Some time this year, Brooklyn will get one step closer to full-fledged secession with the introduction of its very own currency: the Brooklyn Torch. The brainchild of seven local artists, the DIY-dollar is set to debut in Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick, sometime before the fall. Spearheading the project is Mary Jeys, a Brooklynite artist and activist who explains: "We're restricting the currency to start in North Brooklyn because that's where we live. It is important that the creators of a local currency system understand the region inherently, and that is impossible if you live outside of the neighborhood."
For those of you who think this sounds like just another art project, the idea of a legitimately functioning "complementary currency" (aka "local currency," "community currency," or "alternative currency") is nothing new.
Local monies—as opposed to official state-minted "coin of the realm"—have been in existence for centuries, from the German Credit Unions of the 1800s to the "token coins" of South Africa to the dozens of complementary currencies ("scrip") that burgeoned during the Great Depression.
Not surprisingly, local currencies tend to flourish in bad times: in 2009, amid the worst economy in generations, there were 2,500 local currency systems worldwide. Turns out independent money creation is a common cure in a diseased economy: not only does it offer a breather from an untouchable federal system, it brings people together. As Jeys reasons: "It's understanding who we are and what we're doing here. It is definitely about local goods and local people."
The Brooklyn Torch is symbolic: For starters, the name, an obvious shout-out to that quintessential symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Then there's the group associations, as Jeys notes: "I like the idea of passing the torch, and keeping the torch, and lighting the torch, as ways of communicating about how we exchange with each other." The bill, the design of which is still in the works (submissions accepted at brooklyntorch.org), will start out as a one-to-one exchange. If Brooklyn businesses provide incentives to shoppers, the Torch's value will go up. "Part of the challenge is to keep things small," Jeys explains, "especially when New York is so huge. But there is a lot more openness than I would have originally imagined. We're all reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker."
The arrival of Brooklyn's very own money is exciting for many reasons, not the least of which is the helping hand it offers to mom-and-pop shops and other small businesses given a favorable exchange rate. For example, residents in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, earn five percent when they engage their local currency, the BerkShare. The system, which started in 2006, is accepted by 370 local businesses and is the largest of its kind in the U.S., with a to-date circulation of $2.3 million.
In the United States, DIY dough is circulating in California, Wisconsin, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York. And it turns out anyone can do it. Printing and distributing local currency is legal, as long as it follows the rules: it's paper (no coins allowed); it doesn't resemble a dollar; and it's taxed as if it were a buck. It's almost too easy. As Paul Glover, founder of the Ithaca Hours, admits: "When I started Ithaca Hours I thought it would be illegal but it wasn't. It's too bad, the supposed illegality was part of the fun."
The Ithaca Hours, conceived in 1991, is the longest running local currency in the nation. Each Ithaca Hour stands for an hour of labor, and is equivalent to ten dollars. Its labor value seems to be the key to its success—instead of just competing with federal dollars, the Ithaca Hour is backed by future community productivity.
What we're talking about here, then, is not just a pretty bill, a means for improving cash-flow in your neighborhood, or a way to bond with your neighbors—it's about the reconception of value. For Jeys, the Torch has more to do with labor, social work, and having fun, than merchandise: "We want to change the exchange between each other, to change things from the federal system of gain and loss, and into more of a game."
Unlike broader, mainstream monetary systems, in which the market demands competition at all costs, the players behind local currencies seem to actually support each other. We tapped Susan Witt, co-founder of the BerkShare, for kernels of wisdom to pass on to the Torch team. "I'm thrilled that Brooklyn is doing this! Because Brooklyn is so sprawling, though, place identification will be key. Also, one obstacle to look out for is how deeply ingrained our credit card habits are. Major corporations have made it so 'convenient' to deal with electronic transactions that we've kind of given up engaging in our local communities and local economies. But in the end, it's not a convenience at all—there are huge consequences."
Despite the history behind them, local DIY currencies have a long way to go. But does the Brooklyn Torch Project aim to inspire other boroughs and towns to follow suit? Absolutely, says Mary Jeys: "I would like to see other currencies everywhere. I hope that the development of a North Brooklyn currency project inspires a South Bronx currency project, a Staten Island currency project, and so on. Local currencies are usually created with an ethos that smaller is better; the best way for a local currency to suit its region is to be tailored by the people living there. That's what we're doing here with the Brooklyn Torch. We may not all be alike, but we can all get along."