Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Civilians' In the Footprint debuts tomorrow; post-show discussions planned for many performances; who directed the background "theater"?

The investigative theater troupe The Civilians, following up its preliminary 2008 piece on Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn at Eye Level (my review), tomorrow debuts IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards.

The play with music will be performed at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene from November 12 through December 11. It's written and directed by Steven Cosson, co-written by Jocelyn Clarke, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.

The blurb:
In the Footprint, a new play with music, tells the story of Brooklyn's largest development project in history. The play examines the conflicts that erupted in the case of Atlantic Yards through to their current resolution in an attempt to discover how the fate of the city is decided in present-day New York and what can be learned from this ongoing saga of politics, money, and the places we call home. The play is constructed from interviews with real life players in this Brooklyn epic, including local residents, business owners, Daniel Goldstein, political leaders such as Letitia James and Marty Markowitz, activists, union members, and community leaders.
The discussions

The web site promises a post-show discussion series "about the real-life issues from the play related to the Atlantic Yards development and our changing community."

November 16 at 8PM: Conversation with the Artists
November 18 at 8PM: Conversation with the Artists
November 20 at 2PM: Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee
November 23 at 8PM: Conversation with the Artists
November 29 at 7PM: Brad Lander, New York City Council Member
November 30 at 8PM: Stephen Levin, New York City Council Member
December 2 at 8PM: Tom Angotti, Professor of Urban Studies & Planning at Hunter College
December 4 at 2PM: Daniel Goldstein, Co-founder of DDDB and last resident to leave The Footprint
December 6 at 7PM: Conversation with the Artists
December 7 at 8PM: Letitia James , New York City Council Member (Invited)
December 9 at 8PM: Stacey Sutton, Urban Planning Professor at Columbia's Architecture Grad Dept.

Most of those leading discussions, excepting the artists, are opponents or critics of Atlantic Yards, though Council Member Levin, whose base until very recently was Bushwick and Ridgewood, has been a mild supporter while expressing concern.

It would be interesting, to say the least, to see someone from Brooklyn United for Innovative Urban Development (BUILD) or another Community Benefits Agreement signatory leading the discussion.

In the Times: dramatizing discord

A New York Times feature article on the show yesterday, headlined In Brooklyn, Dramatizing Real Discord, offers this back story:
“Being an investigative theater company where we try to engage in important stories, this seemed like the most important local story that we could take on,” Mr. Cosson said recently over brunch in a cafe in Fort Greene. When he first conceived the show, he was living in Prospect Heights, near what is now the Atlantic Yards footprint, and followed the battle avidly, as anti-Ratner fliers began appearing in his neighbors’ windows. In 2007 the Civilians received a $150,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop “In the Footprint”; at the time it was the biggest donation the group had been awarded. (It has since received $700,000 from the National Science Foundation for a play about climate change.)

“There’s not a lot of other companies like them,” said Eddie Torres, associate director for the Rockefeller Foundation. What he likes about their endeavor was not just the subject but also the method: talking to all sides, and perhaps getting them to talk to one another. “They’re at the forefront of a process that’s becoming more common now, in both the visual art world and the performing art world,” he said, “artists who are doing a lot of first-person engagement.”
Well, there's surely a value to "talking to all sides," but there's also a danger in letting the Atlantic Yards story turn into a debate about Brooklyn authenticity or even race and class.

After all, as I wrote yesterday, the key to understanding Atlantic Yards is less about analyzing discord among opposing citizens than the balance between private power and the public interest.

Race and class

The Times reports:
Mr. Friedman and Mr. Cosson said they were opposed to the Atlantic Yards project from the beginning, but their six cast members were not all so sure. “I was really indifferent,” said Billy Eugene Jones, a recently anointed Civilian who lives in Fort Greene. “I just never thought it would happen. I thought it would go away, and it didn’t.”

In doing interviews, Mr. Jones, one of three black cast members, felt the reverberations of the issue’s racial divide. “I was conflicted,” he said. “Develop Don’t Destroy was saying this is a bad idea for your neighborhood, and the side of people who look like me were saying, ‘We need jobs, we need this to happen, I like basketball, get out of the way, we want this.’

“It’s not about race — not at all, to me,” he added. “It is about money and class.” But, he said, “the black people who were speaking for anti-arena were very quiet when I would speak to them. They didn’t want to ruffle any feathers with the black community.”
It's not easy to suss out public opinion, actually. Polls can be gamed, as I've written.

The loudest supporters for the project, from (mainly white) construction workers to (mainly black) advocates for job training and subsidized housing, all have something significant to gain. No wonder they've been loud enough for Jones to become conflicted.

Concerns about jobs and housing are real, which makes the Atlantic Yards conflict so painful, but concerns should be tested, recognizing the balance between private power and the public interest.

Should some BUILD members be asked now, they might be wondering whether Forest City Ratner's promises of jobs really were legitimate. After all, the Daily News last month pointed out discrepancies between the current and predicted number of jobs.


The importance of listening and the real "director"

Last night, at the Municipal Art Society's Jane Jacobs Forum, on The Walkable (& Rollable) City: Transportation, Health & Delight, Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director, UPROSE (Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization in Sunset Park) told an instructive story about an incident she witnessed in Fort Greene, at the Myrtle Avenue salon where she gets her nails done.

As Yeampierre told it: "Two white women started talking about new bike path. They said Isn't it great... Two elderly black women said Who said we wanted that?... The white women said This is good for you... The black women said Who are you to tell us it's good for us?... This was a real fight... People getting infrastructure they wanted and people who had been there a real long time that no one had talked to."

Had there been a meeting earlier to address community priorities, she suggested, "then that fight would never have broken out."

With Atlantic Yards, nobody thought to market a valuable piece of public property, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard. At the same time, genuine needs for jobs and housing were not taken seriously enough.

The conflict has been epic theater, but the director--in the grand scheme of things--has been more Forest City Ratner than anyone in charge of the public interest.

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