5 October 2006

Building Miss Brooklyn

Passion play around the Yards arena project

July 16 was hot, so much of the crowd of over 2,000 gathered in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza chose to sit in the shade of Prospect Park, wearing hats and fanning themselves, far from the makeshift stage. On the stage, which was bannered with signs proclaiming “No to Ratner’s Land Grab,” Reverend Billy, a mock Evangelical pastor crowned with an ironic wave of blond hair, led his multiethnic Stop Shopping Gospel Choir in songs decrying the evils of consumerism and Wal-Mart.

Charles Barron, then a Democratic candidate for congress, took the stage next. “I have to say something about your mock reverend and all that,” Barron said, clearly displeased. “You can play jokes, that’s fine. But don’t mess with the black church.” The subsequent speaker, Bob Law, echoed Barron’s perturbance with the choir’s tactics: “When you ask people to come here, be careful what you say.” The mostly white crowd shifted indifferently, unsure how relevant this dispute was to the anti-Atlantic Yards movement.

Law, a community activist and owner of the Bob Law Seafood Café in Prospect Heights, went on to invoke a famously vigorous era of urban politics. “Charles and I belonged to an organization back in the 60s,” he said. “You all probably never heard of this organization—but we had a slogan back then that said ‘Power to the People.’” A few people cheered. Law went on:

We don’t oppose developing anything. . . . We oppose the process by which Ratner is trying to recreate how the city operates, so that the people who live in the community are stripped of their own power . . . as the city council becomes more black and brown, then major developers try and find ways they can circumvent that black and brown presence on the city council.

Law then asked the crowd to repeat with him the old Black Panther slogan, “Power to the People.” Some of those gathered murmured, just barely audibly, “Power to the people.” He asked them to say it again: “Power to the People.” They repeated the slogan—again with palpable uncertainty.

Law wanted to reinvest power in the increasingly “black and brown” city council, but the crowd seemed not to care, no more than they cared whether “the black church” was joked with or not. And the black church itself was divided, as many of those present must have known. The Reverend Herbert Daughtry, of the House of the Lord church in Boerum Hill, had broken with the “God Squad,” a coalition of Brooklyn clergy, when he endorsed Ratner’s project. “I think it’s the best thing that can happen to our community,” Daughtry told the Daily News.


The opposition to Forest City Ratner’s delirious fantasy of 17 high-rises and a basketball stadium for the transplanted New Jersey Nets includes over fifty community groups, without any clear indication of division on class or racial lines; in light of this, the rally’s disunity seemed less evidence of actual fractures than of a crisis of self-perception.

Whatever force the opposition originally possessed came from the exceptional quality of urban life it represented: the closely interwoven neighborhoods of Park Slope, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights, which had only recently, if rapidly, revived through gentrification. But gentrification had only masked the problems of poverty, unemployment, and affordable housing that New York’s liberal postwar programs had attempted to tackle with proliferating bureaucracies and agencies (think of Alexander Portnoy’s “Commission on Human Opportunity”). If, around 1969, New York City gave up on liberal projects for helping the poor and displaced—sometime after Robert Moses lost his last New York City post and Norman Mailer declared that he was “getting tired of Negroes and their rights”—then the opposition to Forest City Ratner was part-heir to this great abdication, left without any political cause beyond the sanctity of their neighborhoods.

Black, white, or otherwise, opposing the Atlantic Yards project proved to be an unreliable campaign stance. On Democratic primary day, Barron, along with another black opponent of the yards, Chris Owens, lost to the two black supporters of the project in their respective districts, incumbent Edolphus Towns and city council member Yvette Clarke.


It’s true that Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development proposal enjoys considerable support from major black leaders in New York City, though it remains unclear just how many people and viewpoints they represent. In the run-up to the 2005 mayoral election, the Reverend Al Sharpton Jr., native Brooklynite, criticized candidate and political ally Fernando Ferrer’s lack of support for the project. “He needs to realize that failure to get projects like this done would be a terrible loss for communities of color in this city,” Sharpton said. Bertha Lewis, executive director of the New York section of liberal advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, supports the project, and has frequently derided “the all white” opposition marching against the “black and brown” supporters. “Let me call it as it is,” she said, “it’s race and class—that’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Almost before an actual debate could begin to take place, a simple, effortlessly racialized portrait of the fight over the Atlantic Yards emerged, as if prefabricated for just such a development battle. Newspaper editorials repeatedly sought to expose the race and class basis of the opposition’s motivation. Thoughtless gestures and chance quotations lifted from blogs, conferences, and e-mails seemed to confirm every prejudice. The Daily News quoted an e-mail written by Daniel Goldstein, leader of the opposition group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), in which Goldstein referred to certain black supporters of the project as “tools of their wealthy white masters.” The response, from Sharpton among others, was instant outrage; they accused Goldstein of racism. Noting that Park Slope residents Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams and Steve Buscemi were among the headliners for the opposition, a Daily News editorial sneered that “chi-chi Hollywood types … cry that the project will defile the character of Brooklyn. What Brooklyn? The Brooklyn where they sip lattes?”

The old “latte” line, tediously persistent, was dragged out not just to berate liberals for their elitist tastes, but to fault them as navel-gazing agents of gentrification who, consequently, lived in the “wrong” Brooklyn, and were not being progressive enough in recognizing how Ratner would solve the real problems facing New York City. In such a picture, white elites from Park Slope and environs were attempting to preserve their race and class privileges over and against working-class “black and brown” Brooklynites, who, aided by Ratner, were trying desperately to stop gentrification.

All this despite Forest City Ratner’s history of unsound relations with the black community of Brooklyn. Responsible for the widely reviled Metrotech development in Downtown Brooklyn—a chilled network of windswept, empty corridors among dryly characterless office towers—the company was also the object of protests by ACORN and Sharpton in response to the massive Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, sister shopping complexes that seem to be little more than sheer walls of brick and open seating areas where no one congregates. Asked to explain the bizarre severity of the Mall’s design, Bruce Ratner responded, infamously, “Look, here you’re in an urban area, you’re next to projects, you’ve got tough kids.”


With the Atlantic Yards, the largest private development ever proposed in Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner seems to have been more successful in casting itself as respectful and engaged with the community, aesthetically forward-thinking, and in tune with the liberal spirit of the borough it is attempting to wholly refashion. For his aesthetics, Ratner hired Frank Gehry, superstar architect and major brand name, to design the stadium and high-rises. Gehry, whose most visible presence in New York now derives from countless bus stop ads of nearly nude women draped in Bilbao-like “Gehry” brand jewelry, has dismissed opponents of the project as Luddites: “There is progress. There’s constant change. People aren’t riding around on horseback anymore.”

By contrast, he referred to Bruce Ratner as “politically my kind of guy.” Speaking to Times architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff on the Charlie Rose show, Gehry said of Ratner, “he’s a do-gooder, liberal, we can talk, he likes classical music, and he collects art,” a phrasing that pretty well mirrors the most rote disparagements of the opposition.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Ratner’s “do-gooder, liberal” credentials stem almost solely from a single dubious document: his Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). Ratner’s CBA, modeled on a groundbreaking agreement that made way for the building of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, was signed by eight community groups, including ACORN, and witnessed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg—but in New York, unlike in L.A., the city is not an official party to the document, and it plays no part in the city’s zoning process. The document outlines a commitment by the developer to hire 20% minority-owned construction firms, and to make 30% of housing units affordable to low- to moderate-income families. (Some of the space for this housing is to be cleared through Ratner’s private use of eminent domain.)

Jobs, opportunities for minorities, affordable housing: all the talismanic words of the last half-century of New York’s progressive politics were here. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz called the agreement “so comprehensive and far-reaching that it puts Brooklyn in a class by itself, at the forefront of the corporate responsibility movement.” But as reporters and bloggers quickly realized, the “representative” nature of the agreement was bunk. Six of the signatories did not exist before the CBA agreement and could hardly, therefore, be said to represent any “community.” IRS documents discovered by the Daily News revealed that one of the signatories, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), was receiving nearly all of its $5 million budget from Forest City Ratner; several other of the signatories have received payments from FCR as well.

Commitments from Ratner have faltered over the course of the year. The promise of 15,000 construction jobs turned out to be 1,500 jobs per year—spread over ten years. Early claims from the developer indicated that the project would provide 10,000 office jobs; that number is now 2,500. Office space has been reduced to make way for 2,800 market-rate condos. The price of the project has increased twice: initially $2.5 billion, estimates swelled to $3.5 billion by November of last year. Current estimates value the project’s cost at $4.2 billion. If built, Ratner’s Atlantic Yards will probably be the densest residential community in the country. Regarding the changes in the proposal, James Stuckey, executive vice-president for FCR, remarked, “People change, markets change.”


It’s gratifying, in a bitter sort of way, to see how the debate over the Atlantic Yards reproduces all the city’s contradictory fantasies of itself. New York has long valued itself as the progressive nerve-center of the country, but its residents cannot openly reconcile this with the fact that by 2009, it will have had two Republican mayors for a total of fifteen years—the authoritarian Rudolph Giuliani, and the business mogul Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has relied upon the willingness of the city to give up actual elements of public process for the semblance of such process provided by documents like Ratner’s CBA, just as he has almost seamlessly passed himself off as progressive through selective cultural bargaining (gay marriage, abortion rights). Proposed solutions to major urban problems, once the provenance of government until the so-called crisis of urban liberalism, come from the realm of finance and real estate. Unemployment—according to some estimates, around 65% in the Farragut Houses project in downtown Brooklyn, for example—is real. The housing crunch is also real: Brooklyn had a very low 2.8% vacancy rate in 2005.

But paradoxically, we are now asked to accept the notion that modestly wealthy residents of Park Slope have less interest in the poor and the unemployed than billionaires like Bloomberg and Ratner; that outsized urban complexes containing mostly condos and high-priced rentals are the best available solution to the problems of gentrification. Real estate magnates will bring the working class back to Brooklyn; the “black and brown” have their best friend in Bruce Ratner.

In neighborhoods already bereft of their old industrial working-class base, the claim that Ratner will revitalize Brooklyn’s natural, irreplaceable working-class origins is self-fulfilling. If the opposition, as has so often been claimed, is obsessed with the “character” of Brooklyn, then Ratner is too, only more successfully: where the opposition values its neighborhoods, Forest City Ratner can simultaneously remake and reconstitute the entire aura of Brooklyn with a basketball stadium (remember the Brooklyn Dodgers?), and disingenuous gestures toward affordable housing (remember the working class?). Brooklyn-as-commodity-name is already garishly in evidence in the awful name of Gehry’s planned central tower, “Miss Brooklyn,” which is to be the tallest building in the borough.

People change, markets change. It’s another paradox: Brooklyn must return to its deep origins through the spectacular changes that the market supposedly demands, and which Ratner merely supplies. At a moment when all other notions of major urban development have been declared useless or unfeeling toward communities, the self-deceiving compassion of business appears as the only rational truth. The vituperation of the opposition to the Atlantic Yards has helped to point out the absence of a public process, but—placed as the opposition is in the reactive position, ceaselessly having to outmaneuver its wealthier opponent—it has not yet succeeded in creating it. As such, journalist observers have frequently compared the battle to the classic planning fight between the late Jane Jacobs and the powerful Robert Moses. But Jacobs’s successful stance, while classically heroic, was not altogether progressive. The neighborhoods she saved from Moses’s highway, SoHo and Greenwich Village, bereft of the mixed industries that nourished them, survive now on little more than inflated real-estate values, high-priced restaurants, and small boutique stores.

“If you want to get something done, you bring in one person and give him power. But the days of Robert Moses are over,” Bloomberg told Jonathan Mahler in the Times magazine (referring there to the battle over Ground Zero). He’s correct in one regard: when the progressive energies of this essentially non-progressive city reside exclusively in its congenital obsession with real estate and race, Forest City Ratner seems to have more coercive, effective control than Moses ever did. A renewed attention and investment in the notion of public development needs to catch hold again in New York City, and in cities everywhere. In the meantime, we should expect businesses like Forest City Ratner to fill that void in ourselves that we still name “progressive.”

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