Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website Matzav.com explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

"There is no alternative": DM Glen on de Blasio's affordable housing strategy

As I've written, Mayor Bill de Blasio sure knows how to steer and spin coverage of his affordable housing initiatives.

Indeed, his latest announcement, claiming significant progress, came with a pre-press release op-ed in the New York Daily News and then a friendly photo-op press conference with an understandably grateful--and very lucky--winner of an affordable housing lottery.

To me, though, the most significant quote came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
said public housing had been “starved” of federal support for years now, leaving the city with fewer ways of creating affordable housing. “Are we relying too heavily on the private sector?” she said. “There is no alternative.” Though Glen was using what she surely sees as a common-sense phrase, it recalls the slogan of a politician with whom I doubt de Blasio identifies: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative who believed in free markets.

It suggests the limits to …