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Revenge of the Nerds

The kingdom of the geeks, thriving in an old factory in Downtown Brooklyn.

Originally published in nytimes.com, December, 2008

A ROBOTIC roller skate propels itself across the fifth floor of an old sewing factory at 397 Bridge Street in Downtown Brooklyn. The softly lighted room is permeated by an acrid odor emanating from soldering irons and recently extinguished birthday candles.

Over the thump of electronic rock, two dozen men and women chat, type at laptops and pull on tangles of wire. “Firing the laser!” someone shouts. An electronic sign attached to the wall blinks: “Welcome — to — the — 21st — Century.”

The 800-square-foot space belongs to a hacker collective called NYC Resistor, which opened in the summer of 2007, and already has inspired a clone. The collective has turned away those who are interested in fraudulent computer hacking, preferring a membership of tinkers and inventors — mostly self-professed nerds — each of whom pays $75 a month for access to the space and equipment.

“People think hacker means a criminal,” said Devon Jones, a 33-year-old member of the collective who was slumped on a ratty couch drinking a beer. “Well, we want our word back.”

The collective has proved so successful that another one is planned in the city, called Htink, reflecting a growing trend of hacker spaces nationwide.

“Some people go to the gym,” said Mr. Jones, a designer for an educational software firm in the West Village. “Some people go to nightclubs. We tried to build a creative community for nerds.”

The result is a kind of frat house for modern-day mad scientists. Outside the collective’s home is the bustling Fulton Street Mall, where vendors hawk sneakers and bundles of incense. Inside the converted laboratory, circuit boards, gadgets and spare parts overflow from every shelf. A minifridge near the entrance is stocked with beer. Members eager to quench their thirst can also consult Bar Bot, a silvery drink-dispensing robot that resembles the Jetsons’ maid, Rosie.

Diana Eng is one of seven women in the collective. A former contestant on the television series “Project Runway,” she created a sweatshirt with a digital camera embedded in the hood that takes a picture when the wearer’s heart rate is elevated, creating snapshots of the day’s excitements.

“My designs were too nerdy for ‘Project Runway,’ ” Ms. Eng said with a giggle. “But here they fit right in.”

To help pay the rent, the collective offers classes for $25 each on topics from basic electronics to the art of laser-cutting Christmas decorations.

The group’s success has not gone unnoticed.

“Resistor blew the doors off the scene here,” said Eric Moore, a hacker from Bushwick who is forming his own group. “They’re the next generation of American hacking. The rest of us are just trying to catch up.”

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