Skip to main content

The “Footprints” controversy: omission of work less disturbing than lack of captions

I found the newly re-mounted “Brooklyn Footprints” exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library dismaying, but not so much because the library rejected some politically-charged pieces and claimed, disingenously, “Our interest in this exhibition is in documentation, not advocacy.”

(The New York Observer broke the censorship story, which has been followed up by NoLandGrab, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and the Brooklyn Paper, among others. Is it censorship? Probably in part.)

Even more disturbingly, the library exhibition lacks footnotes that link the artwork to the inevitable political context regarding the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint. There are no descriptive captions, so the “documentation” is quite sketchy. For the relatively few who can see more into the photos, drawings, and paintings, that’s not a problem; for everyone else, it is.

Even for those of us in the know, Conor McGrady’s drawing (right) seems oblique. In a caption, he contends: “These drawings refer to the removal process at the core of the Atlantic Yards re-development."

When I first saw the exhibition in October, I commented that “some of the documentation available on the web site had not made it to the gallery walls.” That was less a problem, because at least visitors received a postcard pointing them to the Footprints web site, which contains links to informational and advocacy sites about Atlantic Yards. (Update: I'm told the postcards were available on opening night Tuesday. When I visited Wednesday, they weren't there.)

At the library, there are no links, and even the capsule description--"the redevelopment of Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards"--is inaccurate, since Atlantic Yards is a development project, not a place. (That was in the original description, actually.)

(Update: I should acknowledge that, whatever my criticisms, the show is worth a visit and surely will be seen by far more Brooklynites than in its previous incarnation.)

An unidentified architect

The exhibit includes Keri Friedman’s photos, but not her text, which states that 13 acres of the footprint “will require the demolition of four thriving Brooklyn city blocks.”

We see a Friedman photo of a man named Marshall Brown, but no explanation--and that's not even on the web site--that he’s the architect behind the alternative UNITY plan for the railyards. He's a visible rebuke to the charge that Atlantic Yards would serve the interests of black Brooklynites.

A 65-year resident

Belle Benfield’s portrait of Victoria (Mary) Harmon gets the pride of place in the exhibit, flanking the opening panel of text, but doesn’t explain, as it does on the web site, that Harmon “has lived in her apartment on Pacific Street since 1942.”

That might lead viewers to further investigation and the conclusion that Harmon is alarmed by the prospect of leaving her longstanding home. Indeed, the 87-year-old told the Village Voice last August, "What do you think? I want to go out at this age? Where? I don't know nobody. Here I know everybody."

Generations of families

We see several photographs by Nura Qureshi, but not the caption that states: “These images document residents of 810/812 Pacific Street who are directly threatened by the 'Atlantic Yards' redevelopment project. By narrowing my focus to this corner of the Footprint I hoped to obtain an intimate view of these families, some of whom have been here for generations, and to create their lasting portraits.”

Her portrait of the Santiago family is another response to the notion that those exercised by Atlantic Yards are “antidevelopment yuppies.”

Walk, Don't...???

Amy Greer took several photos of a “Walk Don’t Destroy Fundraiser” for the show, but they were winnowed to one for the library version, which shows a group of people clapping, without any explanation,

One of Greer's photos includes this caption, "'Walk Don't Destroy’ was a fundraiser and rally for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn held in the footprint on November 13, 2005. The event had more than 400 participants and raised over $50,000.” The rejected photo at right certainly shows that activism. [An earlier version of this post had the wrong photo.]

Another caption adds, “Amy Greer has lived across the street from Atlantic Yards for seven years, and has been documenting and participating in the fight against the Atlantic Yards proposal for the last three.” (Greer contributes to NoLandGrab, which juxtaposed three photos.)

By excising such photos (the library’s indefensible censorship decision) and failing to include captions or even links to them (I’m not sure who’s responsible), the enormous political battle over Atlantic Yards is muted. Moreover, the failure to show photos of collective action suggests that the footprint is populated only by individuals rather than people organized for a cause.

Censorship charges

The deletions that have drawn the most criticism were Donald O’Finn’s portrayal of the arena as a toilet bowl and a large portrait (right) of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein. Footprints co-organizer Dan Sagarin said that the two "I believe were left out because of their overtly political nature, and the library’s desire to remain neutral on a politically charged local issue."

The library wouldn’t answer questions about specifics. Giving the library the benefit of the doubt, the omission of the large Goldstein portrait—“We also had to take into account space constraints,” the library said--might be defended as a judgment call. After all, a smaller photo of Goldstein—wearing a DDDB t-shirt—does appear in the show, while the excluded portrait has no overt political valence.

Then again, Goldstein is the most visible opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, and the lead plaintiff in a pending eminent domain challenge. Had Goldstein’s portrait been accompanied by Sarah Sagarin’s caption, the exclusion decision would have been more clearly political. The caption states, “Daniel Goldstein is an activist opposing the 'Atlantic Yards' project. He is a resident of the 'Footprint,' spokesperson for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and will be one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against eminent domain–government's seizure of private property.”

But I doubt the caption would’ve been included anyhow.

About the toilet

As for O’Finn’s aggressively satirical work, maybe the exlusion is censorship, maybe it's not. Perhaps someone at the library thought that the toilet bowl in the library’s main hall, trafficked by numerous families, some with conservative social mores, was unwise.

(Were the exhibit in set-aside gallery space, the library could post a warning that some material might not be appropriate for kids. Edgy material inside the covers of a book is different from edgy material on view to all, as I've learned in writing about libraries as an editor at Library Journal. Or is a commonplace toilet less edgy than its political meaning?)

But the failure to defend the exclusion decision suggests that it was political, especially since O'Finn's work is one of the few that doesn't need a caption. And the work, now on view at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, which O’Finn manages, is actually quite small. Freddy's, which is threatened with demolition via eminent domain and which is an eminent domain plaintiff, will have an opening next Thursday with more excluded work, dubbing it the "Salon des Refusés de las Bibliothèque de Brooklyn."

Donor Ratner?

Is the library particularly cautious because, as DDDB has pointed out, developer Forest City Ratner might be sought as a donor for the long-stalled plan to build a new Visual and Performing Arts Library near the new Atlantic Yards footprint? That’s a plausible assumption: why offend one of the borough’s corporate heavyweights?

“We selected this exhibition because of its relevance to current events in Brooklyn and because it's something that our diverse community cares about,” the library said in a statement. “As a publicly funded, completely non-partisan institution, our exhibitions feature high-quality work that is accessible and relevant to all members of our diverse audience. As a library, we're also a source of information and history - a free, public resource that can tell Brooklyn's story.”

(Update: A reader suggests that, if the library really were concerned about the developer, it wouldn't have mounted the exhibition in the first place.)

More to the story

There’s a lot more to this story. Take this photo by Alice Proujansky. It shows footprint resident David Sheets at Freddy's Bar. The caption, which appears on the web site but not at the library, states that Sheets "lives up the block and usually comes to the bar after work to read the paper and drink a few beers."

[Correction: I initially wrote that another photo of Sheets was included. The online caption for that photo is more pointed, stating, “David Sheets smokes outside of Freddy's Bar. Both the bar and Mr. Sheets’ home will be demolished if the Atlantic Yards development is built.”]

The rest of the story is that Sheets isn’t going out without a fight, since he, like several other people portrayed, is a plaintiff in the eminent domain lawsuit. Similarly, there's Claire Wieting's portrait of Joe Pastore, which “documents a man who’s lived on Dean Street since 1967. If the 'Atlantic Yards' project moves ahead he will be forced out, and his building torn down.” He's also a plaintiff.

Missing information

The frustrations with the exhibit might be crystallized by this photo by Jennifer McCharren of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard from a Pacific Street vantage point. The photo, which includes overgrown weeds and garbage, suggests an element of blight, the state's justification for the project.
But the blight issue is highly contentious, especially since the state punted on the question of who's responsible for maintenance of the railyard's perimeter.

There's another piece of work, not on the Footprints web site, titled "We Still Live Here," which includes the north side of Dean Street east of Sixth Avenue. There are five row houses pictured. The unexplained back story is that a 272-foot tower would replace them, and that some of the homeowners are eminent domain plaintiffs.

There should be a way for people who see this work at the library to get more information. As it stands, the most effective works that document the impact of Atlantic Yards are Jonathan Barkey's photosimulations of the project's astounding scale. They show how documentation may be hard to uncouple from advocacy.


Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…