Thursday, September 11, 2008

The departed "Brooklyn South": views of Prospect Heights a decade ago

The Steven Bochco TV drama Brooklyn South, which lasted for just one year (1997-98), is appreciated by loyal fans for its multiple plot lines and large cast and denounced by then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden for its graphic portrait of crime.

For those interested in Atlantic Yards, the show is fascinating because the mythical 74th Precinct uses as a stand-in precinct house the 78th, at 6th Avenue and Bergen Street in Prospect Heights, a block from the AY footprint, and there are other shots of footprint blocks. (The interiors were filmed in Los Angeles.)

Even though the vision of Brooklyn as crime-ridden can seem a cartoon, it's still notable how renovations and lowered crime have reduced "blight" both in Brooklyn and specifically Prospect Heights--even as the Empire State Development Corporation persists in its dubious claim that, absent Atlantic Yards, the project footprint would remain blighted.

Unwinding at Freddy's

One constant in each episodes is an exterior shot of the precinct house.

Another constant is the place where cops unwind, Freddy’s Bar & Grill, at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, now Freddy’s Bar & Backroom, slated to be demolished for the Atlantic Yards project.

The sign in the second room was for the “dining room,” not the backroom. Yes, Freddy's was a cop bar before it catered to a more eclectic crowd.

Scenes on Flatbush and Dean

In the opening episode, which contained graphic violence shocking for its time, a crazed convict starts a shooting spree on Flatbush Avenue near the precinct house.

The story line explores issues of police brutality and racial conflict, issues that had real-life counterparts in New York. (It was actually filmed just before the Abner Louima incident.) The setting captures a stretch of Flatbush that has since changed significantly.

As the gunman runs northwest toward the intersection with Dean Street, a Flatbush Avenue scene shows Bergen Tile, which remains, and behind it, the sign for the Mobil station, now demolished, and the Flatbush-fronting buildings behind it.

He’s then chased to Dean Street between Flatbush and Sixth avenues--and we see buildings on the north side of Dean slated to be demolished for Atlantic Yards.

The convict, named Hopkins, even goes into Freddy’s to take a hostage.

As the camera sweeps, we even see an awning on the mixed-use commercial and residential building across the street, on the north side of Dean just east of Sixth Avenue, another building slated for demolition.

That building was the subject of an eviction dispute, settled last winter, regarding a tenant who wanted to open a child care center.

On Pacific Street

At another point, the cops hold a meeting on dark, bleak Pacific Street, bordering the empty (at night) Vanderbilt Yard, centerpiece of the Atlantic Yards footprint.

There’s a clear view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower in the background; the Atlantic Terminal mall, with the Bank of New York tower, didn’t open until 2004.

The now-demolished Underberg Building, long empty and immortalized in Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, is visible in the center of the shot.

Precursor to a renovation

The camera briefly touches on a street-level view of the unrenovated and closed warehouse later to be renovated into the Atlantic Arts condo building, home to Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and plaintiff in the pending eminent domain litigation.

(Forest City Ratner likes pre-renovation photos, too.)

Pacific Street looks pretty bleak.

Complaints at the time

Was the show realistic? Not exactly. The show portrayed Brooklyn as a place where there was some shocking random and endemic crime. (A bank robbery with hostages downtown?)

At one point, during the precinct lineup, the cops are told, “Be advised events are upcoming at Brooklyn Academy of Music this week. Special attention to muggers looking to prey on lovers of dance-type things before they can get back to Manhattan.”

“Where they’ll be safe,” follows up a beat cop.

Of course, there were events at BAM pretty much regularly.

During another lineup, the cops are told, "Transit authority has appealed to us to clamp down on jitneys picking up on Flatbush Avenue. Particular attention to the area around the Williamsburgh Savings Bank."

That might have been realistic--but an armed robbery and a victim DOA at a gay bar at 7th Avenue on Union Street?

Stretching boundaries

In order to shoehorn in as much as possible, the precinct boundaries stretch implausibly, including Eastern Parkway and the Lubavitcher Hasids of Kingston Avenue. The cops talk about conducting motorist checkpoints at “Vanderbilt and Atlantic, Flatbush and Church;” the latter is pretty far from Prospect Heights.

A street guy the cops roughly question at the Dean Street playground (right; now under renovation) offers, as an excuse, that he was picking up his methadone at 8 a.m. on Livonia Avenue--which is way to the east. There are clinics for addicts far closer to Dean Street.

The three houses partly visible in the far left of the screenshot are all slated to be demolished for Atlantic Yards.

The precinct extends to include the Gowanus Houses, and that’s where the cops wind up searching for an Asian-American gangster. Needless to say, the Gowanus Houses have not been the locus of Asian-American gangs.

And, in a cringeworthy piece of locational error, a copy testifies at one point about a location known as “Flatbush Avenue and Dean Avenue.” (Didn’t anybody know Dean Street?)

BP’s criticism

Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden complained to Bochco: "Brooklyn South depicts my borough as a place where gunmen wander the streets shooting motorists, snippers lurk on rooftops, and every citizen is a potential perpetrator. The Brooklyn you choose to present to the nation could not be further from the truth...Crime in Brooklyn has dropped dramatically and our neighborhoods. are being rebuilt...We have worked hard to effect positive change in Brooklyn and I am greatly concerned that your new series perpetuates a myth which works against all of our efforts."

(Above right is the shootout on Dean Street, with Freddy's at the far end of the street. Was that a sign of blight in 1997?)

Golden told the Los Angeles Times, "'Brooklyn South' names specific neighborhoods and depicts them as crime-ridden. In fact, Brooklyn today is economically resurgent and crime is down."

Bochco offered a nonresponse, "Most people are smart enough to realize that there are bad people everywhere, and good and heroic people, too...as your hysteria abates, you'll see that the heroism and goodness of the Brooklyn cops and citizens we portray far outweigh their malevolence."

Golden had a point, since the subtleties escaped a lot of reviewers. Wrote a columnist in the 11/5/98 Illawarra Mercury of Australia:
The action focuses on the boys and girls in blue who walk the beat in Brooklyn, New York's most notorious borough. This is an area dominated by murderers, drug traffickers and the poor and homeless, a hive of criminal activity.

Interestingly, crime was already going down. Still, the show describes prostitution activity along Pacific Street, a reminder that, during the era of the Daily News printing plant, as I've written, Pacific Street was much more rough. (Now it's been converted to Newswalk.)

These days, crime has since declined significantly, according to NYPD statistics.

Signs of change

How Flatbush Avenue has changed. Where once there were Nkiru Books and a stationary place on St. Mark’s Place just east of Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, now there’s Flatbush Farm.

On Sixth Avenue, just below Flatbush, we see a Dominican restaurant (below), now Helio's, and a bodega, the awning of which remains, but which is now closed.

Detectives go for a drink at Snooky's, on 7th Avenue (which closed last year).

The reduction of crime has been part of gentrification--a mixed-bag regarding the diversity of retail and the affordability of housing, but, as of now, seemingly inevitable. The question is how to manage it.

Even then, Brooklyn South depicted an eviction case, in which a bespectacled long-haired, graduate student tenant contends that the landlord wants to turn the building into "co-ops for lawyers and Wall Street bond traders.... The people who've lived their lives here will not roll over and play dead so he can make a profit... This is a community."

But it's more complicated: the landlord says he has 30 days to get a loan to bring the building up to code, and the only way to do it is to turn it into a co-op. Let's assume that someone filming a 2008 version of Brooklyn South would have a lot more to say about real estate.

Echoes from the past

One plot point apparently takes off on the plot by Palestinians to blow up the Atlantic Avenue subway station, which was foiled on July 31, 1997.

On Brooklyn South, the culprits, implausibly enough, are white supremacists inspired by the shootings in Waco, living at the mythical 1305 Underhill Avenue; they tell the cops they want passage to JFK and then to Australia. (Maybe that Muslim extremist angle was worth pursuing.)

But there is one constant, as the screenshot shows: lots of traffic along Flatbush Avenue near the intersection with Atlantic Avenue.

(Look at the very top right of the screenshot to spot an advertisement for the new Atlantic Center mall, Forest City Ratner's first project near that crucial intersection.)

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