When the MBTA shut down on Tuesday, all sorts of enterprises were adversely affected. One of them was my 14-year-old daughter’s ongoing program of identity formation. Her plan for the snow day was to take the Green Line and then the Red Line to Porter Square, then walk to Brooklyn Boulders, a vast rock-climbing facility in Somerville housed in a building that once belonged to the Ames Safety Envelope Company. Once there, having acquired a day pass and rented climbing shoes and harness with money she made shoveling out neighbors in previous storms, she would have spent her day off school doing various kinds of climbing with and without belaying ropes, practicing acrobatic parkour moves with an alt-dashing crew of instructors and fellow apprentices that congregates there, sipping tea in the coffee shop, checking out the yoga options, and otherwise sampling the delights of the strenuous life, postindustrial-style.
That neighborhood, between Porter Square and Union Square, features a number of distinctive businesses occupying buildings that had been vacant after the departure of industrial tenants. A couple of doors down from Brooklyn Boulders is Artisan’s Asylum, a cooperative space for a variety of makers, fixers, tinkerers, inventors, and craftspeople housed in another cavernous building once occupied by Ames Envelope. There’s also Greentown Labs, another shared space, this one for environmental and energy-related start-ups; Aeronaut Brewing, which lubricates the local scene not only with liquid refreshment but also with a lively calendar of social events; and, nearby, Esh Circus Arts, where you can repeatedly indulge the impulse to run away with the circus, as long as you sign a waiver first.
This concentration of distinctive, energetic enterprises has been described as an innovation district. I see the new function for this repurposed industrial building stock as the production of an updated set of competences and the identities they enable. Some reach into the past for traditional skills and tastes, and some involve new technology and future-oriented interests. But each of these identities takes form around not just goods and services to buy but also things to do, ways of being, and, crucially, opportunities to make common cause with like-minded people.
“When our first location opened in Brooklyn in 2009, it was just intended as a great place to climb,” says Alex Graziano, marketing manager for Brooklyn Boulders, “but by the time we opened here” — in 2013 — “we realized that what made the place special was bringing together a community, so we designed it with that in mind.” Regulars will hunker down with a laptop in the building’s work space all day long, taking breaks to climb or visit the sauna. Whole families, kids included, show up on weekends. The attraction of the place appears to be as much about the natural-organic-flavored clubhouse feel as the actual exercise.
Ellen Waylonis, a co-owner and coach at Esh Circus Arts, where you can find instruction in static trapeze, tightwire and walking pipe, aerial silks, contortion, and other skills, says, “We get a whole range of people of all ages, but they come together to form a community here.” Some of her students are looking for an unusual challenge after cycling through the usual menu of workout regimes; some are athletic but don’t like competition; others aren’t particularly athletic but have always been fascinated by the circus. “There’s no one ideal circus body,” says Waylonis. “There are a lot of different skills and roles, so we can find something for just about anybody.”
We’re all filled with various inchoate urges and inspirations: a desire to be up high, or to take things apart, or to make something useful. Institutions, for-profit and otherwise, play an important role by creating channels into which an inspiration can be poured, taking definite shape in the process. You like to get up on top of things? OK, here’s how you climb a rock face. You’re drawn to fire and metal? Say hello to welding. I have another daughter, the one who asked Santa for a soldering iron when she was 10, who’s more the Artisan’s Asylum type. One of these days, maybe she and her older sister can stop bickering long enough to take the T together to the place where identities are manufactured.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’