Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New York mag on the Ebbets Field fantasy (and a glimmer of hope?)

Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play first savaged the relevance of Dodgers nostalgia in the context of the Atlantic Yards saga, but now Sam Anderson, in New York magazine, offers a broader look, in a long article headlined Exorcising the Dodgers, with the subtitle, "50 years ago, the Dodgers left Ebbets Field for Los Angeles. Isn’t it time their ghosts left, too?"

The article suggests some good reason to be skeptical of the myth of Dodgers redux, though it offers some reason for hope, albeit based on a rather small sample.

Civic center?

It takes a while for Anderson to get to Atlantic Yards:

The most obvious (and calculated) candidate to replace Ebbets is the massive Atlantic Yards project, the $4.2 billion, sixteen-tower, 6,400-unit Gehry-designed commercial-residential-office complex that will redefine Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, ramp up gentrification, and (pretty much incidentally) be home to basketball’s Nets. Depending on whom you talk to, this is either Brooklyn’s long-awaited salvation—a Second Temple to atone for the destruction of Ebbets—or the most cynical use of a sports team ever, the worst thing to happen to Brooklyn since the Dodgers left. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the development will draw the surrounding neighborhoods together, giving modern Brooklyn the civic center it so clearly lacks, or whether it will just act as a gigantic crinkly metal wall.

(The rendering above was produced by the Environmental Simulation Center for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and subsequently adapted to emphasize Newswalk. A few buildings have since been cut in height.)

The development, as currently planned, likely would not draw the surrounding neighborhoods together, given the superblock design and open space behind buildings, as BrooklynSpeaks has pointed out. It's hard to say that better-designed open space could compensate for the bulk of the buildings.

As for a civic center, that's a stretch. The arena might indeed be better than some other urban arenas--but it's an arena, a place for crowd surges, not a civic center. A quarter-acre "Main Lawn" would hardly be a magnet, especially compared to Prospect Park, if not a civic center than at least a 526-acre oasis.

The Urban Room (right) might be a worthy aboveground entrance to the subway and gathering place. (Something civic should go at that tip of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, right?) Then again, it might be too windy or be more of an arena lobby than anything. (It's supposed to contain ticket windows, a team store, entrances to the hotel, office space, and transit hub, as well as restaurants, cafes, and gathering spaces.)

As for gentrification, that issue gets dicey. We need density to increase housing, and density near a transit hub is a good idea. We need housing for a wide range of incomes. But how exactly was a project of this size and this configuration arrived at, and who's paying for what?

Metaphorical issues

Anderson continues, regarding AY:
But as a metaphor, it’s the exact opposite of Ebbets. Ebbets was a tiny, neighborhood-uniting orthodox baseball temple that was built, in less than a year, on an old dump crisscrossed by goat paths. Atlantic Yards is a huge, neighborhood-raping megadevelopment, pinned between two of its developer’s own malls, that violates every design principle of the borough’s small-scale, organic history. Construction is scheduled to take ten years. It is pure real estate, with sports as a footnote. The Nets haven’t grown, like the Dodgers did, directly out of the Brooklyn soil—they’ll be transplants, a squad of mercenaries paid to sell the neighborhood’s new regime. It’s hard to envision the natives finally bonding with the gentrifying hordes over $50 seats at a Nets game. (Bruce Ratner has skillfully scrambled the racial politics of the project, enlisting—some say buying—widespread black support and casting opponents as selfish gentrifiers.) Atlantic Yards is Dodgers nostalgia run amok: New Brooklyn getting rich on the dying myth of Old Brooklyn—a supposed tribute to the borough that may well end up defacing the Brooklyn it’s pretending to honor. The Nets are less a karmic reversal of the Dodgers tragedy than its logical conclusion. O’Malley ruined the borough by leaving; Ratner will ruin it by moving in.

And that's where Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) ended its excerpt, saying "we can't recall having ever seen a better summary of what 'Atlantic Yards' is all about."

Actually, AY wouldn't exactly be "pinned between two of its developer's own malls" so much as twinned, across Atlantic Avenue.

Community building

But there was more to the article, with a nod, at least, to the redemptive power of sports and a reflection on how the Dodgers were the common topic of conversation. (Could a Brooklyn hoops team occupy the same role in the 21st century?) Anderson continues:

Ironically, in terms of community building, Atlantic Yards has already been a rousing, unintentional success, even in its infancy—it’s become Brooklyn’s best excuse for daily conversation in decades. It’s the anti-Dodgers, bringing people together in anger. And it looks like it will provide the borough with a basis for outraged chitchat for at least as long as the Dodgers dominated the National League.

But sports, recent history has taught us, can transcend even the deepest cynicism—which is why it’s such a powerful tool for professional cynics. The Mets, for instance, were created and marketed in the early sixties as the shadow Dodgers... By 1969, many old Dodger fans—including even the jaded Rabbi [Paul] Kushner—were cheering on the Mets’ underdog championship run.

I asked Kushner, after his lament about the soullessness of corporate sports, what he thought about the idea of the Brooklyn Nets—surely one of the more brazenly corporate exploitations of a fan base in the history of corporate exploitation, a second dose of O’Malleyism on his home soil. But very suddenly, I found that I was the only cynic at the table: Kushner’s nationalism trumped his reason.

“It all depends on one thing,” he answered, “and one thing only. If they call themselves the New York Nets, I couldn’t care less. If they call themselves the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll go to their games. Then they’re my team. For the first time in my life, I’ll become a basketball fan.”


So the Nets might have a shot, if you take it from a 70-year-old who lives in Bellmore, Long Island and earlier in the article declared, "The Brooklyn that I know and loved isn’t there anymore."

But Kushner's a bit out of touch; there was no chance the team would be called the New York Nets; the question is whether the Brooklyn team would be called the Nets at all, as originally promised; a name change is under discussion.

Marty and the "same site" dodge

Unmentioned, oddly enough, in the article is Borough President Marty Markowitz's fierce nostalgia for the Dodgers, welling up at the project announcement on 12/10/03: "I just--you don’t know what this little boy, at 12 years old, crying like a baby, I lived on Empire Boulevard and Brooklyn Avenue, a few blocks from Ebbets Field, like a baby—and those tears of joy are swelling up in me, I just can’t wait.”

Also unmentioned is the "same site" dodge, in which Atlantic Yards is declared to be the second coming of Ebbets Field. This is more the product of press lapses than of developer deception; Forest City Ratner has used the term "same area," while some reporters used the term "same site." And the New York Times has not published a correction.

Ending at Ebbets

Anderson ends his visit at the monolithic (but affordable) Ebbets Field Houses in Crown Heights, where he finds a working-class black population generally uninterested in nostalgia, or brotherhood, and a subway ride that shows Brooklyn re-gentrifying stop by stop.

It's worth remembering that, in the hard-fought 57th Assembly District race last September, when Atlantic Yards moderate Hakeem Jeffries beat project opponent Bill Batson, the latter acknowledged, "He must have met every voter in the Ebbets Field houses.”

Those voters, in the southeast segment of the district, probably didn't care that much about Atlantic Yards as a symbol or savior or neighborhood-mangling spaceship; the issues for them, more likely, were workaday issues of jobs and housing and education.

3 comments:

  1. Develop Don’t Destroy Is The New Robert Moses

    On a sultry August day on the porch of Gracie Mansion in 1955 there was a show down between Robert Moses and the great Walter O’Malley. On that day the Brooklyn Dodgers and the sad corner of Flatbush and Atlantic were left to their ignoble fates.


    The scare tactics of Develop Don't Desroy and other misguided blogs like this one are detrimental to a real discourse of how Brooklyn can and will grow.
    The eyesore of the Atlantic Yards
    will be developed and will be a great addition to the borough.

    Brooklyn suffered from the first time a sports arena was proposed for the site and blocked. Walter O’Malley tried to build a stadium there designed by Buckminster Fuller which would have kept the Dodgers in Brooklyn. It was blocked by Robert Moses and has remained a blight ever since.
    Now there is an opportunity for an arena, shopping and housing to be designed by one of America’s better architects.
    The anti Atlantic Yards blogs claim this isn’t true well…
    The only thing that isn’t true is the actual footprints are slightly different. Their claims are lame, disingenuous and desparate.

    Brooklyn like all of New York is going to grow and no amount of caterwauling by self important ludites is going to stop it.
    It is a real disappointment to see the anti Atlantic Yards video posted by a business like Mary Kay Gallagher Real Estate on Living In Victorian Flatbush.

    http://onaperegrine.blogspot.com/

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  2. More on Moses and O'Malley--and the fact that there was little political support for O'Malley--here:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2007/03/moses-to-omalley-1953-urban-renewal.html

    Um, that would be Luddites, not ludites.

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  3. Thanks Norman, I was wondering why MSWord spellchecker couldn't find the word.
    I seem to have an uncanny ability to stump spellchecker.
    Non the less Atlantic Yards needs to be developed. This opportunity shold not be lost again.

    ReplyDelete