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What we talk about when we talk about Atlantic Yards (& eminent domain)

It’s hard to talk about Atlantic Yards in public. Relatively few people know enough of the facts. Debates among opponents and proponents are rare, most recently non-existent. So a panel discussion at the New York Public Library Wednesday night, which contained its share of AY criticism, might be seen as one flip side of some of the public meetings managed well by project proponents.

It wasn’t only about Atlantic Yards, but when we talk about Atlantic Yards the topic extends to questions of gentrification, neighborhood change, and the proper parameters of public debate. And it led at least one audience member to wonder about the absence of a devil’s advocate. (Other accounts of the evening from Jeremiah's Vanishing New York and Lithuania-based curator Simon Rees.)

The program and the exhibit

First, some background. The blurb for the program, titled EMINENT DOMAIN: THE AMERICAN DREAM ON SALE, suggested an idea torn in different directions, about urban renewal and the power of social bonds:
The current exhibition at The New York Public Library, Eminent Domain: Contemporary Photography and the City, features the work of five contemporary New York–based photographers... whose works intersect and resonate with current concerns about the reorganization of urban space, and its public use, in New York City. Artist Glenn Ligon offers the literal narrative of his own housing in the city. In addition to proposed regulations that threaten First Amendment rights to photograph in public places thus becoming a form of privatization of public space, questions also arise with the current private/public arrangements that characterize much of modern urban development, particularly the legal power of eminent domain, or the taking of private property for public use.

Ok, so the exhibition is called “Eminent Domain” but isn’t really about it. But the panel was assigned to “discuss the use of eminent domain and how urban renewal is changing the cityscape of New York City” and “Atlantic Yards, a hotly contested developer driven project in Brooklyn, will serve as a focus through which the evening will begin.”

One intersection

Though the exhibition has almost nothing to do with eminent domain or Atlantic Yards, there was one intriguing intersection. Artist Ligon’s contribution is a series of text panels about the places he’s lived, including two stints in Fort Greene, the first discomfited by housing conditions, the second perceived as a gentrifier by longstanding black residents (even though he’s black himself.)

The text of the second to last panel in his series describes his stint at 535 Dean Street (aka Newswalk) in Brooklyn from 2002-07. The text:
A one bedroom in a converted factory building on the edge of the Long Island Rail Road train yard. The developers, gambling that soaring real estate prices in Park Slope will soon extend to Prospect Heights, created condos of what was the long-empty Daily News printing plant. It was the first time I had owned real estate, buying the apartment from plans before construction had begun and waiting nearly a year and a half for the building to be finished. The apartment was on the fifth floor facing west and had an incredible view over the train yards of Downtown Brooklyn and New Jersey. I realized that the view would soon disappear when real estate developer Bruce Ratner announced plans for a Frank Gehry-designed basketball stadium and dozens of office and residential towers. If approved, it will be one of the largest developments ever built in the city and will dramatically change the character of the neighborhood. Facing 10 years of construction and what was turning into a losing battle over eminent domain, overcrowding and a lack of low-income housing, I decided to sell and move on.

Let’s put aside the small errors--it’s an arena, not a stadium, the printing plant closed in 1996 and was converted fairly briskly by 2002, and the project has been approved, though construction hasn’t begun--and consider that last sentence. While any Newswalk resident has legitimate concerns about impending construction and eventual overcrowding, the expectation of construction implies a losing battle over eminent domain--so maybe that mention was shoehorned in.

As for the battle over “a lack of low-income housing,” that’s an important public policy issue, but not one to make a Newswalk resident pack up and leave. I don’t begrudge anyone good fortune on their housing investment, especially since the nomadic Ligon likely didn’t get a bargain on his next apartment, but the unmentioned part of Ligon’s narrative is that his five years in Newswalk surely reaped some major profit, a reminder that the semi-voluntary displacement may come not without benefits.

Roots shocked

The event began as if organizers had channeled the work of panelist Mindy Fullilove (right), Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Public Health at Columbia University, whose book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, focuses on urban renewal in African-American neighborhoods in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the Central Ward in Newark, and the small Virginia city of Roanoke--not the more particular situation of Prospect Heights.

(Photographs by Adrian Kinloch/Brit in Brooklyn)

The Belgium-educated Paul Holdengräber, NYPL’s Director of Public Programs, began by citing “collective memory, what happens to citizens in a neighborhood when it’s destroyed.” Kimberly Irwin, the library’s Associate Manager, Public Programs, added, “I think I have a sense of what eminent domain is. What I don’t know is how it could really affect my life... how my city could really be changed by the government exercising its power of eminent domain.”

Irwin read quotes from two of the exhibition’s artists. Zoe Leonard, who offers photos of the Lower East Side: “I like the way my neighborhood grounded me in the world, the physical evidence of the past, of who and when and how. I begun to realize I would miss all this, so I started taking pictures... There is something more here than quaintness or nostalgia.”

The quote from Ligon: “My mother’s dream was that she would end her dreams in a little house in the country... I was born here in New York, and like many other New Yorkers, I lack imagination. The idea of living somewhere else has never occurred to me. Indeed, to live in New York is to have lived everywhere.”

Jumping off from a film

The panel began with a trailer from The Battle of Brooklyn, a documentary-in-progress co-directed by Michael Galinsky (right), the moderator of the panel. We see criticism of eminent domain and poor public process, praise for jobs, housing, hoops, and development. "The arena is a front for a massive land grab," declares Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. The trailer ends with a quick update, declaring the project stalled, but with demolition continuing unabated.

While some viewers’ appetite might have been whetted for some specific discussion of AY, Galinsky declared that it was but a jumping off point.

Panelist Tom Angotti, Professor of Urban Affairs & Planning at Hunter College, gave some history behind emiment domain, the power of government to take private property for a public purpose, stating that its use ramped up after the U.S. Housing Act passed in 1949 and spurred urban renewal until the 1970s. Since then, he said, we’ve absorbed the idea that “the private sector has to do it… it’s up the real estate industry, and government just has to follow.”

Such a philosophy, he said, leads to Atlantic Yards, where eminent domain has been eased by a bogus blight study. “What is blight? There’s is no definition of blight. it’s a hoax. Blight is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Fullilove described some of her findings, noting that “a neighborhood is so much bigger than a person... a neighborhood is the space in between all of us.”

Warning of backlash

Marshall Berman (right), Professor of Political Science, City College and the Graduate Center, was the closest thing to a defender of the government, citing “the very larger and strong libertarian opposition to eminent domain” and warning that the backlash to eminent domain might make it “impossible to create public facilities.”

Angotti (partially seen next to Berman) responded we should distinguish between providing clean water for the city—a case Berman cited—“and providing land for a developer to build luxury condos and a private basketball arena.” He cited the need for more dialogue and touted the “community alternative” of the UNITY plan. (Should Atlantic Yards be derailed, expect a lot more debate over the UNITY plan.)

The discussion went off-track a bit with another video interlude, a clip of an intriguing work-in-progress by Galinsky about the artist Arthur Wood, creator of the Broken Angel house in Clinton Hill, whose rickety additions attracted the ire of city officials.

Public good

How do we define public good and community, Galinsky asked. For photographer and writer Brian Berger (right), co-editor with Berman of the collection New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, “There’s no single answer. Things are dynamic in ten thousand different directions. We can talk about this greater decline of Brooklyn: the Dodgers left, the Navy Yard closed... many people moved out. Many people moved in. The Brooklyn of 2000... is so radically different from that of 1950.”

Berger offered a preemptive response to “a common lament” raised, at the least, in the photography exhibit: “The Lower East Side had a great 100-year run... if that is over... that’s unfortunate, but this thing happened, and there are 50 things happening elsewhere in New York City, and these same things can be extended to Brooklyn.”

Berger, a fierce critic of Atlantic Yards, declared that behind Atlantic Yards, and the Yankees and Mets stadiums is a set of “huge corruption stories, at every level.”

A cautionary word on change

Berman warned against “a certain kind of left discourse” fixed on the idea that “people who were displaced from neighborhoods were destroyed forever, I know many people felt like that, but it’s really wrong. Many people, both in New York and around the world, displaced from neighborhoods, go and form new neighborhoods and create new possibilities.” Citing Fiddler on the Roof, he suggested that “people expelled from places like Anatevka created the culture of the Lower East Side.” (Here’s more from his essay in New York Calling.)

Observing that most people in the room probably considered themselves liberals, he suggested, “there’s a whole kind of conservative discourse that, once you change anything, it’s the end. ... I don’t think you want to buy into that.”

Fullilove disagreed somewhat. “I’m a psychiatrist, so I look at this pragmatically. Some groups can manage, if the circumstances are right,” she said. Then again, she said, there are “terrible tragedies like New Orleans post-Katrina.”

In the Atlantic Yards context, that wouldn’t apply so much to condo owners bought out with handsome sums (by Forest City Ratner, using public money). Then again, some working class families and individuals remain threatened, and the community at Freddy’s Bar & Backroom might be hard to replicate.

Angotti offered another gloss on the discourse, suggesting that “the conservative argument is anyone who questions those in power who are proposing to displace neighborhoods is just a nostalgic.” I don’t think that’s a pure conservative argument so such as a Big Government Conservative argument, as opposed to the libertarian conservative argument. (Berger later suggested that “the principled left and the principled right both are in agreement here” on eminent domain opposition.)

Fullilove stuck to her guns: “Nostalgia, in my view as a psychiatrist, is something we need to understand and respect. We shouldn’t move on anybody’s without saying, ‘Would I like my house to be moved on?’”

There are mitigating factors, like just compensation and whether and when eminent domain is appropriate for land assembly and “when the fabric of a community is shot to hell.” But suffice it to say there's a good debate to be had contrasting eminent domain in Prospect Heights, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and places like Times Square and Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Q&A goes astray

When it came to the Q&A session, the evening devolved into anti-gentrification speechifying. Gwen Goodwin, E. Harlem activist and City Council candidate (though she didn’t announce it) decried eminent domain and gentrification in her neighborhood.

Then a (white) man (in a suit) got the microphone. “I feel like I should be representing the Republican Party or something,” he said. “Is anybody going to take a controversial stance? I agree with you, I don’t like eminent domain. I like property rights...Who’s going to take the side, just as devil’s advocate, for the government? Who’s going to admit that maybe Pataki’s not a jerk who’s in bed with this developer?”

“If you can offer any facts to the contrary, I’d be happy to hear them,” said Berger.

“So it’s proving a negative, you’ve just defamed somebody,” the questioner responded.

Pataki’s willingness to go to bat for his law school classmate Bruce Ratner is a tenet of the Atlantic Yards eminent domain challenge. The evidence is circumstantial. Then again, even if there were hard evidence of corruption, it wouldn't violate the public use clause, as long as there were public benefits, ESDC lawyer Preeta Bansal claimed during a court discussion of the AY emiment domain case.

“It’s a very good question,” moderator Galinsky responded. “It’s why I was trying to push discussion in how the city’s changing...It’s really not the point to beat up the developer... Let’s discuss how communities change.”

(NYPL’s Irwin told me yesterday, “We had invited additional participants to last night's event at the library to make it a more balanced discussion, but they were unable to attend. For us it was not a matter of defending or condemning particular development projects, but to discuss the many issues that arise from the use of eminent domain.” But the panel could've used a Robert Moses defender like Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson or a business-oriented defender of eminent domain and the interests of the city as a whole like Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City.)

“Nobody’s willing to play devil’s advocate,” the man asked.

“Maybe somebody will,” interpolated NYPL’s Holdengräber in his continental accent. “I would love it.”

Angotti pointed out that New York State hadn’t had a discussion about eminent domain, since it was one of the few states that had failed to pass reforms.

The future of Harlem & beyond

Nellie Hester Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council criticized gentrification in Harlem and pointed out that “it is the real estate industry in New York City that dominates the politics rather than constituents and voters themselves.”

What is the city’s future, she asked, when “people of color are being driven out?”

Berger responded, “I say very candidly, and with great anger... their future is bleak.” (It was an echo of New York Times reporter Charles Bagli’s warning that New York may become more like European cities, with a well-off center and poorer periphery.)

Again, Berman offered an additional perspective. “I’ve been teaching at City College uptown, in Harlem for about 40 years... it’s always been very multinational, and full of people who’ve come from all over the world and have been through any kind of trauma.... people who’ve been traumatized can be very creative. Sometimes this drops out of our discourse... rap was invented in these horrible neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean those afflictions were groovy.”

“The other thing about Harlem is it’s probably more beautiful than it’s been anytime since the 1920s... So much of Harlem has been like wrecked and bombed for so long, now it’s basically been built up and people are living in it. And a great many people who live there now and who live in housing projects and who aren’t rich and aren’t gentry are very grateful for that,” he said. “Maybe they have low consciousness but the idea that they can sit in outdoor restaurants is kind of nice.”

“They can’t afford it,” Bailey responded from the audience. (Some can--the question is how many, and how many face displacement.)

Berman acknowledged that it’s “probably true” that many people can’t afford certain things. “But the people I know, the secretaries who are going to eat in restaurants, who are very happy, that they don’t have to worry when it gets dark, which they did 10, 20, 30 years ago, are onto something.”

It was a reminder that there was, in recent memory, more of a balance among development, safety, and affordability.

Another questioner upped the ante, calling “gentrification… a form of genocide.” Berger suggested the term was a tad inappropriate.

On immigration and nostalgia

A woman in the audience took up the nostalgia theme from a new angle: “I think in a lot of New York’s thriving ethnic neighborhoods, we see nostalgia for other places,” the places left behind. Rather than hand the question immediately to the panel, Holdengräber turned it over to two of the artists.

Berlin-educated Bettina Johae observed that artists were moving further out to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, while in the 1970s, they could build a community in SoHo.

Fullilove suggested that central places in a city can have “powerful effects on anyone’s creativity.” Berman acknowledged the paradox that, “as soon as an arts scene is created, the market will move in.”

Berger took on what he called “a very sophisticated observation, about multiple layers of nostalgia. “The reason why so many Pakistanis or Haitians are here is that things are so radically fucked at home... They want to recreate the aspects of the culture here that they like, but have no illusion that they’re going to return in their lifetime... whereas the artists who come here and native New Yorkers, if you’ve been forced to move, there’s sort of a different relationship with the past... there’s no right or wrong.”

That interesting topic was the beginning of another discussion, because, if first-generation immigrants hold onto their identity the best they can, their children are irrevocably changed, and they are helping shape the New York of tomorrow--at least unless the weak dollar and "predatory equity" turn New York more and more into a city of the periphery.

And that raises questions of affordable housing, new transit investments and public planning, questions to which Atlantic Yards remains not an answer but a jumping-off point.


  1. Why must the NYPL have a so-called "balanced" panel (whatever that is) but nobody complains when Crain's holds panel after panel with Doctoroff clones?

    As for providing the "government perspective" on the panel, the "government perspective" is on display on your news feeds on a daily basis. Even a two hour panel doesn't compete with that. The "government perspective" gets plenty of air time.

    A so-called "unbalanced" panel (which it wasn't as there was no monolithic view point) would have to last for years to offset the daily onslaught of the "government perspective."

  2. Much of the discussion associated opposition to eminent domain with some form of “nostalgia,” for which different definitions were offered.- Someone offered an interesting quote that went something like, “When you first come to New York you see what is there. You know you are becoming a New Yorker when you are seeing what isn’t there anymore.”

    Let me offer a better definition of what opposition to eminent domain should be about. Change is inevitable. The problem with eminent domain is not that it replaces “what is,” but that it replaces the better change and development that could have been. So, for instance, the exciting, lively and diverse development taking place in Fort Green and Prospect Heights would be replaced by generic, lifeless, big corporation blandness through Ratner’s condemnations (giving him monopolistic ownership of a 30 acre swath for Brooklyn.)

    Maybe the operative quote for this discussion should be, “You know you are becoming truly attuned to the possibilities of New York when you see the benefit of what could be without selfish land grabs.” Jane Jacobs, among others offers a brilliant vision and contrast for what could be instead. Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village Hudson Street neighborhood was not condemned as originally planned. Visit it now. Could we ever hope for equivalent vibrancy from a package delivered via Ratner’s subsidy collection machine? Her neighborhood “unslummed,” Jacobs’ term for what we would now call “gentrification.” Gentrification raises mixed emotions. Not always acknowledged by those advocating for the underprivileged is the extent to which gentrification can be an “up escalator.” This is something described in Jacobs’ book the “Death and Life of American Cities.” It may also escape people that gentrifying neighborhoods attract developers Ratner who probably avoid the ones they actually consider “blighted.” Ratner and Columbia University then collect their eminent domain windfalls by knocking others off an “up escalator.”


    As for the member of the audience who called attention to the fact that he was wearing a suit and asked “Who’s going to take the side, just as devil’s advocate.” I thought he was at one and the same peculiarly insistent about being heard while vague about what he was really about. He reminded me of the people we deal with in the world that say: “What are the arguments that there is no global warming?” “What the arguments against evolution?” “What are the ways in which smoking cigarettes can be good for your health?”

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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