Thursday, November 17, 2011

The "Modern Blueprint" and the Triumph of Marketing over Memory

In an alternate universe, a Brooklyn newspaper columnist could have filed this dispatch yesterday.

The "Modern Blueprint" and the Triumph of Marketing over Memory

The walk is little more than a mile, but on Tuesday it connected two very different worlds. At lunch hour outside Brooklyn's Borough Hall, there stood a snazzy new trailer, complete with blinking video screens, that was dubbed, in overweening form, "The Experience." A vehicle in service to commerce.

The goal: to sell tickets and suites to the opening season, beginning next year, for the Brooklyn Nets in the new Barclays Center.

Fans and downtown office workers/visitors lined up to shoot baskets, egged on by an animated announcer and DJ, hoping to win a free t-shirt. The Nets Dancers, well-toned lasses in bodysuits, clapped appreciatively. Brisk young men, trim and energetic, hawked season tickets.

One inquiring Brooklynite, hearing the tab was some $4500, shook her head in disbelief, only to be reassured that less expensive seats would someday be available. Others, the ones chosen for quotes by the Nets' fake news service, were more enthusiastic.

At 2 pm, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the wind-up doll of Atlantic Yards support, emerged from his office. He joked about being too short to play basketball among the celebrated hoopsters at Wingate High School.

“Everything we’ve seen about the team has shown it’s a ‘Net positive’ for Brooklyn,” Markowitz said, in words dutifully captured by the Nets' scribe. “It’s something you have to experience for yourself, and – thanks to the EXPERIENCE – now we can.”

Yes, no one can shill like Marty Markowitz, a man who once claimed, on video, that "Brooklyn is 1000 percent behind Atlantic Yards." That helped save developer Forest City Ratner millions of dollars by raising a low-interest loan from immigrant investors.

Departing from his speech, Markowitz also made a playful dig at the slogan, "Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready," which one needy local journalist inflated into a story.

Markowitz, wielding on of his office's ubiquitous proclamations, posed with Nets General Manager Billy King and Coach Avery Johnson and the mascot known as Sly Fox. (Photo from Nets' website)


About a mile away, there was a less scripted, less corporate event, one that did not lure the reporters from the city's three dailies who were watching Markowitz.

A walk down Fulton Street, crossing Flatbush, led to the door of 485 Hudson Avenue, the home of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a job training group with a curious and checkered history.

BUILD emerged in early 2004, after the unveiling of Atlantic Yards plans, to "negotiate" and sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in June 2005 with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner.

BUILD CEO James Caldwell has provided crucial community cred for developer Bruce Ratner, calling him "like an angel sent from God" for putting money into the community, a community Caldwell would describe as disadvantaged black Brooklyn.

Those receiving Ratner's trickle-down largesse--Caldwell's mentioned trips to an amusement park and shopping outlets--don't have reason to look at the big picture, the hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks on the other end.

The payoff was supposed to be community benefits, and those benefits--invoked by sloganeering politicians like now-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio--today are more at issue than ever.

A sign on the BUILD office door directed followers to 67 Hanson Place, the office of City Council Member Letitia James, the Atlantic Yards project's leading political opponent.

James hosted a press conference announcing a lawsuit, in which seven people who went through a competitive and coveted BUILD training program--a program mandated by the CBA--claimed they were duped.

It was another skirmish in a long-running battle over Atlantic Yards, one that the developer, along with the city and state, has, for the near-term, won. Too many people see that new arena and, however deluded, claim "it will bring in a lot of... employment."

Forest City Ratner, responding to the lawsuit, chose denial (its executives had not made such claimed promises) and misdirection (look at how many people we now have working--and more than half the 36 people in the training program have work).

Are those numbers accurate? Who knows. Are they even the right frame? After all, the issue is not whether the cohort of trainees have work--which includes jobs at Mickey D's--but whether they were positioned for high-paying careers in construction unions.

And those questions should be answered not by Forest City but, as Council Member James pointed out, the Independent Compliance Monitor that is supposed to keep Forest City Ratner and the CBA signatories honest.

The CBA--which Forest City swore guaranteed their community commitments--required the developer to budget up to $100,000 a year for such a monitor.

It never paid. Few have tried to keep the developer honest. The only people who could enforce the CBA--signatories like BUILD--have financial ties to the developer.

So it was a different "EXPERIENCE" at James's press conference, a reminder that Atlantic Yards will be forever tainted.

It wasn't just the lawsuits. Or the economic downturn. It was the lies.

The smaller part of the trainees' case seems like a slam dunk. You can't make people do construction work for free and call it an internship, can you? That's what BUILD did, requiring the willing, desperate trainees sign a paper agreeing they wouldn't be paid.

But that's kosher only if the internship is, actually, educational. In this case, the suit alleges, they did the work, under hazardous conditions, while their instructor, a gentleman named Gausia Jones, checked in occasionally.

Forest City, which spent $134,000 on the program, would have had to cough up additional $71,000 to pay the 35 trainees minimum wage. (My rough estimate: 8 weeks x 35 hours x 35 people x $7.25 minimum wage.)

That's not chicken feed, but it's not impossible. After all, Forest City has been saving (up to) $100,000 a year for so long. They spent far more--more than $1 million in some years--just on lobbying.

But Forest City apparently didn't want to spend the money. That might have been an unwise decision.

The larger issue in the lawsuit--whether the workers were duped with false promises--may go to court, or it may not. These kinds of cases settle when the sides recognize that legal fees might eat up their costs.

So you can wonder if the plaintiffs were doing it for a paycheck, and what a jury might say. The workers don't have any document with those promises, nor do they have the smoking videotape that shows Forest City executives or James Caldwell, BUILD's CEO, promising them the moon.

Forest City denied it had done so. So did Caldwell, about whom the allegations centered.

But the workers--at least a couple who spoke at the press conference--have the courage of their convictions and the righteous anger of the wronged. A confident young man named Maurice Griffin gave up a non-union carpenter job to go in the unpaid program.

He was adamant--you can watch him on video--that he would not have quit had he not been made such promises. BUILD's Caldwell was there to deny it, vigorously. But he has a bit of a credibility problem.

More than six years ago, on 10/14/05, a New York Times reporter unsullied by skepticism regarding Atlantic Yards followed up on revelations that BUILD had reported to the IRS that it expected $5 million from Forest City Ratner over two years.

Atlantic Yards opponents had seized on that evidence to attack BUILD's credibility. BUILD said it was a mistake and, indeed, they never received such sums.

But the Times reporter, late to the story, won a front-page article with a bit of mental jiu jitsu, positing that Forest City had created "a new and finely detailed modern blueprint for how to nourish--and then harvest--public and community backing..."

It was not a "modern blueprint" then and, six years later, even less so.

The "modern blueprint" depended on BUILD, and its curious evasions. BUILD officials weeks earlier had denied they'd received money from Forest City Ratner. As the article approached publication, spokespeople for Forest City and BUILD, in the Times's delicate phrasing, "revised that account."

BUILD, it turns out, had been paid for a few months. No, not the $5 million smoking gun, but six figures, reason for skepticism.

On Monday, a Times reporter visited Borough Hall to write a rather long article about the Nets' "rally." In the midst of the article came an almost parenthetical discussion of the lawsuit, one reported with a "he said" quote regarding the charges and a "she said" response from Forest City.

It was clearly reported via email or, at best, on the phone.

The real story, one which did not require Sly Fox or the Nets Dancers, was live and in person, just about a mile away.

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