East Coast Hackspaces

09-07-2017

I've been spending a little time hunting down Hackspaces on the East Coast of the USA. Since I moved here at the end of April I've visited 4 such spaces and heard about several others. There are some interesting differences between them and from the European Hackerspaces that inspired them. I'd like to talk about what I've learned visiting Novalabs, Catylator, NYC Resistor and HacDC. Notable mentions include Noisebridge and Techshop.

Lets start with Novalabs. They have a very active set of mailing lists - many of them in fact! They have lots and lots of meet-ups, mediated through the Meetups.com website. Everything from classic security hacking to blacksmithing is available here. Sounds great right? In some ways, it is. I was there to chat to some BioHackers. Apparently the nearest biohacking group is over in Baltimore, so having one nearer is handy. There are no facilities here for biohacking but theres a community of folk who seem nice.

novalabs woodshop

Novalabs have an impressive set of tools in their workshop at the back. All the drills, chop-saws, CNC machines and the rest. It's all there! There's an impressive set of metalworking tools as well. Not bad at all. Amazingly, they are all working! The workshops are very tidy with things properly organised. Whilst this sounds great it set off my second warning bell.

novalabs metalshop

The first warning bell was the cost. It's $50 a month for partial membership, and $100 dollars for full membership. The former means you need to be supervised by a full member - you can't just rock up when you like. In addition, you can't just come along and use the machines. You need to be trained on each one. Each machine has a level, with the higher level machines requiring one-to-one tuition. I can understand the need for that but it's not something that appeals to me.

novalabs soldering

Novalabs is in the middle of nowhere, near Dulles Airport in Virginia. It's a really long Metro ride to get there (over an hour). The place reminds me very much of a FabLab. This place is a business. It's safe. If you plan ahead and pick your meetup.com group right, you can schlep out there and meet some folk. But it'd better be worth it because it's the whole day you'll need. Same goes for using the tools. You need to plan for the long term, get your training, get signed up and have everything you need ready. By that time, you've probably sunk at least $100 into just a couple of visits where you've made nothing.

catylator entrance

Catylator is a little closer to home, in the town of Silver Spring, just north of the DC area, in Maryland. It's not far from the metro station, in the basement of a large office building.

catylator main

I had a chat with the man who runs it. It's his little baby and he was the only one there at the time (I'd gotten there early). He seemed like an affable chap who wants to make a difference, and also run his own business. I got the impression he works very hard to keep the place clean and tidy - to the point where he has no time for his own projects (his own admission!).

catylator woodshop

Catylator has some nice woodworking tools, a laser-cutter, computers and general craft areas. It's quite expensive in the long run however. There are sign-up fees and a fee each time you come to the space. The pricing is geared towards larger groups, with a sizeable amount of effort put into summer camps, classes and events. The best way to describe Catylator is family friendly. Again, it's not really what I'd called a hackerspace. Indeed, they use the term makerspace. It's lovely and there's definitely a place for it, but it's not for me.

nyc resistor workshop

But lets take a look at one of the original hackspaces in America - NYC Resistor. I stopped off here one evening to take a look and I must admit, I was quite impressed! It's up a few floors in an old warehouse-type-affair in hip, hip Brooklyn! Apparently, Brooklyn is ground-zero for Hipster-dom! Anyways, their space has a good wood work shop, a general workshop with a reasonable amount of space and a main room with desks and chairs and the like. It's covered in projects, including a home-brew beer fridge, several light installations (one of which plays the game of life) and a vending machine that dispenses electronics kits as well as drinks.

nyc resistor lights

A lot of love has gone into this place. The membership is surprisingly small, with only around 24 regulars and around 50 members. You can't just join either. You need to be voted in. They seem to do events reasonably often though, so I guess they are more active in the community than might be apparent. The cost to join is around $110 dollars a month though, but this is reduced if you offer to run classes on a regular basis. I found the group there to be reasonably friendly, having a nice long chat to one guy in particular who was quite keen on his radio stuff.

nyc resistor main

I didn't get chance to work on anything whilst I was there, but the general feeling was that this is a cool place. Maybe even too cool? Hard to say. But it's all the way over in NYC so it's not like I'll be back there anytime soon.

hacdc one

But lets finally get to the best-of-the-bunch, HacDC. I say best, when I mean best for me really. It ticks my boxes, chief amongst these being I can cycle there! It's up in Columbia Heights, so it's fairly central and it was the first one I visited when I got here. HacDC is one of the original three hackspaces here in the USA. After one CCC conference a few Americans were inspired, and on their return, setup HacDC, NYC Resistor and Noisebridge, or so the story goes.

The first thing you notice about HacDC is that it's small. Its basically just one room with storage in the basement. At one point they used to be bigger so I wonder what the story is there? Perhaps it's to do with the cost of rent? That wouldn't surprise me at all, what with DC being an expensive place to live. The space rents a room from a church for a reasonable rate, providing they help the church out with their networking from time to time. The feel of the place is definitely more on the repairing and fixing and taking-apart of things, rather than the making/crafting of Catylator or Novalabs.

HacDC has two open evenings on weekdays and a couple of weekend sessions. A HAM group also meets there from time to time. When I've visited I've seen different people just come through the door with various questions ranging from "I need help setting up my Linux server" to "I'd like to build a 3D Printer". Always, someone takes them under their wing and spends the evening helping them out.

hacdc two

Again, you need to be voted in to become a member, and membership is $60 dollars a month. You won't get much in the way of working tools at this hackspace, but the banter and community spirit is way up there.

I decided not to visit Techshop. It strikes me as not really a hackspace at all - possibly not even a makerspace. But it's there if I really need it.

I think I've been spoilt by London Hackspace I have to say - at least in its 3rd and 4th years (my opinion of the space at the moment is fairly low). The cost of American hackspaces is quite high. I'm told that Noisebridge is not like this - that it runs of donations and what members are prepared to give. This is admirable but then every hackspace I know measures it's level of drama in mili-noisebridges. I visited noisebridge a couple of years back and it reminded me of NYC Resistor, but being a little more edgy. At London Hackspace, you do have to pay but you only have to pay the price of a single pint a month (or really, 6 pints if you can afford it). But then again, if we consider how much Americans are paid in their jobs, perhaps HacDC is actually comparable to the recommended level at LHS? I should qualify that - some Americans. I can imagine quite a few people who can't afford to pay such fees. I wonder if this results in the classic "rich middle class families who send their kids to a makerspace" or "well paid white dude with enough time on his hands" demographic?

Another big difference is the size of the membership - they are all much smaller. Novalabs probably has quite a few people that come through its doors but I suspect not many are full members. I actually quite like a small space where people work together. It's friendly and I like it. But this of course leads on to that most favourite of topics - diversity.

I tihnk there are two kinds of diversity really. Diversity in people, and diversity in group activity and they are linked I think. Theres something I'd like to mention which is the realness. I heard this phrase used on a Radiolab podcast talking about Hip Hop (but there is another paper on it here). Basically, what is the real deal? What is real hip hop and what isn't? People who defend such things are often seen in a negative light, but looking at the Hackspaces here in the USA, I get the impression that this 'realness' is something they are trying to protect ('Hacker realness' is it's own seperate blog post for sure!)

Consider this. If you go to a Taekwondo class, you are all there to learn Taekwondo. You have an expectation and the instructor and classmates have an expectation. You'll make friends, enemies, go to the pub with folk afterwards but you'll likely meet people from all over the place - men, women, black, white, immigrant, native, all with interesting stories and different lives. Same is true with being in a band I'm told. You are there to do a thing. Afterwards, you all go on to your own lives. But you are all there for the same, one thing - to learn a martial art.

How does that work in something like a hackspace? It's much harder to define. Hacking is a bit of an attitude. Personally, I like the definition - "a hacker is a person with infinite patience for computers". It's not a bad start. There are key points to the hacker ethos though. Technical skill, a willingness to learn and be open with what you've learned, a love of taking things apart and a certain disrespect for the rules. If this is the kind of thing that a hackspace is about, how do you state that expectation? I think the hackspaces here do that through having a vetting process for their members. If they all like you, and you get voted in then great. I think this is part of the reason why the hackspaces I've seen are small. Keeping a space small also gives you the advantage of trust. If you are trusted then you can get involved in things you wouldn't normally be exposed to. If I hadn't been a trusted member of LHS, I'd have never learned how to weld. LHS is struggling a lot with that now though - it hasn't managed to scale with it's values. But soon it will be forced to shrink down.

I can't say for sure how diverse the hackspaces I've been to really are, but I do think they are diverse in the right sort of way; that you want people with many different backgrounds, but all pulling in the same direction. It's the kind of diversity I do actually want to see. As the token-foreigner-legal-alien-with-the-crazy-accent at HacDC, I am helping with that, despite being the typical straight-white-nerdy-male. But because I have the same love that the existing members do, I think that's ok. HacDC in particular strikes me as a place that does well with this. Every night I see different people of different race, background, age and gender come through the door, and I think it's down to the passion of their members and the large number of public nights per week.

There is a difference between Makerspaces and hackspaces though. Novalabs and Catylator take the business-makerspace model in which you just pay a lot more money and have to spend a lot of time being trained and vetted and all the rest. While this means you have an expectation of a working machine at all times, you'll spend far too much time getting access to the damn thing. You can't just rock up with some box steel you found lying around and built yourself a hat stand (I did this one evening whilst a little drunk btw). It's too clinical, too restrictive, too boring.

What do I want from a hackspace? Diversity in folks but with a common drive and a small membership that values trust and community and generally mucking around in a cool way. Now that hackspaces have spawned off their makerspace cousins, I get the impression we can achieve that. Of the places I've been to, HacDC is definitely the closest and does a really good job! I just hope they love me as much as I love them!