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The Times's race story: Caldwell, Lewis careful, Law says DDDB could do more

So here's the news from the Times's article today on the intersection of race and Atlantic Yards: BUILD CEO James Caldwell and ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis have backed off some racially inflammatory statements, and Forest City Ratner remains closemouthed about such statements.

Here's what's not new but was important to repeat: most of the affordable housing wouldn't be available to average Brooklynites; the project would be located (useful Times graphic at right) at a crossroads of race and class; and concerns about environmental impact are most acute among those closest to the project.

Also, black opponents of the project think race was used as window-dressing and some of those opponents think that the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) coalition should have reached out more to black allies.

Here's some of what's missing: a fuller acknowledgement of the race-baiting that went on during the August 23 public hearing on the project and an acknowledgement that a recent poll--which the Times found more credible than I did--found blacks actually opposed the project slightly more than whites did. Also worth mentioning would have been the debate as expressed in the black-oriented Our Time Press, in which columnist Errol Louis has regularly endorsed Atlantic Yards (and denounced opponents), but cofounder Bernice Elizabeth Greene has criticized the project.

Leading off

The article, headlined Perspectives on the Atlantic Yards Development Through the Prism of Race, begins:
It was the first of three public hearings on the $4.2 billion Atlantic Yards development, and Umar Jordan, a 51-year-old resident of Bushwick, Brooklyn, strode to the front of the auditorium and offered a vigorous defense of the proposal. “I’m here to speak for the underprivileged, the people that don’t get the opportunity to work, the brothers that just came over out of prison,” he said.
Those who opposed the plan, he said, were not true Brooklynites. Their concerns about traffic and noise were trivial. And stopping the project would force “young black men” into a life of crime. “I suggest you go back up to Pleasantville,” he concluded.


It was the first of three public meetings; this was the only public hearing, while the two subsequent meetings were community forums. Also, Jordan's remark came after a resident of suburban Pleasantville--an anomaly among project opponents, who mostly live close to the site--had spoken. (The reporter on this article wasn't there.)

No color line?

The Times suggests:
But a closer look at the coalitions lined up for and against the project, and the arguments they have mustered, suggests that Atlantic Yards has drawn no true color line in Brooklyn, but only a blur of intersecting agendas, opinions and constituencies, both black and white.

That's not untrue, but it is fair to say that the bulk of the supporters--other than union members--at public hearings are black, and that the bulk of the opponents are white.

And two intervening factors (acknowledged in the Times) are class and the payments that have been made to several signatories of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement.

The article states:
When pressed, nearly all of those involved in the debate played down the suggestion that opinion on Atlantic Yards cleaves to any purely racial contour. They point out that the project’s leading political booster, Borough President Marty Markowitz, is white, and its leading opponent, Councilwoman Letitia James, is black. In neighborhoods around the project site, they say, the pressures of class and gentrification have been as potent as race.
“Some of my friends are in the opposition, and they’re blacker than I am,” said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a supporter and well-known Brooklyn pastor. “It ain’t a straight race question.”


That's true, but Daughtry at the public hearing was portraying the project as a landmark in inclusion. Assemblyman Roger Green called it a "coalition of conscience" and invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Housing: a closer look

The Times reports:
[Council Member Charles] Barron also calls the project “instant gentrification,” a view shared by many opponents.
Atlantic Yards would include a substantial portion of subsidized housing for families at different income levels; but only about one-seventh of the project’s roughly 6,500 housing units would be classified as affordable for tenants making less than half of the median income for the New York City area.


In other words, Barron is right and the numbers are stark.

About that poll

The article states:
Most recent public polls about the project show supporters outnumbering opponents. But those polls have generally been too small to reliably measure sentiment among specific ethnic or racial groups in Brooklyn or the city as a whole.

There's only been one recent poll announced publicly. (Is there some other poll of the public that hasn't been made public?) If the Times is going to treat it as reliable, the racial breakdown should be acknowledged.

Also, the Times states:
Though Brooklyn as a whole has been losing white residents for decades, the number living near the project site — in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights — has grown steadily in recent years, according to census data.


Actually, as the Brooklyn Papers recently reported, Brooklyn from 2004 to 2005 experienced an increase in white residents and a decrease in black residents.

Backing off

The Times reports:
In interviews, activists on both sides said they believed support and opposition cut across racial and class lines.
But some in the debate previously expressed less benign views. Last year, James E. Caldwell, who heads Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, a job-training group known as Build, said it would be a “conspiracy against blacks” if Forest City did not win its bid for rights to build over the railyards on the site. Bertha Lewis, the New York executive director of Acorn, a national advocacy group for low-income people, attributed concern over the project to “white liberals.”
Interviewed recently, both Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Lewis backed away from those remarks. “Everybody said crazy things on both sides,” Ms. Lewis said. “I’ve apologized to folks and folks have apologized to me.”


At a forum 2/28/06, Lewis said the issue was "about black and brown people in Central Brooklyn" and charged Atlantic Yards opponents with displacing people in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning.

The Times also mentions the "wealthy white masters" email from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein:
“Interestingly enough, the African-American leaders who have supported us, or who we have worked with, every single one I spoke to said, ‘Sorry about what happened, you didn’t really say anything wrong, but you weren’t the person to say it,’ ” Mr. Goldstein said.


Black opposition?


The article closes:
Opponents of the project say they had to fight against a perception that black Brooklynites tend to favor the project. Ms. James said that because black opponents of the project were likely to be less well-off, “they just don’t have the luxury of going to these meetings and reading 2,000-page documents.”
Others, however, suggest that the main anti-Yards organizations — their manpower, energy and funds provided largely by white members — have not reached out effectively to the older, more established network of black community activists.
“The problem that whites who are organizing are having, groups like Develop Don’t Destroy, is that they really are a one-issue organization,” said Bob Law, a radio program host and business owner who is a member of Develop Don’t Destroy’s advisory board.
Mr. Law does not spare Forest City. He said that the developer tried to “inject race” into the debate, urging its surrogates to cast whites as solely concerned with traffic and building height, and black residents as interested in basketball, housing and jobs.
But the leading opponents of the project, Mr. Law said, “are only concerned with the project, so they play into Ratner’s hands.”


Law has a point. The issues raised--affordable housing, neighborhood planning, eminent domain--inevitably connect to larger issues in Brooklyn. (The developer's surrogates may claim that opponents care mainly about traffic and scale--legitimate questions--but many are also concerned about larger issues of democratic process, which suggests they're not "only concerned with the project.")

At the DDDB rally 7/16/06, Law said, “Don’t let this be the only issue you organize around. Take advantage of that. Make this a permanent movement. Let DDDB be a significant organization, not a one-issue organization.”

Though DDDB could do more to reach out, it's hard to judge how much--it faces a significant challenge in money and manpower trying to keep up with the Atlantic Yards project. And some of the more established civic groups that are part of the coalition, such as the Fort Greene Association and the Fifth Avenue Committee, have long played a wider role in neighborhood debates and revitalization.

Charges of being concerned only with the project could apply just as well to Forest City Ratner and some AY supporters. The developer portrays the project as a milestone in bringing affordable housing to Downtown Brooklyn (or near Downtown Brooklyn). But the developer hasn't lobbied those interested in Atlantic Yards housing to reform the 421-a tax break--a change in governmental policy that would provide much more affordable housing.

And ACORN's Lewis has stressed, "I can't do environment" and thus try to evaluate anything beyond the affordable housing component of AY.

AY: how big?

The article states:
Like Mr. Jordan, many of the most fervent supporters of Atlantic Yards present the project as a beacon of hope for black residents of areas near the proposed 8.7-million-square-foot project.

8.7 million square feet? That's what was proposed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but the Times has reported prominently on a proposal to reduce the project by six to eight percent, the City Planning Commission's recommendation of an eight percent cut (to 8 million square feet), and the developer's acceptance of that "precooked" recommendation.

If that proposed cut was such a scoop that the Times made it the 9/5/06 lead story, shouldn't the cut, as accepted, be part of the current square footage projected for AY?

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