Silicon Harlem Shows How We Can Turn Urban Centers into Technology Hubs

NEW YORK — Across the country, there’s Silicon Valley in California, Utah’s Silicon Slopes and the Midwest’s Silicon Prairie. Here in New York City, Silicon Alley is in lower Manhattan, and a new movement is working to establish Silicon Harlem in northern Manhattan as America’s next technology and innovation hub.

Since its February 2013 rebooting, Silicon Harlem has helped create four shared workspaces for tech entrepreneurs and launched the Apps Youth Leadership Academy teaching high schoolers to build a mobile application. With more than 100 student applicants for just 20 slots, the program is swelling with demand. In October, Silicon Harlem hosted its first annual conference, urging attendees under a theme to “Show Your Love,” for Harlem, technology, art, broadband, video games, and film.

The process of building this tech community was years in the making, Clayton Banks, co-founder of Silicon Harlem, told Opportunity Lives, after an initial attempt at launching in 2009. Banks, chief digital officer for Ember Media, a multimedia consultancy, and his business partner, Bruce Lincoln, then entrepreneur-in-residence at Columbia University, sought funding from the federal stimulus package. Banks said their application was denied due to concerns around sustainability.

Silicon Harlem seeks to turn that area of New York City into a technology hub, providing more jobs and growth in the community.

“We argued a little bit, but it just didn’t happen directly with us,” said Banks, who also said federal money ended up going to New York state-level programming. Undeterred, Banks said his team realized they lacked a community groundswell of support, which they built up prior to retooling the movement.

“When you get the whole community behind you, you really get the attention of everybody,” said Banks, whose career includes stints as a regional director for Showtime Networks, vice president at Comedy Central, and an executive with Sega video games.

Through informal networking and social media, Silicon Harlem hosted an inaugural event in February 2013, when 500 attendees came from all five of New York City’s boroughs and beyond. At the event, leaders launched a mobile app called Around The Way, which features black-owned businesses across the country. It was held at a facility on 116th Street called My Image Studios (MIST) Harlem, an energy-efficient community center, theater and restaurant. Banks said his team helped fulfill MIST’s tech needs, including broadband access; MIST is now the central hub for Silicon Harlem’s public events.

“When you get the whole community behind you, you really get the attention of everybody”

“We were shocked that so many people were tuned into the opportunities available through tech.” Banks said. “It was a tremendous success …  it really confirmed for us that there is a tech community in Harlem.” 

Next month, Silicon Harlem will host a panel on the urban tech boom at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition & Citizenship Education Fund Wall Street Project Economic Summit in midtown Manhattan. Banks said the panel will be held in partnership with the NY Tech Meetup, a 40,000-member group with members across the city. Six companies will be selected to present a pitch for potential investors and partners in the audience.

Banks was recently named to the they city’s 11-member Commission on Public Information and Communications, a previously dormant body that Banks hopes to revive through a focus on implementing open data and “big data” to improve the quality of New Yorkers across all five boroughs. Banks’ leadership with Silicon Harlem was recognized by the Harlem Business Alliance as its 2013 “Business Person of the Year.”

“One of the things you’re still seeing is the high unemployment rate of African-Americans, especially young men. That’s sort of a recipe for trouble if you have that type of unemployment rate in any community,” Banks said. “If you can create one tech job you can create five additional jobs, because there are jobs that array around those jobs, whether it’s dry cleaners, hair stylists, all the other services that come around that type of growth.”

A California native, Banks first bought property in Harlem in 1992, impressed with the area’s potential. During that time he first met his business partner Lincoln, founder of the Urban Cyberspace Company, who was developing a multimedia concept known as Harlem Renaissance 2001, a nod to the original Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th Century. The pair has since collaborated on a number of ventures.

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Leaders of Silicon Harlem discuss the project at a conference in New York City.

They are full-throated supporters of an initiative started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (continued under current Mayor Bill De Blasio) to create a 95-block continuous free Wi-Fi network, the country’s largest, centered in Harlem. Banks said the push to create a tech hub in Harlem will help reduce crime and improve education around the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

“Silicon Harlem ultimately is an initiative that not only focuses on Harlem, but we believe the model can be replicated in all urban areas, in an Indianapolis or Baltimore, or even a Ferguson,” Banks said. “Most urban centers are going to have to translate into tech and innovation hubs. For the U.S. to stay competitive in the world it’s going to require all of us to embrace STEM. It’s going to require all of us to focus on tech skills.”

Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.