September 8th, 2011

Brooklyn’s Fractured Faces

Posted in Art and Design, Politics, United States by Christopher Szabla

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of the Atlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

Earlier this year, JR, who only goes by his initials in order to avoid the consequences of producing technically illegal work, won a prize from the TED foundation (best known for its conferences hosting hit-or-miss talks from minor information age glitterati) earning him major mainstream recognition — and the ability to finance “Inside Out”. The scheme allows participants to upload images to the artist’s website, after which the project’s staff creates and sends them paste-able posters of their own. The art that’s been produced as part of the project is on a smaller scale than most of JR’s work — if more widespread and, occasionally, more impactful.

One place where that’s been true is Tunisia, where “Inside Out” prints were symbolically plastered over the omnipresent iconography of fallen dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. But even acting in lockstep with the uprising, participants did not escape suspicions over their motives for “imposing images” on Tunisians understandably protective of their newfound agency over the look and feel of their country. In places like Brooklyn, JR admits that the political uses of “Inside Out” portraits will probably be limited to much more limited skirmishes — but similarly complex issues surrounding the agency of those spoken for in the activists’ posters stalk the movement against Atlantic Yards.

The critics’ take on the redevelopment goes something like this: Atlantic Yards is a land-grab, a city- and state-subsidized corporate behemoth that has been allowed, through a radically expansive application of eminent domain, to displace working-class Brooklynites from their homes. Beyond its gluttonous consumption of funds from the ever-dwindling government pot and the forced evictions it entails, the development has been critiqued for being grotesquely out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods’ streets, many of which are made up of lowrise blocks of brownstones.

Parts of this argument seem deceptive: much of Atlantic Yards will be built over train tracks, making displacement of residents minimal. The immediate neighborhood is neither as tight-knit or lowrise as Atlantic Yards’ opponents suggest: its apex, where the arena will be located, will face the vast, open intersection of two wide commercial streets, Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, which is already home to the busy Atlantic Terminal shopping complex (built by Bruce Ratner, the same developer who is spearheading Atlantic Yards) and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower (now known as One Hanson Place), which has stood at the corner since 1927 and was, until recently, Brooklyn’s tallest building.

This summer’s reception of a documentary film about the Atlantic Yards fight, Battle for Brooklyn (trailer below), serves as a useful microcosm of the debate and helps illustrate some of its broader contours. The film centers on Daniel Goldstein, lone holdout in a condo building designated for seizure in Atlantic Yards’ eminent domain plan. That focus alone points it in the direction of something that’s less an overview of the contours of the battle than a weapon deployed by the anti-development activists.

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The film’s review in Dissent magazine casts a less sympathetic glance at the project’s opposition. Unimpeachably leftist, Dissent has been no admirer of the cozy relationship between developers and local government that has characterized the development process at Atlantic Yards; in 2008, it called the saga of its creation an “epic tale of corruption, cronyism, and obeisance to private interest”. And that was when starchitect Frank Gehry was involved, furnishing designs that gave Atlantic Yards some claim to aesthetic merit (Gehry’s plans have since been value-engineered out of the project).

But as Norman Oder, Dissent‘s reviewer and author of a blog critical of Atlantic Yards wrote of Battle for Brooklyn, “[t]he David-and-Goliath portrait” of Goldstein crusading against the developers could “be compelling, but it avoids some gray areas, and sometimes Goldstein’s personal story displaces needed context.” One particular point it misses: Ratner’s “willingness to challenge gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods, relying on working-class proxies of color”. In other words, it’s possible to see the real battle for Brooklyn as a contest between wealthy gentrifiers and powerful developers, in which the working class — the interests of which are claimed by both — are merely pawns of both sides.

It’s true that Ratner’s partnership with the city government, and their joint efforts to whip up local enthusiasm for the project, can read as cynical exploitation. But it’s not inconceivable to many Brooklynites that the developer might be more responsive to the cultural and economic concerns of most of the rest of the borough than the project’s detractors. Atlantic Yards has been scaled down, partly as a consequence of its opponents’ activism, and many of its initial promises will never come to fruition. Still, the project’s arena is projected to create many jobs, and they will largely go to low income borough residents. Many are also bigger pro sports fans than the creative class professionals who have taken over nearby blocks.

This might all be spotty conjecture if Atlantic Yards’ formula weren’t one Ratner had deployed for the benefit of Brooklyn’s low income residents before. The Atlantic Terminal mall is a mecca of low-cost retail options for borough residents who live outside the picturesque brownstone belt. And on Court Street, the ragged edge of tony Brooklyn Heights, Ratner built a modern cinema that caters to wide audience, not just the monied sophisticates who live nearby. It’s become a popular destination for many Brooklynites, ensuring the surrounding streets remain a fairly diverse cross-section of borough residents, rather than the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

It’s clear Brooklynites have a genuine basis to believe that Ratner’s development won’t be a blight on the borough (though his critics do make several effective points: the national chains with which Ratner stocks his projects are far from the most desirable form of investment for borough residents, and it would be naïve to claim that adjacent businesses have no reason to fear their effects). At the same time, while grounds to distrust the solidaristic overtures of his detractors are less readily apparent, there are clear reasons to suggest they are as culpable as Ratner for hijacking anti-gentrification protest politics for selfish ends.

Cash, for one, has made many once seemingly earnest concerns disappear: the “suffering victims” of the eminent domain fight could just as easily be portrayed as extortionists after many walked away with millions in hush money. And, as Oder points out, “eminent domain makes strange bedfellows” — much of the fight against the development, as well as the making of Battle for Brooklyn, was funded by libertarian activists who would be Ratner’s biggest supporters if not for the state subsidies he’s received.

It’s also not difficult to believe that the brownstone Brooklyn aesthetic the activists are transparently fighting to save — and its skyrocketing property values — may be many locals’ most potent motivator. The posters on Bergen Street, while verbalized as protest, also landed this otherwise average Park Slope block on the international art (and, by extension, real estate) map. At the least, the activists’ focus is inconsistent: unlike Goldstein, the individuals depicted on Bergen Street’s prints do not live or work in the area threatened by Atlantic Yards’ eminent domain order. The claim that they will be upended by rising costs caused by the project’s impact on local prices ignores the effect on them of the high income residents currently inundating western Park Slope.

The pressure newcomers have placed on prices is as much a byproduct of capitalist greed as any megadevelopment — and it has just as much power to reconfigure geographies of race, class, and wealth. It’s a process that has been at its most forceful in the quaint pockets of Brooklyn that have remained, as the anti-development activists would have the streets around Atlantic Yards be, free from the proximity of Ratner’s often behemoth projects. Little wonder that, in such places, gentrifiers’ pretensions to shared “community” with the neighbors they are rapidly displacing often ring as hollow as Ratner’s political song-and-dance routine.

The consequence is that no one side of the Atlantic Yards fight has had a monopoly on the best (or worst) interests of Brooklyn’s working poor. The multiple passions — and perspectives — of the struggle over the development strongly imply, at the very least, that the forces bringing change to Brooklyn are more numerous, and less clear, than any group dedicated to a single one might suggest.

“The project is a mirror of society,” JR said in response to the different uses to which “Inside Out” had been put in Tunisia and Park Slope. On one level, he was conceding that the local preoccupations of the Brooklynites participating in his project are necessarily less world-historical than Middle Eastern revolutionaries’. But on another, his statement can be taken to mean that participants’ engagement with “Inside Out” is necessarily indicative of local social realities — in ways intended or otherwise. After all, the gaps in Bergen Street’s portraits, split by the stairways they ascend, are their most striking feature — transmuting them from the viral agitprop they were meant to be and making them, instead, something strangely reflective of the borough’s multiple, torn and fractured faces.


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20 comments

  1. Norman Oder says:

    I respect your thoughtful effort–the gentrification issue deserves ventilation, and Atlantic Yards opponents need not be seen as pure– but the devil is in the details.

    I don’t think the fundamental battle is between wealthy gentrifiers and powerful developers, but rather a whether government serves the public interest or not.

    I don’t think you’ve fully grappled with the issue of public subsidies and public assistance, as well as the “cheating culture” that’s enabled government agencies to claim, for example, that the Atlantic Yards site is blighted.

    See for example
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2009/03/case-closed-and-blight-study-bogus-high.html

    One piece of public assistance includes an override of zoning that, for example, allows an arena to be built within 200 feet of residences, as well as an 1100-space surface parking lot to nudge up against a historic district. Sure, the northern border of the site is wide Atlantic Avenue. The southern border isn’t.

    Forest City, above all, is very good at gaining public subsidies without attendant public responsibilities.

    You write that “Atlantic Yards’ formula weren’t one Ratner had deployed for the benefit of Brooklyn’s low income residents before.”

    Hold on. Ratner was smart in recognizing that Brooklyn was under-retailed, but he got significant subsidies to make his malls work.

    And it’s hardly clear that Atlantic Yards would help low-income residents. The developer promised 900 low-income housing units–subject to sufficient subsidies. If that takes ten years, that’s 90 units a year. At 25 years, that’s 36 units a year.

    You wrote: “Still, the project’s arena is projected to create many jobs, and they will largely go to low income borough residents.”

    “Many jobs.” The arena has never been touted as a major job creator, and a good number of arena jobs are part-time.

    You wrote. “Much of the fight against the development, as well as the making of Battle for Brooklyn, was funded by libertarian activists who would be Ratner’s biggest supporters if not for the state subsidies he’s received.”

    The fight against the development was *not* funded by libertarian activists. (The filmmakers received some help, but I’m not sure of the fraction.)

    Libertarian activists provided moral support, but eminent domain law in New York is bad enough–a position shared by mainstream legal analysts–to generate pushback even from people uncomfortable with the libertarian right.
    See
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2011/04/ay-eminent-domain-decision-among-worst.html

    If “many Brooklynites [believe] that the developer is actually more responsive to the cultural and economic concerns of most of the rest of the borough than the project’s detractors,” well, please check the numbers.

    Forest City made a lot of promises, including in the much-touted Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). The developer won’t even pay for the Independent Compliance Monitor the CBA requires.

    September 8th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  2. michael says:

    “The film centers on Daniel Goldstein, lone holdout in a condo building designated for seizure in Atlantic Yards’ eminent domain plan. That focus alone points it in the direction of something that’s less an overview of the contours of the battle than a weapon deployed by the anti-development activists.”

    - As I discussed with Norman Oder at length- it’s important to consider context when making judgments. If one is to look at a modernist painting and judge it as if it is classical one- then the presumption will be that it has failed. It was never our intention to make an overview of the Atlantic Yards project. Norman Oder will do that. Instead we made a character driven film that follows people under pressure. This does not mean that it is an advocacy film by any means.

    In fact, great pains were taken to not make it an advocacy film. We feel that we succeeded, Even major backers of the project including Errol Lewis and James Caldwell of Build, have called the film fair.

    At the same time, the film does document a situation of outsize corruption and manipulation. As such, people whom you deem anti-development (playing right into the developer’s narrative) understandably support the film. In addition people fighting corruption in other cities like LA also like and support the film because it resonates there as well. These kind of corrupt situations are happening everywhere and seeing it play out over 8 years is a valuable tool to those who are at the beginning of the fights. In the beginning there are outsize promises. In the end the public is left holding the bag.

    http://blogs.laweekly.com/stylecouncil/2011/08/battle_for_brooklyn_redevelopm.php

    When casual observers pigeon hole people- like referring to the community activists fighting this project as anti-development – rather than anti corruption- and pro community input- these casual observers play into the narrative that the developer spent 10′s of millions of dollars to create. If this project was about job creation- why are the former supporters who wanted jobs holding weekly protests? If the developer cared about the community why does the Atlanicyardswatch website document daily flouting of regulations designed to protect adjacent communities.

    In fact every politician who actually represented the communities affected by this project have been staunchly against it from the get go. Tish James, Velmanette Montgomery, Jo Ann Simon, Major Owens etc etc. Yet not one elected politician had a vote on the project. Most people wouldn’t know that- and they didn’t read it in your piece. Too often as citizens we don’t ask hard questions, and we assume that public officials are looking out for us. Too often they are not- (as evidenced by the many indictments of politicians and lobbyists related to this and other ratner projects). However, it’s hard to piece it all together by reading the papers so most people just watch reality TV – and even if they do read the paper- the hard questions are buried at the end.

    One of the reasons that we make films, and made this film, is to challenge the way in which we as a society interact with information. Eminent Domain has been pegged as a libertarian issue. However, if one is to really examine how it is used and abused, it’s hard to support it in any case. We have seen that the film is starting to change the perception that it’s not a liberal issue- as seen in LA- Denver, Portland, and other places that we are taking the film.

    http://truthout.com/battle-brooklyn-and-eminent-domain-abuse/1315323077

    If I sound a bit frustrated its because your piece lumps the film into the advocacy camp- and thereby dissmisses it- and gives others a reason to do so as well. If you haven’t seen it I encourage you to head over to the brooklyn heights cinema this evening. It plays at 7

    September 8th, 2011 at 3:56 pm

  3. C. Szabla says:

    Norman and Michael, thank you for your detailed comments.

    First, I want to make clear that my main purpose here was not to weigh in on the way Atlantic Yards’ development has been conducted. As far as the subsidies it has received and the loopholes it has been allowed to thread, I agree they are disconcerting. I can see how the application of eminent domain may have been suspicious in this case.

    But my purpose was really to illuminate broader debates over gentrification and redevelopment and the ways in which assumptions about their players (e.g. “the community” v. “evil developers”) mask a much more complex reality. By attempting to deconstruct the archetype of the developer, in particular, it seems the tone of this piece came off as more Ratner-friendly, overall, than intended. The quality of jobs created or the specific way Atlantic Yards might low income residents notwithstanding (lack of rent stabilized housing aside, a project like this reduces price pressures on existing Brooklyn real estate) the point of discussing its potential benefits was to make it possible to see on what basis working class Brooklynites might have genuinely found reason to support Ratner’s vision.

    On a sidenote, Michael, I didn’t mean to indict your film as too biased. It’s clear to me that it seeks to highlight, rather than promote Goldstein’s perspective, while making efforts, nonetheless, to present the other side of the story — though I also think it’s fair to say that the subtlety of this distinction may be lost on many viewers, which is why I found Norman’s critique persuasive.

    September 8th, 2011 at 10:58 pm

  4. amy says:

    If your piece had been written in the past it might have made slightly more sense, but you’re missing the new developments. To say:

    “Still, the project’s arena is projected to create many jobs, and they will largely go to low income borough residents.”

    is an outright lie. Please do some research and maybe talk to the “low income borough residents” who have been protesting the lack of jobs in this project:

    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2011/07/at-protest-outside-atlantic-yards-site.html

    September 9th, 2011 at 8:33 am

  5. C. Szabla says:

    Amy — thanks for pointing to that protest. It’s evident some former project supporters are now angry because of a lack of construction jobs available to Brooklynites, specifically. First, while it was duplicitous to have had Brooklyn-based contractors believe that such jobs were forthcoming, there are still obvious benefits to the local economy flowing from hiring firms based just across the river in Manhattan (among them: many of their workers actually live in Brooklyn). I also find troubling the implication (in Norman’s piece on the protest) that hiring these firms is somehow illegitimate because they employ immigrants.

    More importantly, though, there will almost certainly be longer-term opportunities that emerge from and because of the finished project that will most likely be available to locals. Construction jobs come and go quickly, but with a project like this we should really be discussing its impact over decades.

    I want to reiterate, again, that my intention here is not to advocate the project and certainly not to claim that Ratner hasn’t been dishonest and manipulative, but to demonstrate how appeals to local interests, among them jobs, allowed him to build alliances with Brooklynites (both in the past and to the extent that they endure today). Activists used other rhetoric to appeal to the same base, and the point is that there are reasons to believe both sides have coopted the overall interests of the working class for their own ends.

    September 9th, 2011 at 9:54 am

  6. Daniel Goldstein says:

    “Activists used other rhetoric to appeal to the same base, and the overall point is that there are reasons to believe both sides have coopted the overall interests of the working class for their own ends.”

    And you are “coopting” them to make your point. Please explain how the opponents to the Atlantic Yards boondoggle have “coopted” the overall interests of the working class for our own ends. And if our ends are fundamentally about honesty in government, fighting abuses of power and meaningful representation for people and communities, which they are, how is that not aligned with the overall interests of the working class?

    Couple of other things:

    1. Are you familiar with the book Field of Schemes? If not it provides the widely accepted argument that arenas and stadiums are simply not the economic (job creating) engine their builders and proponents claim them to be.

    2. You wrote: “Parts of this argument seem deceptive: much of Atlantic Yards will be built over train tracks, making displacement of residents minimal. ”
    Most of the project will be built on land that wasn’t a rail yard. And how much displacement is minimal and how much is too much?

    3. In a comment above you wrote: “lack of rent stabilized housing aside, a project like this reduces price pressures on existing Brooklyn real estate.” One might think so, but the ESDC’s EIS says that more households would face the risk of secondary displacement than the number of “affordable” units proposed for construction. That doesn’t sound like a reduction of price pressures.

    4. You want your blog post to be judged on its intentions yet you were unwilling to judge Battle for Brooklyn on its intentions, wanting it to be something it didn’t set out to be.

    September 9th, 2011 at 11:15 am

  7. C. Szabla says:

    Daniel — I appreciate your very thoughtful response.

    Large-scale developments like Atlantic Yards sow division in that their potential benefits are spread over large areas, whereas their costs (not including problems specific to Atlantic Yards, like the malodious subsidies issue) are most keenly felt by those living nearby. That creates a divergent interests (and intensities of interest) among those who stand to benefit, however disparately, and those who will have to endure the bulk of the project’s burdens. And it means there is a natural motivation felt by those who will be forced to bear those costs to rally opposition from less directly-impacted areas.

    Opponents of Atlantic Yards have sometimes employed rhetoric concerned with the disparities in wealth and power present in the development saga, I think partly for this reason. But there seems to have been limited willingness to take seriously the hopes of people in less affluent parts of Brooklyn (and New York as a whole) that they might enjoy the project’s economic effects. Instead, the argument has been that those benefits were illusory. There is a sense in which that contention is absolutely correct — as you point out, arenas are not the most optimal economic engines — but that did not mean arguments about the potential benefits of the project as a whole had absolutely no merit whatsoever. I think a more honest debate would have involved admitting that opposition to the project came with trade-offs.

    That is part of how working class interests have been coopted by some project opponents. The other part, discussed above, is the unwillingness to admit that the argued-for preservation of the surrounding neighborhoods’ “character” would facilitate the gentrification occurring in those areas independent of the project — a process directly benefitting those who own property there.

    Yes, there’s a danger of “secondary displacement” emanating from Atlantic Yards. But the project has been a lightning rod for criticism, taking the focus away from processes of displacement, in the same neighborhoods, that began long before Atlantic Yards was proposed. And what I mean by reducing price pressure is that dense residential development at Atlantic Yards could help soak up demand for housing in Brooklyn as a whole, protecting outlying neighborhoods from further rent hikes. Subsidized housing only guarantees that someone can take advantage of rent stabilization in a given location; fulfilling demand helps ebb the waves of eviction emanating into further-flung corners of Brooklyn.

    To address your other points — I don’t think it’s a misrepresentation to note that most of the land over which Atlantic Yards will be developed consists of railyards. According to the map at the opposition No Land Grab blog, three of the five full blocks which the development will comprise do.

    And to the extent I’ve made arguments about my intentions, they’re merely aimed at motivating readers to look more closely at what I said above. Many are seeing this piece through the lens of strong opinions about the project and, I think, brushing aside a lot of its nuance. Michael made a similar argument about the content of “Battle for Brooklyn” above, which I think was an entirely fair and warranted response. In either case, intention should not be the means by which we render judgments alone.

    September 9th, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  8. michael says:

    Mr. Szabla,
    You make a lot of rhetorical arguments that really don’t hold up. If you look at the plan that the community came up with- after several charettes- with a wide range of poeple- and led by local politicians- you’ll find dense residentail development that didn’t involve the seizure of homes and businesses- and didn’t require a wholesale ignoring of zoning laws and practices.

    It is completely disingenuous to say that the people fighting the way the project was pushed through didn’t care about the idea of creating jobs- or lower income people- that was the narrative that Ratner pushed- but it doesn’t hold up to the smell test. Do you honestly believe that Ratner cared more about the outlying communities than his bottom line???. They were simply asking realistic questions about the effectiveness of the ratner plan to create them- and lo and behold they were right. there are very few jobs. There were other ways to build there- but the power structure woouldn’t consider them.

    Large scale developments sow division not only because of displacement but also due to disenfranchisment.

    September 9th, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  9. C. Szabla says:

    Hi Michael — I’m familiar with the fact that there were alternative proposals for the site. It’s very likely some would have made much more sense. There seems to have been enough land — and profit potential — to have proceeded without seizing the non-railyard blocks by eminent domain. It’s highly evident to me that Ratner was far from motivated by altruism. And I’m actually concerned with how “the narrative” he constructed was taken so seriously by many, not with pushing it myself.

    This piece was never meant to criticize those fighting eminent domain — people are justified in wanting to defend their homes — although I felt obligated to note, as did Norman Oder, how money blurred seemingly clear moral boundaries in that battle. Nor do I mean to suggest that all activists involved in the Atlantic Yards fight ignored the jobs issue and other potential benefits of the project, given that they did collaborate to create alternative schemes — a point that is, admittedly, not so obvious above.

    I’m not sure the alternative proposals would have wholly allayed the concerns of those who primarily chastised Atlantic Yards for being out of character with Brooklyn, though. Battles over scale in urban areas rarely come down to limiting a developer to zoning laws — frequently, “as of right” is still too big or too high for anti-development activists. And scaling down the project substantially would have inevitably canceled out what promise it does have.

    September 9th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

  10. michael says:

    My problem with your piece is that it gives way too much creedence to the narrative that Ratner created. For instance- in your last note you refer to the people fighting the project as anti-development activists. It’s a total mis-representation taken directly from the ratner script. You write that scaling it down significantly would have canceled out any benefits- but fail to recognize that when talking about benefits one needs to also discuss impacts- and any discussion of impacts was characterized at anti-development- a catch 22 that you play into with your whole piece.

    I also don’t know that it’s fair to insinuate that money blurred moral boundaries for Daniel, as you imply above. At the beginning when almost everyone sold out- I don’t think the issues or the people were as clear. At the time that Daniel settled he was at an EVICTION hearing. He no longer owned the property and at that point he really had no standing to stop the project by staying in his home. He was being EVICTED. He could have chosen to take less than what he paid for and stay for a few more weeks- then spend months fighting in court to get fair market value- or he could get the fair market value and leave a few weeks earlier- I don’t believe that there is any blurriness in that choice.

    The characterization that those fighting the project were unreasonable as a group is simply not a fair one. Sure there were some people were fighting about the character above all else- but I think the argument was more about community involvement. Ratner and his million dollar a year PR machine spun it that those opposed to the process were only concerned with how high the buildings were- and they couldn’t care less about the people who wanted jobs and housing. However, that’s an absurd assertion. If you ever spent any time at the endless community meetings you would have seen that this wasn’t the case at all. YES there were concerns about size, character, subsidies, etc- and there are forums at which these were discussed- however, none of these forums had any means to actually impact the process. That fact alone is enough to make any concerned citizen or elected official a little crazy- So when writers who weren’t involved- make conjectures about motive – and moral bluriness- about people they haven’t observed or interacted with- well they get a little testy- as you can see in the response to your piece.

    If you are interested in seeing Battle for Brooklyn for yourself it will be back at Brooklyn Heights Cinema in a few weeks- the one print is on its way to Cleveland right now.

    September 9th, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  11. C. Szabla says:

    Hi again Michael. It seems that, at this point, you are really aiming your criticism more broadly — at media representations of the project as a whole. The characterizations you speak of are omnipresent. I’m not sure we can ever determine the extent to which Ratner’s PR money is responsible for this; the press has given him mixed reviews while using the same terminology for his opponents, and I think the media tends to cast participants in development fights in these roles whenever it reports on them.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for a writer to be an outsider to the process — there are reasons to distrust the accounts of interested parties, too. I do want to repeat that I did not intend to cast all the activists involved in the same mould. I would try to emphasize their differences more emphatically if I could write this piece again; I think it actually reinforces my thesis about the multiplicity of opinions about the project.

    One more thing — I don’t want to give the impression that I was singling out Daniel with my comments about payoffs on eminent domain. I was writing primarily about those who “sold out at the beginning”. Norman’s review of your film points to the payment to Daniel — maybe you were confusing this piece with his.

    September 9th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

  12. Daniel Goldstein says:

    you wrote:

    “But there seems to have been limited willingness to take seriously the hopes of people in less affluent parts of Brooklyn (and New York as a whole) that they might enjoy the project’s economic effects. Instead, the argument has been that those benefits were illusory. ”

    The first sentence, as Mike goes in to, is drivel. The second sentence is absolutely true, the benefits are and were illusory and we said so and still say so. The need for jobs and housing was taken very seriously by the opposition. To say otherwise just bears no relation to the facts of what transpired.

    you wrote: “There is a sense in which that contention is absolutely correct — as you point out, arenas are not the most optimal economic engines — but that did not mean arguments about the potential benefits of the project as a whole had absolutely no merit whatsoever.”

    Arenas aren’t just not optimal economic engines, they are not economic engines, period.

    When weighed agains the subversion of common democratic process and the override of all local laws and the future impacts, and the cost per job created, that is correct, there are no merits to this project. It is the least effective way to develop the yards and create economic opportunities. One has to wonder very deeply that if the project was so awesome and meritorious why did it purposefully bypass all meaningful political and community scrutiny?

    You wrote:
    “The other part, discussed above, is the unwillingness to admit that the argued-for preservation of the surrounding neighborhoods’ “character” would facilitate the gentrification occurring in those areas independent of the project — a process directly benefitting those who own property there.”

    If you really think that the opposition was motivated by protection property values, we are just never going to agree on much. Nothing could be further from the truth. And the Ratner project, as Charles Barron famously said is “instant gentrification.”

    Finally, just on a matter of fact. You wrote:

    “I don’t think it’s a misrepresentation to note that most of the land over which Atlantic Yards will be developed consists of railyards”

    This is just not true. The rail yards are 8 acres of the 22 acre Atlantic Yards site. That is not most, that is 36%.

    September 9th, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  13. C. Szabla says:

    Daniel — thanks again for your comments. I think it might help to step back and realize you are really not arguing with someone attempting to promote the project. I would never claim Atlantic Yards is “awesome and meritorious,” and have said much to that effect here. Nor do I have any doubts about Ratner’s ravenous profit motive. Neither this nor the allegations of corruption that have haunted the project are something I ranted about at length above because I didn’t think they were especially necessary positions to prove at this juncture — that’s a job that’s been done already. This isn’t an advocacy piece; it’s an essay about how simple binaries can’t fully describe complex urban redevelopment schemes.

    Michael made valid points about opposition input on alternative plans that I should have incorporated above, because it would have actually gone to my intended point about the complexity of the fight more effectively. It’s clear the project’s opposition are not a unified bloc and that these plans would not have satisfied everyone. And it’s this contingent — those who are mostly concerned about scale, and the activists who have railed about the effects of the project without addressing other instigators of gentrification in the neighborhood — that I’ve singled out here.

    I don’t think it’s relevant whether nearby land owners are actively scheming to increase their property values, whether this is a motivation of which they’re not conscious, or whether it’s merely an unintended (and not fully thought out) consequence of preserving the “character” of the neighborhood, the effect — pressure on prices as a result of low supply and high demand — is the same.

    I can’t argue with you about the acreage of the railyards. You’re right that they comprise a little over a third of the site when you look at the numbers — still “much” of the site, as I originally wrote above, although not “most,” which I later wrote in a comment (only after looking at the map on No Land Grab). Of course, the surrounding blocks also include(d) industrial space that made similarly limited use of an otherwise built up part of Brooklyn. I can understand why this is a point of contention given that “blight” and emptiness were points used to justify eminent domain, but the formulation of the alternative plans point to a concession that much of the site was underutilized.

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:46 pm

  14. Daniel Goldstein says:

    “I can understand why this is a point of contention given that “blight” and emptiness were points used to justify eminent domain, but the formulation of the alternative plans point to a concession that much of the site was underutilized.”

    no, the alternative plans were only for the rail yards, plans that allowed private property owners to develop their own properties rather than hand delivering them monopoly style to Forest City Ratner. The way to create more density throughout the Atlantic Yards site drawn up by Forest City Ratner would have been to rezone the area, not turn it all over to one entity. But that wouldn’t have benefited Forest City.

    “This isn’t an advocacy piece; it’s an essay about how simple binaries can’t fully describe complex urban redevelopment schemes.”

    Simple binaries cannot, you are correct. And I don’t think they have even in this case.

    I am truly interested to know if you have watched the film which you seem to be using a a jumping off point to make the above point. Because it is difficult to understand how, after watching the film, the takeaway from watching Battle for you is that somehow this wasn’t a complex situation.

    September 9th, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  15. Bobbo says:

    You’ll never win with these three. They’re all obsessed with their own situation. Bottom line: they lost and the city is better for it.

    Your piece is one of the few to pursue this controversy beyond the confines of the eminent domain debate, which is over for this property.

    Of course, much of the project is over the railyards. They would prefer to manipulate “much” into “most”. It’s part of their deeply dishonest and often semantic attempt to write and rewrite the history of the project.

    And there was minimal displacement. Goldstein has claimed 400 people were displaced. What he doesn’t say is that after the initial buyouts, which were quite lucrative for those “displaced”, the number of people living in the footprint numbered around 35…on 22 acres.

    The arena will be a cultural as well as a sports attraction…and as anyone who’s attended a Yankees Mets game at the stadium can tell you, sports should be included under the rubric of culture. Just because the NIMBY hipsters don’t appreciate the events that will be booked there doesn’t make them any less relevant to the life of the city.

    September 10th, 2011 at 9:39 am

  16. Norman Oder says:

    Bobbo, who’s too chicken to sign his name (but is NetsDaily’s chief propagandist), writes:

    “Of course, much of the project is over the railyards. They would prefer to manipulate ‘much’ into ‘most.’ It’s part of their deeply dishonest and often semantic attempt to write and rewrite the history of the project.”

    Actually, Forest City Ratner does that pretty well on its own.

    Here’s what the official web site says:
    http://www.atlanticyards.com/faq
    “Where is Atlantic Yards?
    The development will be located at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, bounded by 4th Avenue, Pacific and Dean Streets and Vanderbilt Avenue, primarily situated over the MTA/LIRR’s Vanderbilt Yards.”

    As for whether “the city is better for it,” the NYC Independent Budget Office, which has done a lot of work analyzing the numbers–and shows its work, and signs its name–says the arena would be a loss for the city.

    September 11th, 2011 at 6:19 am

  17. Norman Oder says:

    By the way, Forest City Ratner in this early flier said the project would be built “over the 19th century train yard.”
    http://www.dddb.net/times/flier2.gif

    If you’d like to critique some other Atlantic Yards-related photos, take a look at:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2006/04/current-conditions-dont-trust-photos.html
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2006/04/deplascos-back-on-his-spin-game-with.html

    September 11th, 2011 at 6:35 am

  18. Steven says:

    Mr. Oder, you know for a fact that Bobbo is from NetsDaily? If not, I find it highly unprofessional to accuse someone of being someone they may or may not be. And then to accuse them of being a propagandist and a “chicken” (what are we, in grade school?) is something else entirely.

    Either way, I feel Bobbo has hit the nail on the head. I applaud the critics for continuing their battle, though. It is nice to see that there are people out there who are so resilient even in fighting a losing battle.

    September 11th, 2011 at 9:28 am

  19. Norman Oder says:

    Yeah, I do.

    “Chicken” means he’s afraid to sign his name.

    September 11th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

  20. Tal Barzilai says:

    Christopher, from time and time again, the media has spun Ratner’s project as a good thing, and denied what was really going on, not to mention giving misinformation that supported him. The reason I have always opposed this project and continue to do so is mainly because of the fact that this is a project that involves the abuse of eminent domain and corporate welfare, which is the main reason. Other reasons is because of backroom and shady deals that were made. Ratner has a history of making promise to locals and then breaking them in the end. He has done this with Metro Tech Center, and he is doing the exact same thing here. I find it wrong to act as if those who oppose this are considered anti-developement or against giving housing and jobs to others, because they have never said that. Keep in mind that they supported Garry Barnett of Extell Developement, who actually worked with them and offered triple the bid Ratner gave for rail yards, but still lost despite that. Daniel had never signed any gag order and is still going up against this, and I have seen him at recent events involving this issue and speaking out even after he left his place, so it’s not as if he just left it entirely. The money he got was nothing but chump change when you compare it to what Ratner’s CEOs make. Nobody considered him a sellout, only hard core supporters, but that was because they were always making personal attacks at him just for his stance. In the end, Ratner does not care about fans, the Nets, Brooklyn, communities, local/small businesses, or anyone else that gets hurt by this. All he cares about is the money he makes off of this and nothing more. One other thing, if you have heard of the EB-5 Program, it’s more likely that a bunch of Chinesse will be getting the jobs before any locals do. If he really cares about Brooklyn so much, then why does he constantly destroy it so much only to build what he wants there like he did with Metro Tech Center? Anytime he meets with local groups, that he personally funds, it’s really for PR purposes and photo-ops, otherwise he would never care for them. They are only important to him when they are needed to help him push the project. Please see that film if you haven’t already, because a lot of this is mentioned there.

    September 12th, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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