The Rise, Fall, and Unlikely Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Original Climbing Gym

What happens to a climbing community when its gym changes hands?

Photo: courtesy of the Bouldering Project

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At first, it seemed like a normal Tuesday afternoon. Outside, crisp February air and the occasional kid skateboarding down the block; inside, pockets of climbers projecting boulders and exchanging beta.

But in a glassed-in office at the back of Gowanus’s Brooklyn Boulders, a change was underway. Managers and staff gathered around a Zoom call with the leaders of the Bouldering Project, a climbing-gym company that they learned just hours before had just acquired three Brooklyn Boulders facilities, including theirs. Staff members who worked across both the Queens and Gowanus gyms were split up based on where they’d signed their contracts. 

Still, for many BKB employees, it was welcome news. “It was pretty exciting, to be totally honest with you,” said Quinn Ventura, the Gowanus general manager. “It definitely was a surprise.”

That same day, an email went out to members. Hallie Lahm, 24, a BKB regular whose partner is the gym’s head routesetter, was climbing that afternoon. A little frisson of surprise resonated through the gym when the announcement was made: “There was definitely a vibration,” Lahm said, although it still wasn’t clear what any of this would mean. “The Instagram post went up and it was like, the buzz around the gym.”

When Mike Remboulis, 59, a longtime member, arrived one morning later that week, he headed for the front desk, where he found a staff member he’s friendly with. “The first thing I said was, ‘Are you good, man? Are you safe?’” Remboulis recalled asking. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’”

The gym was now the Brooklyn Bouldering Project. And many staff and members alike hoped it would be a new start.

A shot of Brooklyn Boulders' rear entrance.
Iterations on iterations. Before it was the Brooklyn Bouldering Project, and before it was Brooklyn Boulders, the facility was a warehouse for Brooklyn News. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bouldering Project)

In the beginning, there was Brooklyn Boulders—and there was only one. When it opened in 2009, the Gowanus location was the largest climbing gym in New York City; its competitors at the time were Chelsea Piers and the Manhattan Plaza Health Club, neither of which catered exclusively to climbers. The founders, who started the company in their twenties, told the New York Times in 2010 that they wanted it to be a locus for “research on climbing.” They built much of the interior from scratch, creating a space at once innovative and homespun. The gym attracted serious athletes—Ashima Shiraishi trained there, as did Phil Schaal and Ty Landman—but also welcomed less experienced climbers and kids. “Everybody felt like they could go there,” said Kareemah Batts, who founded the nonprofit Adaptive Climbing Group. “It was a very collective kind of vibe—it was grungy, it was weird, sometimes there was no heat.”

“It was really tight-knit,” said Jed Dougherty, 35, an early member and employee who exchanged work shifts for climbing time when the gym first opened. “We’d volunteer together, vacuum the floors, hoist kids coming in from Long Island up the walls, and then climb together for four hours.” 

The next decade was a big one for indoor climbing; beginning around 2010, the number of gyms in operation in the United States began to rise more steeply. Between 2013 and 2020, BKB opened five new facilities across New York, Chicago, and the Boston area, including BKBX, its climbing-slash-crossfit center. (“Global domination” is how the founders sometimes described their ambitions.) 

But as the city’s climbing ecosystem became increasingly crowded (five gyms opened between 2018 and 2020 alone) it started to seem like the attention of the higher-ups at Brooklyn Boulders had strayed toward newer, flashier projects. While BKB aimed to expand BKBX and develop a proprietary board system, treadmills at the Gowanus location were often out of order. Chicken wire peeked through some of the walls. The setting volume decreased. The roof above the 30-degree wall started to leak. A MacGyvered funnel—a tarp attached to a hose leading to a bucket—still catches water when it rains. 

“Their reputation sort of became, oh, they’re never updating their flagship gym,” said Esther Park, 40, who has climbed frequently at Brooklyn Boulders. 

And with so many other gym options, New York City’s climbing community began to disperse.

“Reinvestment in the facility is where a lot of the pain points have been,” Ventura told me. (After she became general manager in 2020, she pushed for a number of improvements, including to the façade and windows.) Still, a number of members I heard from spoke highly of the setting, the youth programs, and the staff. “They’re literally the thread that holds that gym together,” said Ian Fried, 31, a former member and trad climber who switched to the new Cliffs gym opening in Gowanus because of its higher walls.

The arrival of the pandemic in 2020 posed an existential threat to climbing gym companies all over the country—18 gyms closed, the most ever in a calendar year per Climbing Business Journal—and BKB was no exception. That May, the company broke its lease on a new property in Williamsburg. In July, all New York employees were laid off. Around the same time, the leadership at BKB, like that of so many other companies, faced a reckoning over diversity and equity. 

Even though staff were eventually offered their jobs back, some climbers said they were disillusioned by the way the company handled these challenges. Ventura told me that because of Covid, it’s hard to determine how all of this impacted membership. But community is still what the gym says sets it apart, which is why I started to look into this story: What happens to a climbing community when the gym that brings them together changes hands? 

male climber during a competition at Brooklyn Boulders
(Photo: Courtesy of the Bouldering Project)

I have been a member of Brooklyn Boulders on and off since moving to the neighborhood in 2019, and like so many other current and former members, I regarded the sale with curiosity. I wondered, why? And why now, with the Cliffs opening nearby? And what were the implications for members and employees?

“It’s a great gym that is in need of some love and care,” Wade Martin, the Bouldering Project CEO, told me in late February. “I think we knew what we were getting into with it.” He declined to tell me how much the three gyms cost, but he expressed confidence that his company has the resources to reestablish the Brooklyn Bouldering Project as one of the city’s premiere gyms. 

I asked Danielle Soncrant, the Bouldering Project communications and human resources director, what changes the gym staff have requested, and she said that a lot of it had to do with infrastructure, as well as transparency and clarity around pay, promotions, and benefits.

An air of cautious optimism now permeates the gym. “Everything is just so new still,” Ventura said. The space is visibly in transition; laminated signs welcome climbers to the new Brooklyn Bouldering Project, but elsewhere BKB logos are still visible. Membership rates have remained the same, although members can’t access the Queens gym anymore (and vice versa). Based on my conversations, it seems unlikely that new capital investments will lure back the climbers who’ve already left the gym; but they may help re-secure its niche within New York’s wider, highly competitive climbing landscape.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I heard one climber express concern that the new owners would replace the “beast”—an arch-like cave that’s home to  some of the gym’s steepest problems. And then—somewhat wistfully—he offered to keep it.

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