Monday, May 07, 2007

What the Village Voice was to the Washington Square battle, the blogs are to Atlantic Yards

The Power Broker, Robert Caro's monumental biography of Robert Moses, oddly omits any mention of Jane Jacobs, now thought of as Moses's polar opposite, and the successful citizen protest against Moses's 1950s attempt to run a highway through Washington Square Park.

But there are lessons from “the battle of Washington Square,” notably the availability of sympathetic and analytical media, as argued by architectural historian Robert Fishman, in a presentation 3/10/06 and a chapter in the new book, Robert Moses and the Modern City.

The Village Voice was key to the battle. Today, blogs serve an similar function in the Atlantic Yards debate, which has gotten spotty coverage in the mainstream press . (I contend that Prospect Heights, not Clinton Hill, is the "bloggiest" neighborhood, mostly because of AY.)

The “battle of Washington Square" was not merely a key point of Moses's career, it was a watershed in New York City history and American urbanism. It was then that what now seem to be Jacobsian commonplaces--the primacy of diverse neighborhoods, an orientation to pedestrians, a reliance on mass transit, and the importance of public space--were articulated.

Moses said cities were created by and for traffic. Activists like Shirley Hayes fought him, and later Jacobs came along to provide a book-length argument for the importance of fine-grained neighborhoods.

The media context

During the battle, as Fishman writes:
The New York Times would cover the story with competence and objectivity, always giving the protesters' side as well as Moses's.

(If the Times managed to cover Atlantic Yards with competence and objectivity, many in Brooklyn would say dayenu.)

Meanwhile, the Village Voice, the nation’s first alternative newspaper, went farther. The Voice made Washington Square a concern, not merely alerting people to Moses's plans but providing a forum to discuss urbanism. Fishman writes:
But the Voice opened its columns and editorial pages to Hayes and her colleagues, not only to publicize rallies but to engage the larger issues raised by the controversy.... the intellectual opposition to Moses that would transform American urbanism.
[Emphasis in original]

Editor Dan Wolf, according to Fishman, introduced the concept of "public space" into the debate and tied to "to the parallel ideals of community, identity, and diversity." He also backed the value of citizen participation, after a Moses aide called Greenwich Village residents "a nuisance" and "an awful bunch of artists."

Wolf wrote: Not only do we applaud Mr. [Stuart] Constable's outspokenness in this matter, but we feel he is right when he says that Villagers are a nuisance. Anyone who joins in community action to preserve local traditions and resources is always a terrible nuisance.

Looking for balance

Fishman ends his essay by granting Moses "a brief attempt at the fairness that he so seldom accorded to others." He notes that "we can only rejoice" that Moses's attempts at expressways in Manhattan was stopped.

Then again, he points out, Moses opponent Lewis Mumford also opposed the displacement of 8000 people in Brooklyn for the Verazzano Narrows Bridge, without which the region could not function today.

The critics, Fishman observes, stopped Moses sufficiently so New York might have a balanced system of transportation. (Well, maybe--the absence of a rail link on the Long Island Expressway is a lasting scar.)

He concludes:
As the metropolitan region outgrows its aging infrastructure and bold new initiatives are called for, a place must be found for Moses as well as his critics.

The Voice and AY

The Voice still has a few formidable writers—investigative reporter Tom Robbins has looked into a deal involving former Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano—but the Voice has been essentially irrelevant to the Atlantic Yards debate. [Note: I originally identified Wayne Barrett instead of Robbins.]

Though contributor Paul Moses has written about the New York Times building that the parent Times Company is building with Forest City Ratner, former Press Clips columnist Sydney Schanberg concentrated on national issues, ignoring the obvious story to write about the New York Times’s difficulty in covering Atlantic Yards. The Press Clips column died after Schanberg's departure. (Coverage of the press has recently been revived.)

And, last December, when the Public Authorities Control Board approved Atlantic Yards after a frenzy of speculation, the Voice not only didn’t cover the decision in print (it did so online), the cover story was about a young woman’s infatuation with… candy.

Mainstream coverage

For news about Atlantic Yards, there is some periodic mainstream coverage, notably from Matthew Schuerman of the New York Observer, who's broken some news (like his Laurie Olin scoop) and has the advantage of the blog The Real Estate for incremental reportage and annotation.

Coverage in the dailies is spotty--the Times offered a few substantial stories last year but since then has too often played catch-up.

In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Paper publishes a steady stream of articles, letters, and editorials--sometimes with a tabloid edge--and the Brooklyn Downtown Star (to which I contribute) offers some detailed articles. Coverage in the Courier-Life chain is more variable, but the paper has substantial space--and their willingness to reprint significant segments of press releases surely adds to the record.

Online coverage and blogs

For the bigger picture, however, online coverage and blogs are crucial. Gotham Gazette and City Limits offer room for sober coverage of general land use issues, occasionally touching on AY. Curbed.com, The Gowanus Lounge, and Brownstoner offer a mix of links, commentary, and discussion, with periodic attention to AY. Daily Gotham touches on AY-related politics periodically and Will James' OnNYTurf has produced some valuable maps.

Looking directly at Atlantic Yards, Jonathan Cohn's BrooklynViews, with an architect's knowledge, has made some crucial points about open space and urban design. Stuart Schrader's Picketing Henry Ford offers an occasional dose of theory. The organization BrooklynSpeaks, though its blog is irregular, has presented some serious critiques of urban design, transportation, and other Atlantic Yards issues.

AY saturation

For saturation coverage of Atlantic Yards, with consistent attention and institutional memory, two blogs are crucial. In this blog, Atlantic Yards Report, I tackle specific aspects of the story, offering extensive reportage, commentary, and analysis.

NoLandGrab, run by Lumi Michelle Rolley (weekdays) and Amy Greer and occasional helpers (weekends) aggregates and comments upon nearly every shred of AY-related text and images. That means articles, press releases, and tangential mentions all get their due. NLG is the definitive Atlantic Yards archive.

Atlantic Yards has even generated its own community photographer, as freelancer Jonathan Barkey has emerged in the past year to shoot protests, press conferences, and events, offering his photographs to bloggers like me.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) offers regular blog-like updates of news and commentary, often relying on AYR and NLG but also offering original content. And DDDB performs the valuable function of posting numerous legal and other documents.

The impact of AY blogging

The Times in April 2006 published an article, headlined A Blogfest Over a Project in Brooklyn that acknowledged "Atlantic Yards may well be the first large-scale urban real estate venture in New York City where opposition has coalesced most visibly in the blogosphere."

Still that article, as I wrote, "casts us bloggers mostly as critics (who also issue "jeers"), not as analysts--with the unlimited space of the web--who regularly point out distortions and deceptions by Forest City Ratner, cite gaps in press coverage (like the decline in the number of jobs promised), and source our conclusions."

Without the blogs, the story wouldn't be advanced, the archive wouldn't exist, and reporters and researchers would have trouble exploring the history of Atlantic Yards. We've provided an alternative to reliance on flawed mainstream coverage. (Who covered the epic hearing Thursday in the lawsuit over the Atlantic Yards environmental review? Nobody from a daily.)

There truly has been impact from Brooklyn blogging--the theme of the second annual Brooklyn Blogfest. The "larger issues" the Voice engaged a half century ago are now addressed online.

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