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Money maker: Artist makes new form of currency for Williamsburg and Greenpoint

The Brooklyn Paper
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Mary Jeys is carrying a torch for a time when money was spent locally.

The conceptual artist is the mastermind of a new form of borough-centric currency dubbed Brooklyn Torches, which she hopes will counter the online shopping trend and keep money flowing through North Brooklyn’s small businesses.

“It’s about how money is a mechanism not only of exchange, but of communication,” said Jeys, who coined the idea after friends convinced her it would be dangerous to hand out cash while riding around on a bicycle outfitted with an ATM for an art project. “The bill has so much meaning.”

Inspired by the Ithaca Hour, a form of local currency that’s been in use in that city since 1991, Jeys began designing Brooklyn Torches — a project that she hopes will spark discussions about trust and safety regarding money.

Americans have the greenlight to create local forms of currency to pay for goods and services, so long as the cash has a value that can be measured against the dollar and participants pay taxes the as same as they would on regular money.

For now, Brooklynites can invest in the local bucks by bringing items to Jeys’s studio, getting them appraised for Torches, and using the Torches to buy merchandise at the art space.

But the goal is to reach a much broader market.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of businesses, and they are usually interested in having a conversation with me, since part and parcel of being an entrepreneur is being willing to try new things,” said Jeys, who hopes to enlist volunteers interested in the cause. “But we have to come up with a system.”

Some North Brooklyn merchants, such as Word bookstore owner Christine Onorati, can’t wait to sign up.

“I love the idea of a local currency,” said Onorati, who has experience with regional currency from her time in Northport, Long Island, where the Northport Dollar helped keep money in the community. “It’s a way to keep the money local and keep people aware of who’s participating.”

This isn’t the first time Brooklyn has gone up against the dollar. From 1996 to 2000, about 100 businesses, many of them in Park Slope, embraced a form of currency called Greenbacks. At one point, there was nearly $100,000 worth of the currency in circulation.

That experiment in local currency was successful, but the large administrative upkeep eventually caused the founders to shut the project down, organizers said.

“It can be done with proper marketing and proper outreach. Six or seven people running it wasn’t enough,” said Craig Seeman, one of the founders of the Greenback. “She may need 10 to 15 people to do this properly. But with the internet, it’s so much easier now.”

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.

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Reader Feedback

Transplant from Here to stay says:
BK Paper's trolling story of the day
Feb. 8, 2013, 4:35 am
diehipster from yup crusherville says:
Transplant, you forgot to yell "FIRST!!!" Yeah, go ahead and sit there pretending you dont like to come here and put Brooklyn and real Brooklynites down. Go ahead - tell me about the Dutch and the Indians you nasally yup.

Anyway...

Unreal! These friggin people simply cannot escape childhood no matter how old they are; definitely has to do with the 'trophy for last place' mentalities their parents had. "Like yahhh,lets play store with monopoly money while the cupcakes are baking, yah!!!" So much time for projects and art art art that all gets sucked into the hipster vaccuum of gentrified Brooklyn until the next day when more BS is generated by these transient tryhards. Its simply incredible; real working Brooklynites with families are barely getting by due to gentrification and the economy yet these "vibrant creatives" are playing kickball, playing "store & house", fusing lattes with wasabi, etc. Get out of Brooklyn!!!!
Feb. 8, 2013, 8:51 am
Homey from Crooklyn says:
Whenever I hear the words "performance artist" I want to hurl.
Feb. 8, 2013, 9:13 am
JAZ from mauling Monroe says:
Just when you think they have stooped to the most ridiculous level possible, they somehow find another basement. And of course she's a 'conceptual artist'. Like Yah!!

North Brooklyn play money? Really? I'm sure every kidult from Greenpoint to the Shwick is giddy with joy. This is a continuation of the endless free time demonstrated in that Verizon commercial where the bearded hipster spends all day sending an invitation to a rooftop party by remote control helicopter.

None of these interlopers have an artistic bone in their body, but they have turned North Brooklyn into a medioicre midwest liberal arts campus. Basquiat was a great artist, and great Brooklynite. None of you invaders is the least bit of either.
Feb. 8, 2013, 9:15 am
diehipster from Hanging Harrisons says:
Ha Jaz!

Did you catch this part?

“It’s about how money is a mechanism not only of exchange, but of communication,” said Jeys, who coined the idea after friends convinced her it would be dangerous to hand out cash while riding around on a bicycle outfitted with an ATM for an art project. “The bill has so much meaning.”

These people have the time and means to ride around in a costume and hand out money. Holy Sh*t, its unreal.
Feb. 8, 2013, 9:23 am
Transplant from Here to stay says:
Yep, proved my point.
Feb. 8, 2013, 10:24 am
"Interloper" from Kent Ave says:
Well played Transplant, pretty easy call. This one was sure to rile up the likes of blowhards like diehipster, JAZ and Swampy. The only thing the story is missing is discussion of the participants...ie: veggie co-ops, vintage clothing stores, etc.

However, I'm going to side with the "locals" on this one. If I'm a business owner there is no way I'm going with the concept of local currency. Novel idea but totally impractical. I can't pay my commercial utility bill with a "Brooklyn Torch".
Feb. 8, 2013, 11:13 am
ty from pps says:
It actually is pretty hilarious... it's like a Pavlovian outrage/hatred response. It would be fun to attach a cardiovascular monitor to these blowhard townies -- I bet their heart rate and blood pressure go up whenever they see skinny jeans or a fedora.

Like I've said many time -- It must be hard being them.

(Interloper -- the idea of a 'local currency' has been tried and has proven successful in many places around the world. It's basically a voucher that is backed by *real* honest-to-goodness 'Merican greebacks, so these businesses actually can pay their bills with this. Sort of like a gift card or gift certificate. Like the article said, it was actually fairly successful in Brooklyn before, just too much administrative upkeep.)
Feb. 8, 2013, 11:59 am
"Interloper" from Kent Ave says:
ty - By administrative upkeep do you mean finding financial backers or a government entity to maintain the convertibility of the currency? I'm not disagreeing with you, just curious as to how in practice this works.

Theoretically as an example, if I ran a store and somebody came in trying to pay for something with a stack of Pesos I'm not going to accept those. While they certainly have value in global commerce, the hassle of going to a currency exchange and getting them changed to dollars is something I'm not going to deal with.
Feb. 8, 2013, 12:14 pm
ty from pps says:
Interloper -- it just requires the same sort of administrative upkeep that old fashioned McDonald's gift certificates required. It's basically a loyalty system. You could use your McDonald's gift certificates that your grandma gave you at any McDonald's -- then the store would redeem them for cash from the central office.

In this case, the 'loyalty program' isn't for one business, but a set of businesses in the area... There would be a central / 3rd party of some sort to maintain the bank of real money. The businesses would cash in local buck for real bucks (presumably minus a small administrative fee.... but a fee of , say, 5% is better than a sale lost to the internet or big box store).

Stores themselves can promote local currency -- and consequential local loyalty -- by offering deals like... If you pay with cash (saving credit card fees) you can get your change in local bucks plus an extra $1 for every $20 you spend. Or something like that.

There's no "exchange" -- it's not a currency conversion. A local $1 is the same as a U.S. $1, but you can only spend it locally.
Feb. 8, 2013, 12:29 pm
ty from pps says:
And the 3rd party can be a simple little non-profit that is run by a few volunteers... basically maintaining a bank account at a local credit union or some jazz for the "treasury" and the interest earned could be used to keep administrative costs down -- things like bank fees and the cost of printing the funny money.
Feb. 8, 2013, 12:34 pm
manhatposeur from broeklyn says:
"So can I pay my rent in Torches?"
Feb. 8, 2013, 2:47 pm
Pat I from Brooklyn says:
Hey JAZ-

canyou post bail in Torches? I suspect their anti-counterfeit measures can be easily circumvented. So I'll be able to eat in the are for the cost of a few color xeroxes. Not too shabby.
Feb. 8, 2013, 3:18 pm
Northside Ned from GPT says:
^Thank god a real housewife of NJ has chimed in.
Feb. 8, 2013, 4:15 pm
Pat I from 70's brooklyn says:
Neddy's back - AKA "Gore Vidal's poolboy".
Feb. 8, 2013, 8:35 pm
Scott from Park Slope says:
I thought I heard womanish screams arising from unlit basements near the intersection of Mouthbreather and Nancy--had to be diehipster, Pat, and the other pansies clutching their skirts in terror at the scary, scary hordes of bicycle-riding hipsters. If they only had the skills, intelligence, imagination, and work ethic to earn enough money to resist gentrification caused by the terrible bearded ones. Alas, their moms won't give them a bigger allowance. tsk tsk
Feb. 10, 2013, 8:44 am
General Betraywife from the Pentagon says:
You Brooklynites certainly are colorful characters.
Feb. 11, 2013, 12:27 pm

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