Tucked between Somerville Ave. and the Fitchburg Commuter Rail tracks, in unassuming buildings that once housed factories, you’ll find some of the most daring and creative entrepreneurs in Massachusetts. Two organizations, Artisan’s Asylum and Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, have moved into these old buildings, fixed them up, and created something that you have to see to believe.
Artisan’s Asylum calls itself “Not an incubator, but a playpen,” but inside this former warehouse on Tyler St., you’ll find entrepreneurs seeking out new ways to push the creative envelope. In some ways, the Asylum really does act like an incubator: like the Cambridge Innovation Center, Artisan’s Asylum offers infrastructure and networking on the cheap. If you want do some cool metalworking but don’t own your own welding gear, Artisan’s Asylum gives you the means to get your dream off the ground. But there’s a distinctive, well, artistic flair at the Asylum, where members are making not only art but also the machines that allow other artists to make art.
You’ll also find painters, carpenters, software engineers, and a lot, lot more in Artisan’s Asylum’s 40,000 square-foot space. It might feel like a playpen, but there’s serious business going on here, and there’s a waiting list for membership (UPDATE: I should have been clearer about this: there’s a waiting list for private space at the Asylum, but there’s no waiting list for membership to the Asylum. You can get a membership and start using the Asylum’s tools right away. Thanks to Artisan’s Asylum’s Drew Van Zandt for pointing this out.). One artist, Emily Garfield, specializes in “creative cartography”—when you first see her work, you’re not sure if you’re looking at a map or a microscope slide. Her work is tasteful, inventive, and brilliantly executed. Another artist eschewed a successful career as a lawyer to follow her dream of being a sculptor, a dream that’s coming to life thanks to Artisan’s Asylum. Artisan’s Asylum also offers classes on arts marketing, which help members bridge the gap between artistic dreams and financial realities.
Artisan’s Asylum is constantly expanding its offerings, and in this huge, once-derelict space, new ideas collide and combine. They do things a little differently here, and they’re a model for arts-centric redevelopment of our neighborhoods. Best of all, there’s a waste-not-want-not ethos here that all of us can take to heart: at the “Cruft” station, members are free to turn another man’s trash into their own treasure. Not to get too preachy about it, but this is “reduce, reuse, recycle” in action, and most businesses could learn from the Asylum’s example.
Next door, at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, you’ll find a gym unlike any other in Massachusetts. Where Artisan’s Asylum projects a gritty ethos befitting a former warehouse, Brooklyn Boulders has shined up the old Ames Envelope factory and literally raised the roof—they added 18 vertical feet to the old building and installed huge windows in the new walls, so when climbers reach the top of their route, they’re treated to views of the Boston skyline (how cool is that!?). Some of the smaller rooms are still being finished (they’ll host yoga, cardio, and pilates classes), but the rock-climbing and bouldering walls are fully operational.
The two businesses are already working hand-in-glove: just today, Brooklyn Boulders posted a photo to their Facebook page showing their employees using new, custom-made leather products made at Artisan’s Asylum. And the collaboration is more or less natural, since the creative, entrepreneurial minds at Artisan’s Asylum can pop over to the rock-climbing gym to blow off some steam. Memberships are available, and safety always comes first, so be prepared to demonstrate your knowledge or attend a “Learn the Ropes” class before you get on the wall. When I was there, the gym was just starting to get busy, and I watched in awe as one young man scaled the highest point in the gym and gracefully rappelled back to the ground. It was an absolute pleasure to visit these two spaces, and I’d like to thank Artisan’s Asylum, Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, and the Somerville and Cambridge Chambers of Commerce for putting together such a spectacular event.