Settings go from beginner to expert at Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym in the Gowanus.
Photos by Joshua Kristal
My favorite place in all of New York City sits on the corner of Degraw Street and Third Avenue in the Gowanus area, across from Frederick Douglass Park. It’s Brooklyn Boulders, a rock climbing gym, and my respite from the bedlam of New-York-City life.
With 20,000 square feet of climbable wall, Brooklyn Boulders attracts world-class climbers and setters, as well as recreational climbers and neophytes alike.
With its three entrepreneurially dedicated owners (one of whom is a brilliant climber himself), it is no surprise that New York City has one of the best climbing gyms on the East Coast.
When the general public thinks of rock climbing, they think of adventurers trying to get to the top of a mountain. To climbers, it is the act, the art, the skill, the challenge; everything between the ground and the ascent, and the lifestyle that goes with it. As such, indoor gyms, where avid climbers hone their skills and meet other enthusiasts, have been popping up around the country since the mid 1980s.
I began climbing in 2008 when I was living in Arizona, and when I moved to New York City in 2010, became a regular at Brooklyn Boulders, traveling there from my apartment in Bushwick or from work in Soho. It’s worth the trip. I like it because it is a real rock gym. (Check out my companion piece on my passion for climbing, its unique national sub-culture and the growing popularity of bouldering as a competitive “sport,” including being a new addition to the 2020 Olympics).
For anyone who isn’t familiar, a real rock climbing gym is a place with soaring geometric walls plastered with fake rock holds, which climbers refer to simply as “holds,” whether indoors or outdoors. A hold is something you can grab onto, whether it’s a purple piece of urethane in a gym or a crack in a rock outside. The highest walls in a climbing gym are geared with ropes so that people may safely climb three stories and beyond. This type of climbing is called sport climbing. Sport climbing always involves harnesses and ropes, is more endurance based and demands a partner.
A climber is always on a designated path. In a rock gym, these paths are marked – usually by colored tape. Outside, these paths are discovered, created or shared, but nonetheless always exist. At Brooklyn Boulders, you can find the beginning of a path by finding two pieces of colored tape in a V shape next to two “start holds,” as opposed to one hash mark piece of tape next to every hold that is considered in the path of the climb. In a sport climb, this path is called a “route.” In a bouldering climb, this path is called a “problem.”
A setter is the person who creates a problem in bouldering, and Brooklyn Boulders takes “setting” seriously, with national-caliber climbers on its payroll. The path is not only meant to get you up a wall, but is meant to be the most difficult way up for your level. Climbers joke that normal people see an eight-foot rock and scramble straight up. Boulder-ers see an eight-foot rock and think, “What is the most difficult way I could go up this?” Gyms hire “setters” to design those ways up.
Setters at Brooklyn Boulders write a blog about their trips all over the country.
Bouldering, specifically, is climbing without ropes and without harnesses. Nearly all climbers wear special climbing shoes and use chalk on their hands. Because you don’t need additional gear to boulder, you also don’t need a partner. This fact actually invites you to have many partners, making it the more social of the two disciplines. In bouldering, it’s common for groups of people with a similar ability to “work a problem” together. This means they are all lying on the floor and yelling tips to and cheering for the person currently climbing the problem. All problems and routes are graded – sort of like in karate. So, it’s easy to know when a person is at your level – you are both climbing a similarly graded problem- again inviting you to be social and work on problems together.
Brooklyn Boulders focuses on bouldering for two reasons. This first is purely functional. Warehouses in Gowanus are tall, but due to zoning laws, not that tall. Sport climbing is inherently limited to the tallest part of gym, which again is tall, but not extraordinarily so. The second reason is economic. Because bouldering invites community, focusing on bouldering essentially means more clients. “Community and Climbing” happens to be the Brooklyn Boulders slogan. As owner Steven Spaeth told me, “you can’t put a price on community.” Actually, for a climbing gym, Brooklyn Boulders is pretty New-York-City reasonable: $89 per month. So with my bouldering, my community, my tired muscles, and my clear mind, I feel like I’m pretty much in the win with this one.
Jeremy Balboni, Lance Pinn, and Stephen Spaeth, fraternity brothers from Wesleyan College, opened Brooklyn Boulders in Sept. 2009, catty-corner to an indoor skate ramp and Littlefield, a music/performance space and bar. The place was born to fill a demand and now is so popular, the owners are planning to expand.
Spaeth says the success of the place is simple.
“Climbing is the most fun you can have without drinking,” he says.
Brooklyn Boulders is attempting to straddle all spheres of climbing. Jeremy, Lance and Stephen all studied business and entrepreneurship at Wesleyan. Jeremy and Stephen graduated in 2005 and Lance in 2006. Stephen and Lance thank the Foundation Management Experiment class sequence for nearly all of their success in business. In their freshman class, every student came up with a business idea and the class voted on the top two. Each idea became a business, complete with CEOs, sales goals, marketing; the works. The school lent each business $3,000. The businesses were expected to make money – if they didn’t, they failed. At the end of the semester, grades were assigned by how accurately the business projected its sales goals. The profits were used to pay back the school and put towards a charity of the students’ choice.
The class got the budding entrepreneurs ready for their own project.
Life afterward bore the climbing gym idea.
Stephen has been traveling on and off for years, climbing, surfing and going to Phish concerts.
“When I was traveling, I realized that climbing had become an international sport. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an accessible gym in New York City. We knew that if we could get a gym up, we’d make money,” he said.
“We’d make money” might be the understatement of the season. With coffee shop girls hanging on the wall in jean skirts and spandex, older guys crowding the slack line and pros dug out in the overhung corners, it’s safe to say that at any given moment, Brooklyn Boulders is going to look like a regular Roman market.
Like anything else you do in New York, the well-populated space brings a whole new intensity to the typically under-the-radar climbing atmosphere. Instead of politely waiting your turn, you start jumping on your problem and dodging the newcomers because they may dangerously flail into your section at any given moment due to their severe lack of understanding and protocol. Good thing the sport is inherently even-keeled and supportive because this many people with all their jewelry, pumping libidos, and odor-laden sense of competition, may turn a different sort of place into nothing short of a mad house. Instead, you pick your spot and stay there while assertively cracking jokes and standing your ground.
Due to scarce resources, a hierarchical structure forms. Within days, if not minutes, you’ll have friends, dates, and geographical acquaintances right there with you. As for the owners, they are basking in their success by lending a helping hand to the needy.
“[The warehouse] was a complete wreck when we found it, and Degraw Street was better known for prostitutes and crack dealers than a rock gym or skate parks,” said Spaeth. “We are heavily involved with Douglass Green Park and organizations like Harlem Tutoring,” said Pinn. “Basically, if we think climbing can add to a youth program or outreach organization, we give the groups free climbing for the day,” added Spaeth.
Jeremy took me on a tour of the gym and pointed out all the recycled parts: couches from old apartments, recycled fences, a front desk from a wooden garage door, a shoe panel discarded from the Chelsea Piers gym – essentially everything except for the walls is recycled material.
And Brooklyn Boulders has an extensive kids program. They have an after-school camp from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the week, a traveling kids team, family time from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on weekends, and camps during school breaks and the summer.
If you haven’t tried it, you really should. It’s not only fun, it’s an incredible workout. You’ll work every muscle in your body trying to scale those plastic rocks, and you’ll be sore the next day in places you didn’t know existed. Most regular climbers are pretty fat free.
But more than that, Brooklyn Boulders is a place where you will make friends, where you’ll help folks and they’ll help you. In New York City, that’s a priceless commodity.
Brooklyn Boulders memberships are $89 a month, but you can climb for free if you volunteer three hours a week.
575 Degraw Street (Between 3rd and 4th Ave, Gowanus)
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