Saturday, December 06, 2008

The multiple visions (and gaps) of Brooklyn at Eye Level

Like the borough itself, Brooklyn at Eye Level, the first (and whirlwind) Atlantic Yards-related production from The Civilians--the not-quite-documentary theater troupe working on a project inspired by Atlantic Yards--is something of a mishmash.

It’s hard to meld some straight historical narrative--segments of a complicated story--with dance and song and interpolated monologues by students. In fact, the performances this weekend are aimed to provide selections from The Civilians’ “investigative” phase, not to provide the more polished narrative that eventually might emerge.

So it’s a bit hard to suss out. After all, the fight over Atlantic Yards, which involves issues as race, class, and the proper way to go about development, does not mesh directly with the other overarching theme of the show: the strains felt by residents over gentrification and the changing nature of the city, a theme of the Jane Jacobs panels and exhibit last year. (Indeed, this project is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, which was behind the Jacobs events.)

No one will emerge fully informed about Atlantic Yards--nor is that the goal. Then again, Brooklyn at Eye Level does a very good job at sketching some of the fundamental strains over AY, and the passions it evinces in people, which is why I recommended that people see it and look forward to seeing how it evolves, improves, and inspires other work by The Civilians.

Perhaps the key quote comes from an unnamed character, an Atlantic Yards opponent: “The corruption and the greed of our so-called leaders was a shock. I come from a class where you don’t get fucked over in such an obvious way.”

And, unrelated directly to the AY battle is another, from a young black woman dumbfounded that her block, South Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, has been named Time Out NY’s “Best Block,” meaning she gets priced out and observes, “The ironic thing is I’ve become a gentrifier of Bed-Stuy.”

It’s appropriate for the show to be performed at the Brooklyn Lyceum, an unfinished theater space in an old public bathhouse, purchased in pre-gentrification days by Eric Richmond, a man who would rather put on theater than take profits by selling the building to a housing developer or a big box retail store. (Perhaps equally appropriately, the lot adjacent to the Lyceum on Fourth Avenue is guarded by a construction fence, but the planned development is stalled by a dispute.)

The crowd Thursday night, at least, contained few people associated with the Atlantic Yards fight but more (I speculate) theater aficionados. They seemed to like it, but most didn’t stay for the post-show discussion. One suggested that Brooklyn at Eye Level provided a “safe space” for some important discussions.

(Photos by Adrian Kinloch)

Major characters

The show has numerous secondary characters, some who are named public figures and some who are unnamed (but identifiable to close AY watchers), there are five particularly prominent characters.

First we meet Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), the last man in his condo building (right; protrayed by Greg McFadden), a man with a bent for conflict who says he’s found a fight with a good reason for it. Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, the “Paul Revere” of the AY fight (according to another character), tells us how she came to Prospect Heights in the 1970s, helping improve her block and cherishing the neighborhood’s mixed character.

James Caldwell of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) explains how his community--not quite defined but presumably black folks in Central Brooklyn--have never had a seat at the table, and the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement provided said seat. (Nonplused about criticism, he says, “We just have to determine how we want to be used.”)

Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN (right, portrayed by Melanie Nicholls-King), challenges AY critics to take on other developments that offer far less affordable housing. And City Council Member Letitia James questions the promises and processes that have led people like Caldwell and Lewis to make a deal with developer Forest City Ratner, and reminds us that the planned Atlantic Yards arena would be the most expensive in the country.

There are some known secondary characters, like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, an AY cheerleader, who hopes the people who “are so viciously anti” will say, after “this stadium [sic] is built, and it will be built,” that “it’s not so bad." Community activist Bob Law, a member of the DDDB board, questions plans promoting “hoops” to black folk, adding layers to the story.

(The issue of race and community gets a good airing, but it's complicated, as the New York Times discovered. Though working-class black people not associated with BUILD or ACORN may be latently wary of development, as the show suggests, it doesn't come through how much DDDB relies on a middle- and upper-class activist base. And there's room even for the homeowner's case for gentrification, exemplified perhaps by Daily News columnist Errol Louis, a Crown Heights resident.)

Some gaps

Missing, however, is a full sense of the public passions--there’s only one scene from the epic 8/23/06 hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with a chorus of characters cheering and booing.

Go to Isabel Hill’s documentary Brooklyn Matters--far more polished but also more of a clear indictment rather than the more ambiguous and sympathetic (if, I’d argue, ultimately anti-AY) Brooklyn at Eye Level--for scenes from public hearings, especially the mesmerizing (and menacing) Darnell Canada.

And missing is any representative of the developer. While it’s likely that no one from Forest City Ratner cooperated, there is much evidence from former AY point man Jim Stuckey, a Brooklyn guy (from Bay Ridge) himself, on which to base a character. (Here’s Stuckey on PBS’s NewsHour. Here are links to three audio interviews. And here’s an oral history.)

Adding the urban planning dimension

Stuckey could add an important dimension missing from the show. Essentially the argument against the project is that it results from an undemocratic process (the “original sin,” says Goldstein) and is out of scale, resulting in excess density and too much traffic. The argument in Brooklyn at Eye Level for the project is that it promises jobs and affordable housing beyond what other developments in the area of Downtown Brooklyn offer.

The absent and additional argument for Atlantic Yards, which Stuckey has articulated--and which seems a no-brainer to some in the development community, like the Port Authority’s Christopher Ward--is that dense developments belong near transit hubs, especially given the city’s (apparent) inexorable growth, and the only way to get affordable housing is to provide a density bonus.

And the counter-argument, touched on but not fully articulated in the show, is: not this development at this density.

In other words, the “eye level” perspective could use a dash of debate from urban planners.

The challenge of characterization

Given the breakneck schedule to produce the piece, the performances were impressive, with no visible missteps or forgotten lines, and the actors have achieved some very quick studies. Then again, even if the actors playing the protagonists did the interviews themselves (or watched video of the protagonists), it’s a challenge to fully inhabit some complex characters who someday should (and will) appear in a documentary film.

I can’t blame the actors for this, given the pace, and I think some came close. Melanie Nicholls-King’s portrayal of Lewis personifies the activist’s kinetic combativeness. However, I think Nicholls-King’s representation of James (above) is a trifle girlish--not quite capturing the Council Member’s commanding mix of approachability and toughness.

Billy Eugene Jones’s portrayal (right) of Caldwell was effective enough to impress the BUILD president himself, who was sitting next to me at Thursday’s performance. Still, it’s hard for a younger actor to fully embody a freighted man like Caldwell, whose history--invoking the segregated South and the bad old days of Brooklyn--helps explain why he was glad to just be at the table and why he so praises developer Bruce Ratner.

Greg McFadden’s portrayal of Goldstein gets the words right, but the activist in the show is on his best behavior, while Goldstein in real life has quite a wit--he’s the guy behind DDDB's Thanksgiving greeting card--as well as a quick-boil temper he has (mostly) learned to keep in check.

Colleen Werthmann, portraying Hagan (below), captures her character’s plain-spoken doggedness, but not quite the impish (or, to some, insulting) disregard for convention that fuels Hagan’s willingness to, for example, heckle Markowitz at his State of the Borough address.

The broader dimension

The show suffers somewhat from the reliance on monologues rather than scenes, but in some cases the characters refer to other players, thus animating the scene. Hagan recalls Lewis, an ally in helping get James elected, offering advice on fighting development: “Gum them up.”

Early in the show, Goldstein talks about how fellow owners in his condo building take buyouts that include gag orders. Later in the show, we meet an unnamed character--I’ll say it’s Vince Bruns--who describes how he finally took the buyout but negotiated away the gag order.

Some clarifications

It’s my role, I guess, rather than the theater company’s, to fact-check the quotes, so I’ll point out that, when Hagan quotes architect Frank Gehry--a compelling character, but not a Brooklynite, missing from the show--as having his first opportunity to build a neighborhood from scratch, the quote isn’t quite right.

Actually, that was the quote from press reports, but Gehry actually said “practically from scratch.”

Hagan at one point echoes neighborhood complaints that Ratner’s Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls are “so unwelcoming.” But no one makes the point, as New York magazine critic Kurt Andersen has done, that Ratner used Gehry to help win over some of Brooklyn’s chattering classes, hopeful for world-class architecture.

Marie Louis of BUILD tells her interviewer that those who worry about the use of taxpayer dollars should be challenging a whole lot of developers. Well, maybe, but Atlantic Yards, unlike some other projects worthy of criticism, is the result of an override of zoning, not developers acting within rules established (if unwisely) by city officials.

And Louis’s claim that subsidies are justified because of a lack of investment in urban centers is belied by the fact that the Atlantic Yards site is extremely valuable.

James says she’s concerned about the “massive displacement” in her district without acknowledging that, unlike some other projects, Atlantic Yards would seem to be both fighting displacement (with new units) and creating it. She does, however, say that she supports development--just not this one.

There’s only one union guy, from the Carpenters Union, who has a somewhat silly moment in which he questions whether tall buildings could really block the sun. A more cogent comment from a union rep would be that, unlike many other developers, Ratner has pledged to build using union labor--hence the huge union support at rallies.

Some cameos

Author Jonathan Lethem, a reflective intellectual, talks about how this is about “a place of negotiation,” then describes the open letter he sent to Frank Gehry asking him to withdraw--and how he sent the architect a copy of letter with a couple of books as gifts. (We don’t learn whether Gehry ever replied.)

A Palestinian restaurateur with a mostly ghetto clientele complains that after he refused to sell his building to a real estate investors, he gets a health department inspection.

And the Indian-accented proprietor of a bagel store tells how complaints forced him to change name of his new store from Arena Bagels to Area Bagels. Now the complainants are his customers, he said, in one of the moments of relieved laughter.

There goes the ‘hood

Separate from the AY fight are strands of interviews with various characters about gentrification. A lesbian (I think) couple complains, not bitterly, about drug dealers on their Prospect Height block, but it’s hard to get police interested as the deal with murders in Crown Heights. “So we’re in the good neighborhood in our precinct--that’s our problem.”

A young black man complains about not longer being able to congregate on the street, an echo of complaints raised in Lance Freeman’s book There Goes the ‘Hood.

Another black guy, from in Bed-Stuy, talks incredulously about how white people take pictures on cell phone cameras and email them to the precinct. “I see a white dude walking a dog on Halsey Street at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said, to laughter.

All interesting stuff, but not quite related to AY.

Around the edges

I thought the interpolating monologues by local students were fine but just made the overall performance more jagged--understandably, while the dance pieces by the Urban Bush Women were compellingly provocative, as were some of the songs.

Even an odd ditty containing lyrics like “but sociologically, there are four Brooklyns” was kind of entertaining. Those four Brooklyns are boiled down to: Manhattan, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Florida. (That, um, leaves out the Hasids and the Poles and the African-Americans of Central Brooklyn, but I get the point.)

In another song, a lyric reminds us, “I don’t think you want to jog down Myrtle Avenue.”

Weaving it all together at the end, a touching group song--a pastiche from interviews, I suspect--invokes the Spalding Building, the Marcy Projects, the Brooklyn Tab [ernacle; I think], and the Islamic Shops. “These are some things that you could say about the neighborhood/The TimeOut article/The day the rent doubled.”

Does it explain everything? Nope. But you feel it.

And what to make of the closing lyric: “You are only entitled to the space you have/You are not entitled to the space all around you.”

A nice thought. But that only gets us to how we manage space going forward.

In closing

“Never did I think we’d still be fighting this project in five years,” says James at one point. Rumors of Atlantic Yards’ demise have been greatly exaggerated, declares Lewis.

It looks like the fight will continue long enough for some updated work by The Civilians.

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