one closest to it to Manhattan in New York City is going to thrive.

Ofer Cohen:                      
While Coney Island is currently being redeveloped. A significant portion of the property is still owned by Thor Equities Joe Sitt.

Dick Zigun:                         
Joe Sitt iss a much more likable guy than let's say Donald Trump who was a real estate developer in Coney Island. We actually have Trump village and Coney Island. But anyway, we were talking about Joe Sitt who's a likable accessible guy. If I wanted to talk to him and call him up, he would talk to me. He made a couple of small donations. He paid for the architectural exterior lighting, on our landmark bill date. But he owns a lot of the property. He hasn't developed it. He's put it up for sale. The asking price is high and that's holding us back considering, the person who owns the most property, who was supposed to be the city's economic development corporation partner is not developing. And it's remarkable how far Coney Island's coming without a major component. I hope he lowers the price and sells it soon.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Tell me something, and nobody knows about you, publicly ?

Dick Zigun:                         
Not enough people know, my training is as a playwright, I write plays, I write damn good plays, weird American plays and I, although I get some attention, when we put them out at Coney Island, it not only holds me back, but because there is a lack of respect or interest in South Brooklyn or Coney Island,, for being honkytonky Hoity toity people turn down their nose at Honky tonk. So we have trouble getting reviews, which not only harms me, it harms the actors and directors and the designers who work for me, who should be getting Obie awards and grants and attention. So if you're, Susan Feldman out there from St. Annes or if you were Oscar, at the public theater, why not develop a weird playwright who's got a lot of talent and is well known in Brooklyn.

Ofer Cohen:                      
Great. Thank you so much. Appreciate your time.

Dick Zigun:                         
Sure.

 

S2 | E8 | Susan Feldman

Narrator:                   

Hey BK, with Ofer Cohen

Susan Feldman:                    

I feel that the development of the Church of Saint Ann and the Holy Trinity that I began in 1979 in Brooklyn Heights I actually completed in Dumbo in the tobacco warehouse in 2015.

Ofer Cohen: 

On today's episode, I talked to Susan Feldman, the artistic director of St Ann's Annes warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Susan curates, unique theater from all over the world. Bringing avant garde shows, and new talent to the Brooklyn waterfront.

Susan Feldman: 

It started as a historic preservation story and it really connected to real estate in a very, I think very special way in a lot of times it can be cynical, it happens, especially with cultural organizations and we have real estate people, it can be like beginning of the end for bad situations and also for displacement of people. In a way, Dumbo was not particularly a displacement of many people because it was never particularly residential, but for me, it really was connected. I mean, I was literally hired by the New York landmarks conservancy when they decided they wanted to save Saint Anne in the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights because it had the first stained glass windows made in America and is a really important historic building.

Ofer Cohen: 

Over the years. Lou Reed and John Cale of The Velvet Underground and actor Willem Dafoe of the Wooster group have all made their mark on St. Ann's. The recent modern production of Oklahoma that's now on Broadway, got it's start there too. As you'll hear, Susan's story is closely linked to the Brooklyn resurgence.

Susan Feldman: 

I actually can still get emotional about it because when I walked into St Anne the Holy Trinity, I thought that it was one of the most beautiful interiors that I'd ever been in New York, even in America to some degree. I personally was looking for something with culture, history, emotion and beauty and I thought this would be a great place to move with the arts. The city was completely different when it came to real estate because it was sort of the end of a period where arts organizations and artists, could find places lofts or places that had been abandoned and you could get buildings for like a dollar a year, to help re revitalize the city. And in terms of Brooklyn, people were not particularly going to, Brooklyn institutions the way they were going to New York City. You know, to the ballet and Bam had just, I mean, in 1979, the next wave wasn't even there. So the people I was,speaking to, to try to help the landmarks conservancy and the church figure out what they could do to save their building and to have a public use that could complement it as house of worship when people like, you know, Harvey Lichtenstein and Joe Papp who was at the public theater. So this is just to set how far back it was.

Ofer Cohen:    

So through, through the eighties and nineties. I mean you've seen tremendous transformation around you. But tell me about those early days in terms of actually, you know, running a theater, attracting audience and developing shows.

Susan Feldman:  

So my job was really to go around and meet people who needed, there was a Brooklyn Opera Society, there was a Brooklyn philharmonia chorus. There was a Brooklyn Heights symphony orchestra. There was the new cycle theater that was a feminist theater company. There was the people doing, Celebrate Brooklyn that wanted to work during the fall and winter and spring. So they became the beginning of what became a season or, a constituency for, for the church. I was only hired for like three months, but then it turned into almost 40 years. So what happened was the groups, were using the space, we'd set up a season. Brooklyn Union gas made the brochure. It said there was something called arts at Saint Ann's, so that started to develop over time because there would be the companies that would do some of the programming and then there would be a couple of, of things that, you know, we would want to program. And for example, there were a group of women in Brooklyn Heights who were preservationists and they were very involved at the landmarks conservancy around the historic windows. And so they had a gala, you know, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which at the time was run by Charles Wadsworth. And He fell in love with the church and he fell in love with the acoustics of the church. And so he decided after that concert that he wanted to work with us to create a preview series for Lincoln Center so that we were going to have all the great chamber music artists, singers, and instrumentalists. We're going to come to St Ann's for, you know, three or four concerts a year, classical music, and they ended up putting the building on the map with artists because they loved performing there. And that was also something that became very important to what's followed us through the whole trajectory of 40 years is this relationship between us and the spaces that we're in and the artists that were working with.

Ofer Cohen:

Why did you move out of the church?

Susan Feldman:   

Because the relationship between us and the church basically ended and we realized that the beauty of the of the relationship with the church was, which lasted for 21 years. So I can't say it was a failed relationship. It was an amazing relationship, but it kind of depended on who the priest was.

Ofer Cohen:     

Sure.

Susan Feldman:

And you know, the end of the relationship , for the arts and the church at the time really happened over two different priests. There just wasn't the compatibility of mission. But we had this going concern of this beautiful arts program and even the stain glass studio. And so we decided to move out, took everything with us.

Ofer Cohen:         

When you move to Dumbo, you made a conscious decision to focus more on theater?

Susan Feldman:    

What would happen was we moved to Dumbo and David,, they gave us studio, they give us sort of space and 70 Washington where we could set up our stain glass studio. We could set up an office and we can continue our puppet lab. But David said, look, you can always stay as long as you're giving back. Dumbo and the whole first year I said to him and Jed, I can't give back to Dumbo. We need a space. We need a place to perform. And so 38 water street, the tenants who had been storing cardboard left and smack Mellon had moved the carousel had moved into the old spice factory next to 38 water street, if you remember, which is where Jane eventually put the carousel before she moved it. So there was a gallery that was going to be there and then we were going to be there. Um, but we were sort of just a new game in town. Uh, and so we opened right after 9/11 with a big concert. It was big blues concert. And I remember, Martin Scorsese was starting a series on channel 13. So he hosted it and there were three different film makers that film the different sections. So Lucinda Williams was in it. And, um, the Mississippi Hill country guys were part of it. And that was kind of the first big thing we did. And we had Porta potties because we had 600 people in there or something, or 800 people. And David walked in and he went, oh, this is like Woodstock. I like it, you know? And people were coming up to him and saying, thank you for bringing Saint Ann's here and saving them and, and all that. So I think from the very beginning, it was something where we were kind of looking at each other and saying, what can we really bring to Dumbo? And that would be long lasting. And I think over time they began to see that something really could happen. We were supposed to be there nine months and we were there for 12 years. And I think we shifted from music to theater because in the church music was the thing that worked beautifully. And we had all that height and all that grandeur. And it wasn't really very good for spoken word or for theater anything. And now here were in this warehouse at 38 water street that had all this depth and not that much height, but it had this also amazing location. So, we started to use the depth and again, because we bring artists in who needed space and wanted to, experiment and could use that kind of open footprint, that became our signature. So literally we put up one wall.

Susan Feldman:    

Wow. And the tobacco warehouse at that point was vacant, abandoned space. Um, you know, on state owned land essentially, right?

Susan Feldman:

Yeah it was a shell and the empire stores where decrepit and kind of falling apart. But again, it was this sense of groups of people. It's always been groups of people wanting to do something amazing. And so all the studies that the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation was doing, um, with stakeholders to figure out what, what could happen in the empire stores, what could happen in the tobacco warehouse, who is going to govern Brooklyn Bridge Park, how is that going to all work? You know, we were in all those meetings and we were really interested to see how we could, how we could be part of it and how we could be helpful.

Ofer Cohen:        

That's an interesting point. So that's how the organization actually started as, essentially a partnership between arts and activating and sort of revitalizing an area.

Susan Feldman: 

It's true and, and we had to make it safe, you know, he had to make sure people knew how to get there. And so we had to figure out lots of things like way finding. And I remember we had these sandwich boards that would sit on the corner and you got, what do you face it this way or do you face it's that way. So people coming down dock street and you know, so really labeling things and trying to understand them and also bringing wonderful artists who had followings, who need, the Wooster group needed to be able to work outside of their small garage at the time because they had Willem as part of the company and the company was growing and doing bigger projects and they need a bigger audiences and we could, we could accommodate, we could accommodate them. And some amazing work came out of those early years. Um, one of them you may have heard of 'em Mabu minds, Lee Breuer directed a production of a doll's house with little people. The men were played by little people and the women were played by full grown women. So it sort of turned the whole nature of the sexism of a doll's house upside down because he had these big women in these little tiny men. It was really fascinating and there was a lot of great experimentation and we still did special music and some big music musical programming, but it really turned into a theater at that point. And then the time that the board really took off and grew into a wider board, uh, was when we knew we were going to do a capital campaign, when it became clear that, that the tobacco warehouse could become our future home. But that just took a little longer than we expected. It was a big detour.

Ofer Cohen:          

So tell us about the detour a little bit of the tobacco warehouse.

Susan Feldman:   

Okay. So the low points, now we go to the low point. So one low point is the war with priests and we leave the church. That was obviously hard. Uh, but in Dumbo, um, you know, we'd had this long relationship, to Dumbo and now we were, it became clear at a certain point that the Walentas' were going to develop 38 Water street. So 2010, I guess the Brooklyn Bridge Park Concept for governance came together. And um, so we were at a pretty high point. We had won the RFP and we went to Borough Hall and there was like a ceremony and I was thinking about how they were actually, you know, we're going to be given a lease to this property between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. And I was thinking about Manhattan Island and Henry Hudson, you know, like you go back in time and it's pretty meaningful. And we had tremendous excitement about what we were going to do. And then about a month later we were all served with papers and so we were sued. We and Brooklyn Bridge Park and the city and the state and the federal government, everybody was sued for conspiracy, which to us was like collaboration of people working together to develop the tobacco warehouse and the empire stores. But there were some procedural grounds that people fought it on, having to do with the fear of privatizing part of the park.

Ofer Cohen:       

Yeah. The suit was filed by?

Susan Feldman: 

Brooklyn Heights Association, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the preservation league, there were actually, two suits, a federal suit and a state suit.

Ofer Cohen:     

So the preservationists?

Susan Feldman:    

They joined on the ones who had hired me.

Ofer Cohen:          

Right. That's the ironic a detour here.

Susan Feldman:  

Right, that was an ironic moment. So we were devastated to be honest with you, because, you know, we didn't feel entitled, but we felt motivated and we felt like we had a great plan and we knew that we were going to take good care of this building and we knew that it was going to meet all the criteria of preservation and arts and civic use. I mean, cause we'd been doing it for so long and quietly in a way, you know, like not with big fanfare but just focused, you know. And so at the end it became so political. So we were kind of very frustrated

Ofer Cohen:         

In the midst of a legal battle St. Ann's that's moved out of its temporary rent free location on water street to another interim space at 29 Jay they had to overcome so many hurdles by 2015 the $30 million renovation of the tobacco warehouse, half of which was funded by the city was complete. And St. Ann's had a permanent home for the first, first time, 2015 was when you opened, in a way, it's a whole different job for you because now you have a permanent home and you just could focus on programming. Right?

Susan Feldman:              

Yeah. I focus on programming, but I'm also concerned, I worry that there's only one gallery building. You know, I worry that, you know, I mean luckily 29 Jay where we were, it's still active as a theater and is a dance school, so it's still got a cultural use. So, you know, I really hope that those kinds of places can stay.

Ofer Cohen:                

Sitting in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Do you miss those cozy days?

Susan Feldman:              

Well, I actually work very hard to keep that cozy feeling. And you know, for example, when we moved from 38 Water street, well first when we moved into 38 Water street, there was this pioneering spirit. So, and the Walentas' were the ones who, who invited us down. And one of my favorite things is that Jane, David and Jed all claim us. They all believed that they were the ones that brought us and I love all of them. And they really, really brought us in almost like a family. And I could see how, how they were, having the space used similarly to the way the city was when we came to Brooklyn Heights. You know, they were activating buildings and they were activating the neighborhood with organizations that, you know, had something to give and also something to gain from developing a new neighborhood. So it really became a community of, of again, the developers, David Selig and, and Peter Lawrence had just started rice, um, you know, and rice was, you know, giving out free ice cream to bring people into the restaurant. And so we became this community of people that really felt like we developing Dumbo. We were building a neighborhood. So where is in the first one, we were saving a church, and, and having this great arts program for art's sake. Here we were building a neighborhood and still have a place in in Dumbo so that it's not, you know, just a tourist spot. I mean I recognize why the location is what it is now and why it attracts people and why it has to be all that, but it also has to have an inner life. So for me, it's like who are the new partners and some of the new partners are the empire stores people, you know, cause we can do stuff together and 29 Jay, you know, because that became a rehearsal space for our Oklahoma. as it moved to Broadway, we used it as a rehearsal space for the jungle, Angels in America rehearsed there. So there's still some of that shared use, which I hope will stay.

Ofer Cohen:              

So do you ever have any dreams about doing a St Ann's warehouse in some of the more grittier parts of Brooklyn where you know, like what Dumbo was 19 years ago, which is hard to find in Brooklyn right now. But let's say the border, you know, sort of Bushwick and Ridgewood.

Susan Feldman:                       

Well, they're doing it.

Ofer Cohen:                             

Right.

Susan Feldman:                     

You can see Bushwick starr and Jack, you know, they're doing the chocolate factory, they're doing it. And those neighborhoods are gentrifying so fast.

Ofer Cohen:                           

Right. It's much faster than in a way. Um, what happened The transformation of place like DUMBO

Susan Feldman:                       

Yeah. It's different, right? Sort of like a sweep.

Ofer Cohen:              

And so how do you feel when you roam through Brooklyn? How'd you feel about those other neighborhoods? And so like to do you have this, kind of like, do you wish you would be operating, there like 25 years ago.

Susan Feldman:               

Do I wish I was like, 30 years younger? Do I want to start it again? You know, it's very interesting because just this year I started thinking about that. I started thinking about that. What's the next thing that needs to happen, you know, um, you know, I'm looking for it.

Ofer Cohen:               

The entire story that you just told us, could it only happen in Brooklyn? Or do you just see it happening and other places?

Susan Feldman:             

I think, I think the trajectory of St. Ann's could only have happened in this Brooklyn or that Brooklyn to this Brooklyn over that period of time. I think there was something really against it happening. Like you can think of underdeveloped cities, but you don't think of Brooklyn Heights as an underdeveloped city and you don't even think of the Brooklyn waterfront isn't underdeveloped part of the city. Right? But they, but they were hungry. They were lacking in a way they were a little bit culturally deprived in a certain sense because there was no home grown acknowledgment really. And so I think that that was, that became a very important, there's a magical thing that happens between artists and people and where it happens. It's very important. And I think that that happened with Bam and with us. And I think the fact that it happened, it happened for both organizations in Brooklyn is amazing. And not a coincidence. And I also think having an enlightened mayor, and also I have to give, I have to give the developers, they were pretty enlightened also. Um, in terms of who they chose, how they chose restaurants and how they chose Quirky people. Bryce was a quirky place, you know, David's a quirky guy, you know, and, and Jed's quirky. So you have very special vision, I think happening and people getting along and not easy people. You know, like sometimes I think my board is like all anarchists now. They're all quirky people and they get along with each other. So there's a sense of purpose that people can unite around. And I think that was also unique.

Ofer Cohen:                     

I was asked a silly question at the end of the program, which is a tell us something that nobody knows about you. And different people answer differently but it's sort of like, you could do whatever you want with that question.

Susan Feldman:                   

I think what people don't know about me, is me. They know what I do , I guess. I guess unattached in a certain way to space like, I can float.

Ofer Cohen:                 

Susan Feldman . Thank you so much.

Susan Feldman:                            

Thank you so much. It was fun.

Ofer Cohen:            

You are listening to, Hey BK, the podcast about the people behind the Brooklyn transformation. You can find us at heybk.nyc or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Ofer Cohen. Thanks for listening.