Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Critic suggests Atlantic Yards "needed a Jane Jacobs to stop it;" I suggest that a failure of eloquence was by no means the largest failure

Updated with comments from Daniel Goldstein

Architecture critic Alexandra Lange, who wrote a devastating takedown of Nicolai Ouroussoff, talked about her new book Writing About Architecture with Project for Public Spaces. An excerpt from the discussion:
In the last chapter of my book I discuss Jane Jacobs, and how she might have reacted to the Atlantic Yards project. I think it needed a Jane Jacobs to stop it — an advocate as eloquent about the costs, and the alternatives, as those seductive Gehry renderings — and for whatever reason, one did not appear. But the activist spirit was by no means dead. It just got diffused into activist non-profits and activist blogs and activist essays. The diffused media landscape made it easier to follow the saga week by week, but perhaps made it harder for any one person to become the voice.
My comments:
I question whether a Jane Jacobs was possible for Atlantic Yards. She would have needed a big media megaphone, and they were not available. Atlantic Yards was not merely a question of architecture and design--it was "jobs, housing, and hoops."
One thing needed was honest and thoughtful architecture criticism (which Ms. Lange focuses on in her book). Had Michael Kimmelman been writing instead of Muschamp and Ouroussoff, there might have been a greater effort to modify the plan, but the arena was non-negotiable.And all the NY dailies supported the project. They did virtually no investigative reporting. The political heavyweights were lined up from the start. The single toughest mainstream coverage was Chris Smith's August 2006 NY mag cover story, but it had no impact on a project already on the train to approval.
The Times published one op-ed about the project--the tone was "pox on both houses*--before the project was approved in 2006. That was in the City section. The first op-ed in the paper at large appeared *after* the project had passed.
It was a longshot, but the only way to stop this project was the courts. And the courts pretty much punted (until the last case, which has been mostly ignored by the press, when they smacked down the Empire State Development Corporation regarding the environmental review for Phase 2). And the press pretty much ignored those earlier cases too, despite some significant eloquence in court.
Failure of eloquence? Maybe, but a lot of other larger failures, including democratic process, press coverage, honesty from government agencies, and developer candor.
Goldstein's comments


Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn added some thoughtful comments, including:
The differences between this era, and this fight, and Jacobs' are too many to enumerate, and differences in the media climate are vast, as Ms. Lange argues. While Robert Moses was extremely formidable, Ms. Jacobs didn't have to deal with the kind of intense, private developer PR and backroom lobbying that we did (it’s fool’s errand to gauge which was more formidable, the point is the nature of each had their unique challenges.) Add the fact that Mayor Bloomberg has been, perhaps, the most powerful powerbroker the city has seen, and we were up against a more formidable opponent with a much more compromised—also prostrate and stenographic—press, cowed by the power of the Ratners and Bloombergs.
What's the Voice today?

I added:
I'd add, contra Ms. Lange's generally thoughtful critique in her book, that Curbed and Brownstoner in no way function as analogues to the Village Voice of Jacobs' era. The differences--depth, commercial pressures, original reporting--are huge. Maybe the Brooklyn Rail of 2004-05, which published some tough and eloquent reportage by Brian Carreira, might qualify. But too few people read his work.
From the book:


2 comments:

  1. You are entirely correct that there was no informed and sustained media opposition to Atlantic Yards. Nobody in the media did enough reporting to know the subject well enough to oppose it. As someone who worked hard to get her criticisms published, I can tell you, in addition, that the media were not hungry for Atlantic Yards pieces. I felt fortunate to publish two op-eds in Metro New York. There was certainly no megaphone like the ones Jane Jacobs had. Congratulations on Ms. Lange's acknowledgment of your blog.

    Given the massive amount of developer money that has come into the process since Jane Jacobs's zenith, even Ms. Jacobs might not have turned back Atlantic Yards. As Ms. Lange may not be aware, Jane Jacobs's heartfelt opposition--expressed in a rare communique from Toronto--was insufficient to stop the re-zoning of the Williamsburg waterfront.

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  2. One thing I left out of my comment on the PPS blog is that Jacobs fought her battles in MANHATTAN, and like it or not there is still substantial media bias and negligence and lack of resources towards and in Brooklyn. If it happens in Manhattan it is inherently important. If it happens in Brooklyn, well, not so much. Yes, I'm speaking most specifically about the NY Times, unless of course it is about the Park Slope Food Coop, then an article every week is warranted.

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