How Brooklyn Became the New Hotspot for High-profile Events

With this week's National Magazine Awards, the borough arrives as a venue for both the splashy and the serious

Fashion comes to the Brooklyn Museum: Tao Okamoto, left, Wes Gordon and Tracee Ellis Ross at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards (Photo by Nina Westervelt/The New York Times/Redux)

The Brooklyn brand’s evolution from gritty to glamorous has reached a new chapter.

For years the borough was best known as an artisanal landscape, where upstart craftspeople injected the perfect rustic-chic aesthetic blend into everything from beer to bracelets to luxury bedding.

But with corporatization afoot, and the local economy positioned among the country’s most enviable, Brooklyn is also becoming home to many high-profile events typically reserved for the bright lights of Manhattan, from awards shows to business conferences.

Case in point: tomorrow evening, Brooklyn Steel, the cavernous East Williamsburg music venue, welcomes the National Magazine Awards, known as the Ellies. The splashy ceremony, giving out the magazine industry’s counterpart to the Pulitzers, has previously taken place at such august Manhattan venues as the Waldorf Astoria hotel and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Now it’s Brooklyn Steel’s turn. That venue, which opened a little less than two years ago, has already been named one of the ten-best live music venues in America by Rolling Stone, right up there with the Hollywood Bowl. In predictably Brooklyn fashion, its name was inspired by the space’s industrial look, dating back to its steel-manufacturing origins and preserved throughout the building’s recent reimagining.

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Fashion model Gigi Hadid thanked a long list of people for her award during Glamour’s Women of the Year awards at Kings Theatre (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times/Redux)

“Brooklyn is crawling with magazine people, so they’re happy,” said Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), in an email to The Bridge about the Ellies’ migration to the outer borough. “I’m happy because it gives me a chance to bore my Manhattan-born kids with more stories about their Brooklyn Dutch ancestors. Everybody else is happy because they’ll be able to spend a Thursday night in Williamsburg.”

Holt also conceded that ASME’s moving of the Ellies from Manhattan was financially and spiritually motivated, pointing to Brooklyn’s enduringly accessible and not-so-serious splendor.

“ASME wanted to cut ticket prices so more people could attend and wanted to provide more opportunity for people to socialize,” Holt said. “We also wanted to make it more of a celebration and less of a ceremony. The venues we had used in the past didn’t really lend themselves to the kind of event we had in mind.” He added that sending the awards across the East River signaled to attendees “this was a new kind of Ellies.”

The magazine awards are just the latest arrival in a parade of events coming to Brooklyn, from splashy to serious. The trend is driven not just by Brooklyn’s slightly exotic alternative vibe, but by an array of new venues including elegantly repurposed spaces like the Weylin, formerly the Williamsburg Savings Bank; glamorized warehouses like those run by Gowanus Hospitality Group; and swanky new lodging like the Williamsburg Hotel.

The Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, coming off a $95 million renovation and a reopening four years ago, hosted Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” awards in late 2017. Honorees included actress Nicole Kidman, late-night TV host Samantha Bee, supermodel Gigi Hadid, and singer-songwriter Solange Knowles, sister to Beyoncé.

Returning this June to the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge—the upscale lodging company’s flagship at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened two years ago and sports some rooms that go for nearly $2,000 a night—is the New Rules Summit, nosted by the New York Times. Last year’s inaugural conference, about “Women, Leadership and a Playbook for Change,” attracted dozens of influencers from a series of industries, including journalist and author Katie Couric, actress and activist America Ferrara, charity foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, and Girlboss founder Sophia Amoruso.

Scheduled to appear at the summit this year are some of journalism’s heaviest hitters from the Times, including White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, and deputy managing editor Rebecca Blumenstein.

For many of the people drawn to the events, it’s their first look at Brooklyn’s transformation, according to Hans Schaepman, the 1 Hotel’s general manager. “What stands out when 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge hosts these high-profile events is the surprise both from organizers as well as event attendees. They love how well integrated the hotel is with all of the waterfront park and and how we ‘pull the outside in,’” he told The Bridge in an email. “Many guests are surprised about the development of the Dumbo area in general.”

But Brooklyn’s cachet isn’t only attracting media-industry players. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in a waterfront debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the 2016 Presidential campaign. There was the Brooklyn Museum’s David Bowie dance party this past May, where 2,000 attendees paid tribute to the music icon by dressing up like the “Starman,” as the museum’s expansive, world-class exhibit on him neared closing.

A few weeks after that, the museum welcomed the fashion industry for the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, which saw Kim Kardashian-West honored as an influencer and Oprah Winfrey present a media award to British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful. Then, days later, in a display of Brooklyn’s crossover appeal from the arts and culture into sports, Barclays Center hosted the NBA Draft for the sixth consecutive year.

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At the New Rules Summit last year, Rebecca Blumenstein of the New York Times interviewed JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (Photo by Mike Cohen/The New York Times)

Brooklyn’s boosters see a powerful mix of influences driving the trend. “As the city’s nexus for culture and diversity, commerce and innovation, Brooklyn is the natural destination for headline events that shape the future of their industries,” Hector Batista, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, told The Bridge. “There’s no better home for high-profile events than Brooklyn.”

Batista indicated that these types of events help spur economic growth in surrounding areas, often to the benefit of local businesses. And revenue begets more revenue. The borough’s infrastructural ability to contend with Manhattan—as well as other cities—has dramatically improved the past half-decade. Besides the restoration of iconic buildings, the borough has seen the addition of entirely new venues like the 68,000-sq.-ft., Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint, a more intimate version of the Javits Center.  

Other venues include Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl, which at ten years old seems practically ancient among these ranks, and will once again host the Relix Live Music Conference, as it did last year. Pioneer Works, the cultural center in Red Hook, is where the Ethereal Summit, covering all things blockchain tech, will land in May. BRIC, the cultural arts center in Downtown Brooklyn, is a popular draw as well, and in June will host the second edition of the From Day One conference, which is co-founded by the proprietor of The Bridge.

Besides all the welcoming new venues, it’s about what’s happening inside them that’s creating critical mass. As Sid Holt put it: “Well, it really is where the action is.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.