Monday, September 20, 2010

Brooklyn Historical Society exhibit mistakenly claims Ratner built on site O'Malley wanted, which "remained largely unchanged until 2003"

OK, it's not an uncommon error. The New York Times got it wrong, and so did an author relying on the newspaper.

But the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS)?

Yes, the BHS dismayingly continues the meme--nudged by developer Forest City Ratner and perpetuated by journalists and authors--that the Atlantic Yards arena would be situated on the "same site" Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley sought for a successor to Ebbets Field.

The meme mars a generally good BHS exhibition, Home Base: Memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, which includes a panel (below left; click to enlarge) stating:
Across town, the site where O'Malley had hoped to build his new stadium remained largely unchanged until 2003, when real estate developer Bruce Ratner announced plans for the area. He envisioned eight million square feet of apartments, offices, shops, and an arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Neighborhood opposition and an economic recession slowed progress. But Ratner finally broke ground on March 11, 2010.
(Emphasis added)

That's not true--and it's disappointing (see below) that the BHS plans only to have its guides offer clarifications, rather than re-do or annotate the panel.

North of Atlantic, not south

The site O'Malley sought was mainly north of Atlantic Avenue, roughly the area now occupied by Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls. (I pointed this out in 5/29/07 post based on Henry Fetter's useful Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball.)

Atlantic Yards would be built below Atlantic Avenue.

Moreover, the area has not "remained largely unchanged." The last major piece of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) left unscathed was the Vanderbilt Yard, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had not tried to put up for bid before Forest City Ratner arrived with an offer the politicians couldn't refuse.

Notably, Atlantic Yards planners leveraged the railyard, deemed blighted via its inclusion in ATURA, to gain control of property on Pacific and Dean streets outside of ATURA, below the railyard.

The plans tell the story

Also, the panel text is contradicted by other information in the exhibit itself, which includes useful plans of not only the location O'Malley sought, but other locations discussed, including one west of Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope and another closer to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, bordered by Jay and Tillary streets.

(Photos of exhibition by Jonathan Barkey. Highlights in photo above left are added.)

A Barclays Center salute

The BHS panel also contains a gratuitous salute to the Barclays Center:


Keyspan Park and the new Barclays Center in Atlantic Yards both evoke cherished memories of Ebbets Field. Both pay tribute to Brooklyn's beloved ballpark, but can never replace it in the borough's heart.
I'm not sure how much the in-construction (rather than "new") Barclays Center pays tribute to Ebbets Field--though I'm sure they'll find a way--but I think "evoke cherished memories" will be very much up to the beholder.

The back story

In the main section of the exhibition, headlined "Struggling to Stay," the panel (right) states:
O'Malley found what he was looking for near the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue--home to the Fort Greene Meat Market. The site was available, spacious, and near the Long Island Railroad Terminal, offering convenient access to the eastern suburbs. But there was one big drawback: the potential cost of the land acquisition.
That's accurate.

The actual site sought

A drawing of the plan (below) shows a detailed--and rather challenging--scheme: Atlantic Avenue would swerve somewhat to the south and Flatbush Avenue would require an overpass. The stadium would extend north to Hanson Place.

And the plan would extend, in small part, to the Vanderbilt Yard, which would be decked for parking (a far less complicated project that building towers or an arena). Unlike the Atlantic Yards plan, the stadium plan would not have extended to property on Pacific and Dean streets.


The Borough President's alternative

Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore, by contrast, recommended a site in northern Park Slope, bounded by Prospect Place, Fourth Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue--a location that would have caused an enormous change in the history of that neighborhood, which has since recovered through reinvestment.


Another site considered

The exhibit also shows an outline of the site near the bridges.


BHS response

When I visited the BHS, I had a cordial conversation with President Deborah Schwartz, pointing out the error.

I later followed up by email, and she responded by first noting that there was no dispute about the panel that stated the O'Malley sought a "site" that was home to the meat market.

She added:
In a separate section of the exhibition called "Beyond the Bums" you found a statement that I gather seems less precise. It reads: "Across town, the site where O'Malley had hoped to build his new stadium remained largely unchanged until 2003, when real estate developer Bruce Ratner announced plans for the area."

I am not sure if you have ever had the pleasure of writing exhibition texts, but one of the challenges is trying to make sure that they are brief, and that one varies the texts even if some of the same points are being made more than once. Visitors tend not to read wall text in a set sequential order, so repetition is one of the tricks of the trade. In this case, you can see that the word "site" and "area" are used to some extent as synonyms. In our panels, we were indeed trying to give people a sense of the history of the area. Certainly no one was making a point about the precise geographic coordinates, nor in any way commenting pro or con about the relationship between the proposed Dodgers Stadium versus the soon to be built Nets Stadium.
I don't think the error was intentional. However, in effect, it serves as an endorsement of the meme that Forest City Ratner sought.

And while "site" and "area" may be used as synonyms, in this case they'd be inaccurate. The "area" has not remained "largely unchanged." It's changed enormously.

The solution

I asked Schwartz what BHS could do, and she responded:
If I had an extra $1,000 in my pocket, I would happily redo the panel and recast it to read, "Across town, in the general area where O'Malley had hoped to build his new stadium, there stand several shopping malls, and in 2003, real estate developer Bruce Ratner announced plans to build a new basketball stadium."

Without the funds to swap out exhibition components, we will ask our capable educators who give guided tours through the space to clarify the matter for interested visitors, so I appreciate your calling it to our attention.
While I appreciate the gesture, I don't think it's sufficient. Many people will visit the exhibit without a guide.

I hope BHS provides paper handouts clarifying the issue, including a correction of the audio interview mentioned below.

And while it may be costly to produce a new panel, a piece of tape or additional text over the existing panel (as Forest City Ratner did with street signs) could be a solution. Sure, it might be esthetically jarring. But that's better than misleading people.

In fact, it could be considered a "teaching moment" regarding how history is made and remembered.

After all, the exhibition, which opened in June, will continue through 4/24/11.

An audio interview continues the error

In a series of audio interviews accompanying the exhibit, one, under the rubric "A Stadium in Brooklyn: The Nets and Atlantic Yards," perpetuates the error.

The second interviewee in the file below, Walter O'Malley's son Peter, states: "That Atlantic and Flatbush site, the site where that arena's going to go... is the site that my dad liked."


The Shapiro influence?

While I can't be sure, one contributor to the "same site" error may be the work of journalist and author Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, The Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together, who is listed as one of the exhibit's historical consultants.

Shapiro has more than once played up a misleading stadium-arena connection. In a 6/19/05 New York Times essay headlined A Moment of Truth In Dodgerless Brooklyn, he wrote:
The talk at the party got around to the arena that the developer Bruce Ratner hopes to build for his Nets basketball team at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. That is the same spot where Walter O'Malley, who owned the Dodgers, wanted to build a ballpark to replace aging Ebbets Field.
Om a 7/26/10 interview with WNYC, he said:
[O'Malley] wanted permission to build a stadium in downtown Brooklyn where the Nets Barclays Center is now going to rise.
A 4/4/09 Forbes article, headlined Who Framed Walter O'Malley? and based on an interview with Shapiro, stated:
So in 1957, when Walter O'Malley and a cadre of New York politicos began to discuss plans for a ballpark at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic on the sly (now the site for the proposed Frank Gehry-designed Nets stadium), Moses was not pleased.
In a 5/12/10 Q&A with the New York Times last May, Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, stated:
According to Michael Shapiro’s fascinating book, “The Last Good Season,” Moses actually abetted the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers by denying Walter O’Malley an appropriate replacement site for Ebbets Field. Interestingly, O’Malley wanted the Atlantic Yards site where the arena is now going, but Moses wanted him to go to Bedford-Stuyvesant instead.
More interestingly, Gratz gets the story right in her book, saying the two sites are adjacent.

1 comment:

  1. Ratner was definitely aware that the Ebbets Field replacement was slated for the site of his Atlantic Center (Pathmark) Mall. In fact the exterior of that building was designed to imitate the long departed stadium.

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