What Happens To A Rock Climbing Community When Venture Capital Comes Calling?
9:55 AM EDT on May 20, 2022
Mikhail Martin was a bored college kid when he discovered rock climbing for the first time in the summer of 2009. A friend’s cousin was coming to town and she brought her boyfriend, a white boy who grew up in Colorado who had been rock climbing for years. His friend suggested they all go climbing, and after one quick Google search they found the closest climbing gym was in New Rochelle, N.Y. Luckily, Martin had just gotten his license and was game to try new things. That’s when he got hooked.
“We went to this rock climbing gym, and yeah, they just kind of opened up the world to us,” said Martin, a native New Yorker raised in Queens.
When Brooklyn Boulders opened in 2009, Martin finally had a spot for his new favorite sport in his home city. Walking in for the first time, he would pass a workshop where wooden boards were being built that would eventually make up new climbing walls. In parts of the gym where the walls were completed, he’d be able to ascend climbing routes while a Filipino guy from California was blaring hip hop through a speaker system, a welcome change from the more pop-heavy playlists he knew from other climbing gyms, he said. He also remembers that the place was cloaked in a curious odor, a mix of rubber and sweaty feet; the ventilation system in this former newspaper warehouse was still a work in progress.
Back in the day the gym was a little bit of a shambles, but still full of friendly folks who would show Martin how to become a better climber. Everyone was greeted with a handshake, and above all, it was affordable: A broke student at City College at the time, Martin says he was able to get a membership for $50-60 a month.
“It was definitely something I had never really experienced before. Essentially, you're in this, like, warehouse-looking building,” said Martin, now 32. “It was just a cool spot.”
In 2009, Brooklyn Boulders was New York City’s only gym entirely dedicated to climbing. (Previously, rock climbing had to be wedged into gyms alongside other activities.) The company has now expanded to multiple cities; in New York, it's one of at least a dozen climbing gyms all over the city, with even more set to open this year. This is all part of a larger trend. Rock climbing in gyms has skyrocketed in popularity across the United States in the last 20 years. Indoor rock climbing found its beginnings in Colorado in the 1990s, where outdoor enthusiasts tried to recreate their experiences on the mountain inside the confines of a gym. The industry grew at a rate of 8.24 percent in 2021, adding 53 climbing gyms across the country, according to a report from the Climbing Business Journal. Across the U.S. and Canada, there will be more than 600 gyms by the end of this year, if current projections hold true.
Culturally, climbing has also become more pervasive in the U.S. It went from a sport mostly practiced by misfits in the 1970s (self-proclaimed “Stonemasters”) who lived in vans and roamed the mountainsides of the U.S., to a sport that was featured in the Olympics for the first time in 2021. In New York alone, the number of gyms dedicated to climbing went from one to at least 12 between 2008 and 2021. And the granola-eating, nature-loving rock climber has become a caricature in romcoms and credit card commercials alike.
But this increase in popularity has also drawn some scrutiny. While gyms like Brooklyn Boulders may have started out with the intent of bringing the sport to new climbers, the industry's rapid expansion has arguably driven it to increasingly push for profit in ways that may have cut into its affordability, accessibility, and ties to local communities.
Many of the gyms crop up in diverse and mixed-income neighborhoods where the kind of spacious buildings required to set up a climbing gym may be less expensive. And in spite of the sport's rapid expansion, it has not attracted as many communities of color, let alone low-income communities, in the neighborhoods where they set up shop. A 2019 study showed that 82 to 85 percent of all climbers were white (compare that rate to the general U.S. population, where white people make up 60.4 percent of the population).
But none of that fit with my experience, the climbing community I came to know through people like Martin. And seeing the change at Brooklyn Boulders firsthand, going from a dinky DIY spot to a venture capital-backed empire, to more recently selling off some of its properties, I wanted to understand how the forces that changed a sport I also came to love. The saga of Brooklyn Boulders almost resembles a parable, the story of what gets left behind when a small business with community-minded aspirations suddenly gets wrapped up in a culture of "cool," and the cash injections from financiers eager to grow wealth off a new, hip sport.
In the early days Brooklyn Boulders was run with a kind of laxness that often occurs with small businesses, the kind of informal structures that echo the habits we have in our interpersonal relationships. In your neighborhood bodega, for example, you may be able to put something on a tab if you leave your wallet behind. There’s a flexibility in how small business owners may approach a customer that is based on accountability and relationship-building.
At Brooklyn Boulders, this manifested itself in many informal programs that would make the place a bit more affordable: Climbers could participate in a volunteer system, where they could work shifts in return for free memberships. Martin also recalls getting to know staff who would simply wave him through without checking for his membership.
Early on, there was also a strong emphasis on community at Brooklyn Boulders. The gym sits nestled between two very different New York City neighborhoods with stark income disparities: Gowanus, where a large public housing project is just a five-minute walk away from the gym, and Park Slope, a neighborhood best known for being an enclave for affluent families.
Martin recalls that the gym management would make an effort to partner with businesses in both the affluent and less affluent parts of the neighborhood, from the juice shop run by a Latino family to the pub around the corner near Fifth Avenue. When Martin started Brothers of Climbing in 2012, a group that aims to make the climbing community more diverse, Brooklyn Boulders was eager to provide both support and access to their facilities. And Martin remembers a suggestion box the gym’s management actually checked: Whenever members raised an issue, small improvements were made to address it.
For Kareemah Batts, a diversity consultant and founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, an organization that brings transformative climbing experiences to people with disabilities, Brooklyn Boulders was a place to find community while she was undergoing cancer treatment in 2009. After having a partial amputation related to her treatment, Batts remembers coming in wearing a prosthetic leg and volunteers and staff being happy to see her come back to the gym. “They didn't treat me awkward when seeing my prosthesis, like most people were,” said Batts.
Climbing helped her tremendously in her recovery process, and pulled her out of some destructive behaviors like drinking, she said. Hoping to bring climbing to more people with disabilities, she asked Lance Pinn, one of Brooklyn Boulders co-founders, if she could put on a free event. He obliged, providing attendees free entry and gear without putting a cap on the number of people she could bring. Batts continued to put on events for climbers with disabilities and eventually was hired by Brooklyn Boulders Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Brooklyn Boulders that “was created from the support and enthusiasm of the Brooklyn Boulders community” to bring climbing to youth in the city, according to the group’s website. Adaptive Climbing Group was spun off from her work with Brooklyn Boulders, and now operates in several cities across the country including Boston, Chicago and the greater New York area.
Batts said that in the early days of Brooklyn Boulders, people with an entrepreneurial spirit and a plan were able to push for the kind of work they cared about. “I never had a no,” she said.
About four years into its existence, when I myself discovered climbing as a leisure activity at the gym, the company began to expand to new cities, opening up newer and better-equipped facilities: first in Boston (2013), then Chicago (2014), a second New York location in Queens (2015), a second gym in Chicago (2020) and then a location in Washington D.C. (2021). In the middle of this expansion, Brooklyn Boulders also signed a deal with private equity investor North Castle Partners, which valued the company at $48.75 million and relocated its headquarters to Denver after receiving $550,000 in tax incentives to move, the Colorado Sun reported (people familiar with the matter told me they did not receive these tax credits). According to the article, this deal marked the beginning of private equity investment into the industry.
Pinn spoke about having aspirations to meld lifestyle with work spaces in a Bloomberg Businessweek feature in September 2015: “Brooklyn Boulders is tapping climbing's popularity in the tech world to become a co-working haven for (very ripped) entrepreneurs,” the article proclaimed.
This change of direction was also felt among the members. Despite the company's expansion, climbers saw few improvements and worsening conditions at the flagship facility in Gowanus, according to Climbing magazine. Martin remembered how this shift in the gym experience drove some Brooklyn Boulders members to join another gym that had opened in Queens in the fall of 2013.
Cliff Simanski co-owns GP81, a smaller climbing gym in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and has been working for gyms as a route setter for more than a decade. He said the allure of venture capital is that it allows gym owners to grow very quickly in little time.
Within a year of opening his gym, Simanski was approached by venture capitalists and landlords to either invest in his business or open up new facilities. It was the kind of frenzy that would have been unimaginable when he first started working in the industry in New York in 2007, when building owners would never have taken on a climbing gym as a commercial tenant.
Simanski said an injection of cash from investors is a quick way to build out the vision for a business in an industry that is rapidly growing, but seems sustainable because of the recurring revenue model of memberships. To a small-business owner working around the clock to maintain their business, receiving an offer for what seems like a guaranteed salary and benefits, not just for yourself but also for your staff, would be very tempting, he told me. But he also understands that venture capitalists will likely prioritize the bottom line over running a popular community-based business.
“It’s not to say that it's all bad and evil and like nothing good can come of [venture capital],” said Simanski. “The gym can't be [solely] a moneymaker because people will stop going if the stuff they like stops happening. But [...] you don't get to be a private equity company with millions of millions of dollars by making lots of friends and being really nice, right? I just imagine you make financial choices that are the best financial choices you can make, and you get more and more money.”
There are drawbacks to striking up a deal with investors, he told me. For instance, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his co-owners decided to automatically freeze the accounts of their members. They immediately stopped charging monthly fees knowing that many members could suddenly be out of a job. Simanski says that these are the kinds of decisions—to prioritize the community over profit—he and his partners would likely not be able to make if they were involved with an investor.
“It’s a huge risk [to take venture capital money],” Simanski said. “Because it doesn’t matter what they say on paper. There’s going to be clauses that will allow the holding company the right to do basically whatever they want. [...] Or they would probably never sign an agreement that didn’t give them the ability to outvote us.”
Much like other service-based industries, the climbing industry suffered a series of economic blows during the pandemic. In May 2020, Brooklyn Boulders broke its lease with a Williamsburg property, nixing a new gym titled BKBX. The company had to lay off all of their New York staff in July of that year and faced public criticism over their treatment of BIPOC workers, leading to the company’s co-founders stepping down from their post.
“Obviously, 2020 was a huge point in time for a lot of industries, not only just the climbing community [...] of taking an inward look at what was going on within them. And climbing, obviously, there's no exception to that,” said Roshni Brahmbhatt, 26, who joined Brooklyn Brooklyn Boulders as a youth coordinator in late 2019. A few months into the pandemic, she became part of a worker-based movement called “BKB Collective.” The group called for better working conditions, especially for its Black employees, and urged the company to put forward more equitable policies.
She said that when she asked about discounts that Brooklyn Boulders was giving to the NYPD during a call with the company’s headquarters in 2020, the managers on the call said they’d have to run it up the chain before they could discontinue the discount. Brahmbhatt said that many of the ways in which representatives from the company talked to her and her fellow organizers felt like it was based on corporate templates. “It really is just like the standardization of responses and the inability to be creative in how to accommodate your community that is such a huge thing,” she said.
But from the turmoil, a new movement emerged: NYC Climbing Collective. Founded largely by former Brooklyn Boulders employees and led by volunteers like Brahmbhatt, the collective have been organizing mutual aid events, partnered with a mentorship program called Harlem Rock Club to make climbing more accessible to youth from Harlem, and worked with various gyms in and around the city to organize events at discounted prices for first-time and experienced climbers. The group consists of about 30 regular organizers, 10 to 12 of whom make up the core team. They join groups like Brown Girls Climb and Black Girls Boulder, each trying to increase access and reimagine what community looks like in the sport.
In some ways, what NYC Climbing Collective is doing is the kind of labor that Brooklyn Boulders said it prioritized at its gym in the early days: forming connections with the people and businesses within a neighborhood. Except, of course, people like Brahmbhatt do it without the benefit of a check from VC.
“It's really stressful being poor,” joked Brahmbhatt, who works part-time as a personal assistant to make a living while spending 20 to 25 hours a week on programs for NYC Climbing Collective. She wishes the gyms would do this work as part of their core business model, but in lieu of that, Brahmbhatt and her co-organizers have learned to use some of the public pressure to do what she sees as necessary work to make climbing accessible to New Yorkers from all across the economic spectrum. Because Brooklyn Boulders faced a lot of public outcry over their treatment of their BIPOC workers, other gyms are now more quick to work on inclusive programming to avoid public scandals like this, said Brahmbatt.
“I would love the gyms to pay us, like that would be really cool,” Brahmbhatt said. “And even if the gyms don't pay us, even if the gyms take our programs and implement them, that would be the best-case scenario, right? That NYC Climbing Collective doesn't have to exist, that the gym does listen to the community and is able to, you know, give access and remove barriers to access as much as the New York City Climbing Collective is right now.”
The site of the original Brooklyn Boulders gym has recently gotten a little facelift. The facade has been painted black and white, the main gate leading into the gym was fixed, and the windows were adorned with a new sticker that reads "Bouldering Project."
Earlier this year, Brooklyn Boulders Gowanus—the original facility often dubbed “OG” by the community—the facility near Boston, and the Washington D.C. gym were sold to Bouldering Project, another investment-backed company. (Roughly half of the new climbing gyms opened in 2021 were opened by brands that already had at least one gym somewhere else, a move that many in the industry see as a further consolidation of climbing gyms into larger corporations.)
This signified the end of an era: The original climbing gym in New York was now sold, and its mission or overall fate is unclear to many who first started climbing there years ago. And even though the sale may create a new era for climbing—albeit a potentially more corporatized future of rock climbing—people like Batts and Martin still believe that despite its sale, Brooklyn Boulders and its early origins brought about necessary change to the sport.
The company successfully introduced indoor climbing to one of the densest urban areas in the country, and the climbers who gathered there transformed their love of the sport into action, forming organizations for local climbers like Batts’s Adaptive Climbing Group, Martin’s Brothers of Climbing, or the NYC Climbing Collective.
Where Brooklyn Boulders may have lost track of its stated goals, that mission was picked up by the people who found community through climbing. The passion of organizers like Batts, Martin, and Brahmbhatt is seemingly impossible to replicate, no matter how many millions in venture-backed funding you have.
To Martin, corporate greed may have the power to ruin the culture of one gym, but it has only made climbing more pervasive in society. “If it wasn't for that greed, there wouldn't be as many gyms as there are now,” he said. Gyms have cropped up in Harlem in recent years and “the impact of that is little Mikhails out there who probably, you know, couldn't make it all the way to Brooklyn [Boulders].”
“I am optimistic,” Martin said about the future of climbing and its access to marginalized communities. “The very nature of climbing is you're fighting against gravity, right? Like by its very nature, it's counterculture, right?”