Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Brutally weird": Errol Louis on CBGB, AY, and the homeless

In the Daily News, columnist Errol Louis has to write tight, sometimes simplistically so. He just doesn't have much space. In his "Commerce and Community" column in the twice-monthly Our Time Press, he's got more column inches, but he usually breaks up his effort into two or even three items.

Louis devotes his latest Our Time Press column (reproduced below, in full) to Atlantic Yards. That allows him to stretch stylistically before he resolves his chords, as always, into a familiar Atlantic Yards song. But he still doesn't bother with much research.

It's quite a performance, notably his mangling of history and his casual dismissal of the question of subsidies. It sure makes you wonder: this is the guy recently honored by the North Star Fund for "help[ing] us to see alternatives that are rooted in our democratic ideals"?

The problem is... hipsters?

Under the headline Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold, Louis begins by citing a speech given by novelist Jason Flores-Williams to some hipsters about the closing of the punk club CBGB, suggesting that parts almost sound as if they were written to the politically-inexperienced opponents of the Atlantic Yards project who are heading toward final defeat in the coming weeks.

[Update: Louis got another fact wrong, and I didn't notice on the first read. Flores-Williams was speaking at the closing of CBGB's Gallery, the annex next door, rather than the flagship club, which closed more recently.]

The problem, Flores-Williams concluded:
Because when you get past the hipster packaging, we’re just yuppies without the cash.

Trivial abstractions

Then Louis takes the opportunity to offer a secondhand lecture about activism:
And the writer put his finger on the heart of a problem facing many activists, including some of the Atlantic Yards opponents: "I question what economic class the subculture comes from these days…Because the first thing you learn in the lower class is that if you don’t stand up and fight, then you get beat down and shut out.

"That if you choose smug [expletive] over passion and sincerity, you get slapped and pushed around.


(The word Louis didn't feel comfortable reproducing was "bullshit.")

"That if you choose trivial abstractions over serious thought and action, then you get marginalized and railroaded.

"Fantasize and identify more with cool magazines and the elitist art world than you do the evicted and dispossessed, then you yourself will be evicted and dispossessed!"

All too true.


All too true? Is Louis saying that the numerous citizens--and three community boards--who did their civic duty by responding to the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement and General Project Plan were choosing trivial abstractions and smug bullshit?

Here's a trivial abstraction from the not-so-hip Park Slope Civic Council: rather than create a neighborhood, the “high-density enclave” of Atlantic Yards would be “a new urban form… more likely analogous to a spaceship landing in a field.”

Is Louis equating the hipsters of the Lower East Side with the burghers of Brownstone Brooklyn, many of whom are not likely to be evicted but would bear the brunt of traffic and noise and overcrowded public facilities? Did he not do enough reading to recognize that the dispossessed are likely to be the people he claims to champion?

The homeless debate

Louis continues:
It reminded me of the many activists who fought so hard to keep a homeless shelter for women and children from being opened on Dean Street in Prospect Heights in 2002-2003. The very same people who were bent on chasing out the most needy and vulnerable people in our midst – women and children – swiftly re-mobilized the moment the Atlantic Yards Project was announced. But now they themselves were in danger of being told to move along.

Either his memory is lousy or he's willfully misrepresenting the facts. It took me a few moments in the clip file to learn that the issue wasn't antipathy toward the homeless, it was concern about how a city agency could slip such a facility into the community without telling anyone. Borough President Marty Markowitz and State Assemblyman Roger Green--both of them now Atlantic Yards champions--were against it. So was the late City Council Member James Davis.

Davis told WNYC:
The community has the right to be a part of the process. You just don’t come in with a city-financed business into a block where people are city taxpayers and ignore their concerns. It just doesn’t work that way. Everyone has a right – especially when there’s city dollars involved – to be a part of the process.

Sound familiar?

Louis was Davis's friend. He should remember. Louis even covered the issue in the 10/10/02 New York Sun. (He misspelled Prospect Heights Action Coalition spokesperson Patti Hagan's last name as "Haagen.") Coverage of such unregulated "handshake hotels" won WNYC radio reporters several awards.

And guess what? The shady operators of the homeless shelter in Prospect Heights got snagged by the state last November. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a $790,000 settlement with three former officials of Praxis Housing Initiative. The settlement funds were returned to Praxis. Former Executive Director Gordon Duggins and President G. Sterling Zinsmeyer were found to have used Praxis funds to create and manage separate and competing for-profit homeless shelters.

Back to AY

Louis writes a few paragraphs about other struggles in Central Brooklyn, then observes:
When the Atlantic Yards issue came along, people naturally looked to the same folks who had spent long years volunteering their time and treasure registering voters, organizing meetings, supporting insurgent political candidates and otherwise trying by any and all means to improve our community.
It is that credibility of those genuine grass-roots leaders, most of whom support the $4.2 billion project, that have convinced a majority of residents to support Atlantic Yards — not any studies about shadows or the exact dollar value of tax subsidies going to the developer. Those abstract arguments carry little weight because ordinary people have figured out, the hard way, whom they can trust in Central Brooklyn, and it turns out not to be a handful of recently-arrived "yuppies without the cash" who are now angry about being displaced.


Louis didn't attend the Atlantic Yards public hearing or community forums, so he didn't notice that the people testifying for the project were mainly from groups that stand to gain financially. Then again, he already wrote a column in which he overlooked the ties of project supporters to the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement.

Shadows would put parks in the dark and preclude solar energy. An assessment of subsidies might help us figure out whether Atlantic Yards is a good deal. Louis calls them "abstract arguments." (Could they even be, in the words of Flores-Williams, "trivial abstractions"?)

Note that, despite Louis's effort to connect struggles in Central Brooklyn with support for the Atlantic Yards project, his view is hardly universal. Our Time Press co-founder Bernice Elizabeth Green called the Atlantic Yards design "a crude joke" and warned that gentrification (as we see it, displacement posing as revitalization-diversity-refinement -- an active discussion throughout the neighborhood) will overflow border-street levees and rush the neighborhoods Tsunami-like.

Brutally weird

Louis concludes:
In the end, opponents must somehow find an answer the question posed by Flores-Williams: "What have you done to make anyone give a [expletive] that you lost your apartment to a stockbroker?"

As noted, the large numbers of people expressing concern about the project--including those who are not diehard opponents and those who are--have been doing much more than expressing fear of displacement.

So Louis's choice of a quote was less relevant as some other lines in Flores-Williams's speech, lines Louis didn't cite.

Flores-Williams asks:
What's it going to take for us to engage?

The answer:
I'm talking about getting brutally weird again.

He just didn't know Errol Louis would take him up on his offer.

Playing the game

Actually, the most relevant quote remains that from August Wilson's Radio Golf:
I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs.

Then again, that kind of thinking led Assemblyman Richard Brodsky to say, "I call on Errol for a little more intellectual rigor."

Louis's column

Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold

Parts of a fascinating article in the current issue of Brooklyn Rail, an arts and culture magazine, almost sound as if they were written to the politically-inexperienced opponents of the Atlantic Yards project who are heading toward final defeat in the coming weeks.

At the end of September, novelist Jason Flores-Williams gave a speech to a group of dejected fans at the closing-night party for CBGB’s, a legendary musical mecca on the Bowery that is slated to be shuttered forever at the end of this month. Brooklyn Rail printed the speech.

Flores-Williams opened by saying he had hoped to summon resistance to the gentrification that threatens to ruin so much of New York City culture by rallying the troops against waves of corporations and yuppies. The writer then identified the problem with such an idea.

"There are no troops to rally," he said. "And if there were troops, we’d have to attack ourselves. Because when you get past the hipster packaging, we’re just yuppies without the cash."

Ouch. Flores-Williams wasn’t done handing out doses of cold, hard political reality, excerpted here with the profanities excised:

"You think it matters to a Dominican which version of Whitey moves into the ’hood? Why should anybody [expletive] care that you can’t afford an apartment in the city? What have you done to make anyone give a [expletive] that you lost your apartment to a stockbroker or your favorite cafe got replaced by a 7-11?"

Flores-Williams also made a point about political style that many young would-be activists should take to heart: "Oh the joy of being around a 35-year-old who acts more smug and sullen than my 12-year-old cousin! Oh the joy of hanging out with a 34-year old who talks constantly about cartoons! Oh the wonder of pretending that the world doesn’t exist outside of our little kickball scene! Oh the fabulousness of sarcasm as we step over a homeless man on our way into the book launch party!"

And the writer put his finger on the heart of a problem facing many activists, including some of the Atlantic Yards opponents: "I question what economic class the subculture comes from these days…Because the first thing you learn in the lower class is that if you don’t stand up and fight, then you get beat down and shut out.

"That if you choose smug [expletive] over passion and sincerity, you get slapped and pushed around.

"That if you choose trivial abstractions over serious thought and action, then you get marginalized and railroaded.

"Fantasize and identify more with cool magazines and the elitist art world than you do the evicted and dispossessed, then you yourself will be evicted and dispossessed!"

All too true.

It reminded me of the many activists who fought so hard to keep a homeless shelter for women and children from being opened on Dean Street in Prospect Heights in 2002-2003. The very same people who were bent on chasing out the most needy and vulnerable people in our midst – women and children – swiftly re-mobilized the moment the Atlantic Yards Project was announced. But now they themselves were in danger of being told to move along.

Many of these same opponents of Atlantic Yards sincerely believe they possess wisdom and facts that should compel the rest of us to agree with them and throw roadblocks in the way of the thousands of desperately-needed jobs and subsidized apartments the project could produce.

These opponents are missing the larger point that Central Brooklyn can only be understood by knowing the many complicated, heartbreaking battles the community has been through over the last 20 years. I’m talking about everything from the fight to block a waste incinerator from being built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to battles for affordable housing, safer streets, a rebuilt Franklin Avenue Shuttle, an end to bank redlining, and a long-running attack on a corrupt local political machine.

Anybody who remembers the rickety, graffiti-covered old Franklin Avenue Shuttle – a place where the son of a friend of mine was once robbed by a thug with a shotgun – knows what kind of chaos and danger many of us have lived through and were fortunate to have survived.

When the Atlantic Yards issue came along, people naturally looked to the same folks who had spent long years volunteering their time and treasure registering voters, organizing meetings, supporting insurgent political candidates and otherwise trying by any and all means to improve our community.

It is that credibility of those genuine grass-roots leaders, most of whom support the $4.2 billion project, that have convinced a majority of residents to support Atlantic Yards — not any studies about shadows or the exact dollar value of tax subsidies going to the developer. Those abstract arguments carry little weight because ordinary people have figured out, the hard way, whom they can trust in Central Brooklyn, and it turns out not to be a handful of recently-arrived "yuppies without the cash" who are now angry about being displaced.

A final round of lawsuits, protests and other final obstacles will take place. But in the end, opponents must somehow find an answer the question posed by Flores-Williams: "What have you done to make anyone give a [expletive] that you lost your apartment to a stockbroker?"

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