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Brooklyn Matters: race, class, and the Atlantic Yards debate, on film

Forest City Ratner’s new Nets promotional logo, “Bring it to Brooklyn,” uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop. Architect Frank Gehry claims the bridge helped inspire the avant-garde architecture for his 17-building Atlantic Yards project. And Isabel Hill’s powerful new documentary about the project, “Brooklyn Matters,” frames its title shot using the bridge.

Everyone claims the Roeblings’ bridge, harbinger of modernity when first built in 1883, a stately icon of the borough today, even as population growth, gentrification, and deindustrialization continue to change Brooklyn.

Brooklyn “has a unique urban character,” the narrator intones, but “today that identity is being threatened by powerful developers who have their own ideas about reshaping Brooklyn’s future. This is a deciding moment, and the stakes are high.” Hill’s film, less than an hour long, makes a compelling prosecutorial brief against the outsized development. Community members, planners, project critics, and even New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger declare their opposition to top-down planning, a developer spending freely to shape community support, bad urban design, opacity on subsidies, traffic bottlenecks, and eminent domain based on dubious blight claims.

The film was shot in a few months, with the goal of influencing the debate on the project, but that was outpaced by the December state approval of Atlantic Yards. It was applauded thoroughly by a packed house—perhaps 200 people—Thursday night at the Center for Architecture. It was followed by a discussion—part analysis, part rally—of the legal fight and the prospects for better planning in Brooklyn and beyond.

Argument, not portrait

The film is not, nor is intended to be, a balanced portrait. Forest City Ratner wouldn’t cooperate. (Later documentarians surely will have some footage of point man Jim Stuckey at community meetings.) Supporters like the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development’s (BUILD) Marie Louis get only a little screen time. Boosters like Borough President Marty Markowitz and Mayor Mike Bloomberg appear briefly at press events. Critics at times offer exaggerations.

For those new to the controversy, it may be surprising, as a writer for Gothamist noted, that those selling property to the developer had to sign gag orders. Or that Forest City Ratner may be responsible for a portion of the “blight”—empty buildings or poor maintenance—that the Empire State Development Corporation determined as a prelude to condemnation.

Those who've heard many of the arguments against the project (and recognize the arguments made by project supporters), might have heard some new perspective from planner Ron Shiffman, who’s now on the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn advisory board. “I don’t think people have actually been able to visualize what this development will look like, because you can’t do it from the drawings that the developer has put out,” Shiffman says. “If you want to really feel it, I suggest you go up and look at what Trump is doing north and west of Lincoln Center.” (See photos above and below.)

Shiffman adds, “In order to really experience what Ratner is proposing, you have to add 15 to 20 stories to those buildings.” That’s no longer true. Those in the photos, shot by Jonathan Barkey, are 40-50 stories and, after some cuts, the tallest AY building would be about 511 feet tall. Still, the point is that the community hasn't been shown AY visuals; indeed, the no-towers brochure the developer sent to 300,000 Brooklyn households last May comes in for some scorn.

Powerful personalities

The film captures and magnifies some powerful personalities and indelible moments, especially during the August 23 public hearing and follow-up community forums.

City Council Member Letitia James, a project opponent, bookends the film as the first and last person to comment. In interviews shot in close-up, she’s confident and powerful, criticizing developer Forest City Ratner’s record at MetroTech. “Now, all of a sudden, he’s going to create all these opportunities for residents in Brooklyn,” she declares, pausing for emphasis. “False hope. False promises.”

In a segment shot at the rancorous August 23 hearing, James, stylishly professional in a silvery jacket, offers a trial lawyer’s summation, lowering her voice. “Growth is good, but growth has limits,” she says, telling how she recently attended a funeral. “She was seven years old. She lived in Fort Greene. She died from asthma.”

Then James segues into a more bureaucratic description: “The project will elevate ozone levels, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other hazardous particulates…” Boos emerge from the crowd. BUILD’s Louis, in the front row, seems to make a disdainful gesture.

Onlookers debate

Hill, with her camera trained on the line outside, depicts working-class black supporters, wearing stickers indicating membership in BUILD or Public Housing Communities, chanting “I need a j-o-b so I can e-a-t.” Nets star Vince Carter, fresh from a photo-op press conference, jogs by slapping hands.

A black woman with a slight Caribbean accent offers a defense of Ratner: “If he doesn’t do it, somebody else will. That area has been a blight for over 35 years and I’ve seen no one stand up.” Listening in is a white woman, with salt and pepper hair, who has the look of a Park Slope Food Co-op member. “You’re talking about my neighbor’s homes,” she says, intervening.

Another white woman, community activist Susan Metz, declares, “It hasn’t been blighted for a generation.” The first speaker asks how long she's been in Brooklyn, Metz responds, and the first speaker ups the ante by citing her mother's greater longevity in Brooklyn. "I'm not playing that game," Metz responds.

The haves and the have-nots

As I wrote in September, conspicuously absent from the public hearings was any mention of the wealthy condo buyers necessary to the project’s financial success, thus allowing supporters a frame for criticism. Indeed, John Holt, a black organizer from the Carpenters Union, asserts. “This is about the haves and the have-nots... We don’t have nannies. We don’t have people come into our homes, and if they did, we won’t be like you people and not pay taxes on them.” (The “you people” line vaguely recalled one by Ross Perot, who said it in a very different context.)

The developer, observes James (who's black), “has attempted to cast this project in terms of race and class,” and indeed that leads to a clash of emotion and reason. Holt’s testimony is followed by a scene with Candace Carponter and Terry Urban, coordinators of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, two middle-aged, middle-class white women of matronly bearing. Carponter carefully criticizes Mayor Bloomberg’s comment that a call for a delay is to kill the project. “The statement by the mayor is absolutely ridiculous,” she intones, and the room fills with boos.

Anthony Wright, working class black guy—“a member of BUILD” and “also a member of the streets”—is heavy-set, with a grey-flecked goatee and white knit cap with “Allah” on it. He speaks as if offering religious testimony: “Because see, when you go to one of them minimum wage jobs and you come home with $235 and the rent is, you know, $900, it just don't add up. So I want to take a hit off the pipe or smoke some reefer, or drink some alcohol to try to medicate the feelings of pain, you know, and disgust that, you know, I can't make it. But with Bruce Ratner's project, you know, I really, you know, in my heart, and I'm not going to say I believe, I'm going to say I know, that it changes a lot of people's lives.”

Cut to Michelle de la Uz, a woman of color and a middle-class professional, the head of the Fifth Avenue Committee, who in an interview describes the hearing “as orchestrated performance,” noting how union members came and left in shifts. “People who raised concerns were dismissed as being racist... Anyone who wants to see a true public process is disturbed by that. The reality is that, from a business standpoint, it is”—beat—“brilliant.”

We see Shirley McRae, chairperson of Community Board 2, a woman from the black middle-class, enunciating firmly: “Whether you are for this project or whether you are against this project, the community needs enough time to review these massive documents.” Her bureaucratic request is met with a roar of cheers and boos.

Leveling a threat

Then, in the film’s most mesmerizing segment, Darnell Canada, an original organizer of BUILD (who left the group), steps up to the mike. A bulky black man from the projects, Canada is a businessman and a community activist, working with ex-prisoners (and an ex-con himself), but his plea for Atlantic Yards comes off as a thuggish, Mafia-like threat. “The whole community benefit agreement came right out of me and a couple of other people. The whole process of getting jobs, because we need them so bad. And you know what, it really gets to me that people don't care. 'Cause I get up everyday”—he amps it up a level—“60, 70 people running around looking for jobs. And you know what, most of them just got released”—beat—“and they live in your neighborhood.”

“And every day I got to fight to get them to come out and keep trying. But guess what?” Canada pauses for emphasis. “If they stop trying, you're the victim.” Some catcalls. “You're the victim.”

Then Canada, like many project supporters, dismisses the environmental review process. “See, y'all want to save the environment," he utters. "You better save yourselves. You better make sure this project goes through.” Some cheers. “Because, I’ll tell you, if it don’t, you are the victim.”

Shiffman, a white professional with strong progressive roots, in an interview offers some perspective, suggesting that the “desperate” need for affordable housing and jobs “can easily be manipulated by either Ratner or some of the trade unions, to move a project ahead.”

And NYU law professor Vicki Been observes, “The CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] is outside the governmental process. The community could be whoever asserts they represent the community.”

Architecture matters

The dramatic community clashes overshadow, in a sense, a significant discussion about architecture, urban design, and planning, which all get their due in the film. Earlier in the film, architect Gehry, in his black turtleneck, says of Brooklyn, “We’re trying to understand what is the body language of Brooklyn, and we’re trying to emulate it, without copying it.”

New Yorker critic Goldberger, a reasonable fellow, praises Gehry’s “extraordinary architectural experiences,” but says they play off against a context. “And when Gehry himself, has to do the entire context, the entire surroundings, then it doesn’t quite seem to work…. I don’t know if it speaks really to the nature of his talents.”

“Don’t we all read Jane Jacobs?” declares Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute with exasperation. “Don’t we all agree we need the urban grid, and we need street life, and we need short blocks whenever possible? Atlantic Yards is throwing out every principle Jane Jacobs ever proposed.” (Defenders would say that, for a superblock development, city planners are urging more street retail than usual.)

Done deal?

Near the end of the film, James appears at a press conference on City Hall steps, joining those announcing a lawsuit against the use of eminent domain. “Challenge this injustice, because we could do it right,” she says. “This project could be subject to community review.… I stand with the community, and I will see you in court, thank you.”

In an interview on camera closing the film, James sounds both wistful and determined, “When more and more people find out about the actual facts concerning Atlantic Yards, they’ll rise up, as we have done already… And it’s not a done deal. It’s not a done deal. It’s not over.”

On Thursday, in the post-film discussion, Stuart Pertz, a former City Planning Commissioner and now an advisor to the Municipal Art Society (MAS), observed, “There is a city process and a state process that simply doesn’t work… There is no planning process in New York. We need to plan beyond that project.”

“Nobody who’s made the decisions knows the nitty-gritty of what’s gone on here,” added Shiffman, pointing out that one of Robert Moses’s plans was slated for the Greenwich Village neighborhood where the group had gathered: “If that highway had not been defeated, you’d be staring out on the entrance ramp to the Lower Mnhattan expressway.”

Vitullo-Martin reprised Gehry’s quote about emulating Brooklyn’s body language. “That’s really the essence of our disagreement,” she declared. “It simply isn’t possible to duplicate organic neighborhoods with large projects.”

The film will be shown at the MAS on January 18 at 6:30 pm and on February 8 at the Fifth Avenue Committee. Later, it will be shown at the Pratt Institute.


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