People Who Make NY Special

Climbing With Jeremy Balboni

The cofounder of Brooklyn Boulders, Jeremy Balboni, chats with WSWD about his urban rock-climbing facility.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Boulders

The life goal of Brooklyn Boulders cofounder Jeremy Balboni is to create a bunch of superhumans. That’s why there is always something other than climbing and fitness—meet-ups, park cleanups, and augmented reality climbing—going on at his urban hybrid rock-climbing facilities…because being fit isn’t enough.

The unconventional climbing gym has quickly ascended to new heights since it first opened its Gowanus warehouse doors in 2009. Balboni is now the father of three other Brooklyn Boulders: in Long Island City, Chicago, and Boston. Next year, he’s slated to open a fifth in Brooklyn.

What Should We Do?! actually sat down with him—surprising, considering his daily surroundings—to discuss how climbing has changed his life, his favorite events at Brooklyn Boulders, the coolest place he’s ever scaled, and his favorite places around NYC.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Boulders

What Should We Do?!: How did you get into rock climbing?
Jeremy Balboni: I was 19, which is a little late to start if you want to get really good at it. I was in college, and my buddy was trying to get me into it. At first I was skeptical; I heard about it and I thought, Rock climbing…is that even a sport? But I got addicted, and now I’ve been climbing for 15 years. It has taken me as far as South Africa, France, Spain, and Switzerland. I’ve traveled as far on earth as you possibly can from the U.S. to do it. It’s changed my entire life, from how I make money and how I travel to how I eat, how I sleep, and who I hang out with.

WSWD: Where did the idea for Brooklyn Boulders come from?
Balboni: There were originally three of us, and now we’re down to two. We all went to Babson, a school that specializes in entrepreneurship. We were climbers and thought there was a pretty big hole in the market. Fifteen years ago, climbing was not cool; the gyms that existed at the time were kind of dirty, old, dark, and uninviting. We said we’ve got a passion for it and we tend to be semi-cool people, so maybe we should try to turn the sport around—actually bring it to surface—and make it more appealing to a wider swath of the population. That’s exactly what we did and that’s also one of the reasons why we picked Brooklyn: Brooklyn is cool and it has diversity. We thought if we could combine that energy [of New York City] with a good design, a good product, and a sport that we believe has a shot at getting really big one day, then maybe we’ll find success. 

WSWD: Why did you want it to be a hybrid indoor rock-climbing, fitness, and coworking spot?
Balboni: Our North Star, the shining light that tells us where to go and what to do as a company, is becoming superhumans together. It’s not the concept of being some mythical creature like Wonder Woman or Superman. The idea of becoming superhuman together is actually borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche; it’s the idea of rising above the noise and taking control of your destiny and your life. If you go with that lens, just being a climbing gym doesn’t really fulfill that. But climbing being one of the elements, in addition to events, art, and culture, allows people to become superhuman and take control over their destiny to find purpose and belonging.

WSWD: What are some of your favorite Brooklyn Boulders events?
Balboni: Oh, that’s a tough one. We’ve done some incredible things. We had a national day of unplugging, where we partnered with the organization National Day of Unplugging and coplanned events at all of our facilities. We threw a blacklight party as people were climbing, dancing, and hanging out. We had DJs, and all of it was without electronics, which I thought was really cool. We also have a really strong presence in the LGBTQ community, so every year at Pride we go pretty hard, from being in the parade to having drag shows. Diversity and inclusion are big for us.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Boulders

WSWD: The Brooklyn Boulders Foundation promotes an amazing cause. When did you realize you also wanted to make an impact via climbing as well?
Balboni: The 501(c)(3) legally formed about four years ago, but we’ve been helping the community since day one. For us, we’ve always had a focus on disadvantaged youth. Usually a few times a year we’ll organize events with nonprofits in which you can sponsor people to climb, and the more they go up and down, the more money they raise; kind of like March of Dimes but with climbing. As a for-profit business, though, it’s difficult to organize events for free. So we said, “All right, we’ve got to start a nonprofit.” We did, and from there, a few programs have emerged. We have a Big Brothers/Sisters setup—in Brooklyn, we have about 40 kids a year who have a mentor who comes from Brooklyn Boulders. Our mentors can be teachers or climbers who come here often—and we have an adaptive clinic. Once or twice a week, you’ll see a group of adaptive climbers who are missing limbs or have other physical or mental challenges at the gym. We just hosted the National Competition for Adaptive Climbers on June 24 in Boston. Quite honestly, I think it’s one of the coolest things we do. When you see someone get out of a wheelchair and go up a wall, it’s humbling. It has changed a lot of people’s lives for the better.

WSWD: What was it like growing Brooklyn Boulders? 
Insane. It’s calmed down—we have about 300 employees now—but getting to this point was crazy. I’m not sure if I’d ever want to do it again, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. Each facility is a major project because every one is huge. The biggest one we have is 40,000 square feet, in Somerville, Massachusetts. Next year, we’ll be opening our third New York City location in Brooklyn and that will be almost 40,000 feet—one of the biggest climbing facilities in the country. It’s been the wildest roller coaster I’ve ever been on and, honestly, the most rewarding—it’s a win-win-win for the customers, employees, and business.

WSWD: Is the art at Brooklyn Boulders done by local artists?
Balboni: For the most part, yes. We try to keep the art in our facilities local. There are a couple of our favorite artists who have wanted to do pieces in each. So we have two or three who have traveled to every single facility to do at least one piece, but for the most part, it’s hyperlocal.

WSWD: Where is the coolest place you’ve climbed?
South Africa. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. I’m going back there in a couple of weeks.  

WSWD: What’s your favorite slice of pizza in New York City?
Balboni: Pepperoni from Roberta’s.

WSWD: If you had just two hours in New York City, what would you do?
Balboni: I would go to Brooklyn Boulders. It’s true. That’s literally what I probably would do.

WSWD: What are your three wishes for New York City?
Balboni: New York City is a city with a lot of resources; the fact that education and providing a brighter future for youth still hasn’t been figured out is a shame. So improving education and opportunities for disadvantaged youth is a big wish. I think we can do it, too. I also wish for New York City to go outside more. I believe New Yorkers should strive to leave the city and go to national parks, whether it’s for hiking, skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, or climbing. It improves your quality of life and the way you think. And my last wish? I wish for New Yorkers to have more time in the day to chill out.