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On people power, activist journalism, and the roots of modern Brooklyn

I reported yesterday on the Atlantic Yards angle of the panels Saturday around the Roots of Modern Brooklyn exhibition, but there was much more of interest.

The exhibit at Borough Hall, organized by Brooklyn College Professor Emeritus Jerome Krase, uses words and graphics to convey a time of enormous ferment and change. The bottom line: “Ultimately, it was the power of ordinary people that revived Brooklyn’s proud but struggling neighborhoods.”

Contrast that with the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement, as I wrote last August, which emphasized the role of government, including eminent domain, in reviving the area around the proposed site, while downplaying the equally important role of historic preservation.

The exhibit, and the panels, fill out much more of the story, identifying more non-governmental actors, including neighborhood, borough, and business groups. And there was a palpable unease about whether Brooklyn, for all its progress in recent years, could remain a place of opportunity.

Exhibit highlights

Brooklyn, as is well known declined in the 1950s, suffering from deindustrialization, mortgage and insurance redlining, and the loss of major institutions like the Brookyn Daily Eagle (the cross-the-page final headline: “Landlady Beaten to Death”), the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Brooklyn’s population declined from 2.73 million in 1950, to 2.23 million in 1980, with a major change in racial and ethnic composition, notably a significant decline in the white population and, after 1965, an enormous variety of immigrants.

The exhibit gives credit to civic and business leaders, who created such projects as the Fulton Mall and Renaissance Plaza, as well as utility companies that couldn’t leave. The “people power” relied on new involvements in school board, community boards, and other local institutions. Government was clearly a partner and sometimes a leader, but the city's housing program had the most impact, as the Draft EIS notes, less in the brownstone neighborhoods than the districts most devastated by decline.

Brooklyn and New York suffered from larger economic forces, so the revival depended on the city’s rising fortunes in the 1980s, but speakers at panels described some distinct local efforts.

More cops key

Assemblyman Jim Brennan recalled how, in the 1980s, “drug dealers were everywhere” and controlled large parts of southern Park Slope. There was a daily battle between cops, citizens, and dealers that was frequently violent. That spurred Mayor David Dinkins and Gov. Mario Cuomo to approve tax increases in 1991 that led to 5000 additional officers; add to that 3000 more officers from federal funding and, ultimately 10,000 additional officers, who came online in the era of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Brennan cited block associations, community organizations, and precinct community councils. The police were the main guests at every community meeting. The agenda of the elections of 1985, 1989, and 1993 was “very substantially ‘more cops.’” The significant decline in crime—some 75% from the figures in 1990—mean that “we owe the citizenry a great deal of gratitude.”

Brownstone revival

Noted preservationist Everett Ortner described how he and wife Evelyn bought a Park Slope brownstone in August 1963 for the then high price of $32,000. Seventh Avenue, the main shopping street, was about one-third empty. Those remaining were elderly, so there were no children in the schools.

“Real estate people” were buying houses and turning them into SROs, while on Fifth Avenue, abandoned buildings reclaimed by the city were being turned over to sweat equity investors for $1. (More oral history here.)

The South Brooklyn Board of Trade had just changed its name to the Park Slope Civic Council and launched its now-famous house tours in 1962. A writer, editor, and photographer by trade, Ortner got involved in promoting his neighborhood.

He and fellow activist Joe Ferris saw a house on the market and feared it would go to a speculator; instead they found a buyer. They formed the Park Slope Betterment Committee giving tours.

Ortner stressed an under-appreciated factor in the “revival of Brownstone Brooklyn and Brooklyn as a whole: the Brooklyn Union Gas [BUG] company.” He described how BUG restored a broken down house and, with the help of his wife Evelyn (an interior designer), turned it into a model.

The company contributed to other projects under the Cinderella program and the sponsored Brooklyn Brownstone fairs, which attracted as many as 25,000 people came in one weekend in the 1970s. BUG also backed a national conference, titled “Back to the City,” and the organizers made sure the 250 attendees got to eat dinner in a brownstone home somewhere in the city.

BCUE beginnings

John Muir, founder of the Prospect Park Environmental Center (PPEC) recalled how, the park “was absolutely scraping the bottom of the barrel in the mid- to late-1970s.” The whole park seemed to be dying, as it was full of derelict buildings used by squatters or shirking parks workers. “But this park—you could see its magic, behind the deterioration. It was a world-class park.”

Local activists first made sure they retained the role of citywide institutions, like the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, that performed annually in the park. Then they worked with theater groups and day camps to make sure the park was used.

Muir recalled that the police, who were typically reactive rather than deterrent, thought the parks advocates were nuts. Most locals were asking for the park foliage to be decreased, not increased, since it allegedly served to hide miscreants.

The activists began a dialogue with the parks department and agitated for more money for staff and trees. The PPEC started in 1977, “on a wing and a prayer,” during the depth of the civic crisis, when New York was nearly bankrupt. The group organized school trips and public walking tours.

One Friday, Muir recalled, the New York Times published a preview of the tour on the front page of the weekend section. Some 300 people lined up to pay a dollar for a tour of the park and the nearby “Gold Coast.”

In 1984, PPEC got use of the park’s renovated Picnic House; in 1988, it moved to the renovated Tennis House, and in 1989, it became the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment (BCUE), the largest such center in the country and the principal provider of environmental education to schools in the city.

Muir retired as executive director five years ago. Next month, the park will take over the Tennis House for its own use and BCUE will move into commercial space into a neighborhood Muir described as “a little behind the curve”: Gowanus.

Coping with change

Veteran State Senator Velmanette Montgomery expressed some uneasiness about the current situation: “It seems that the developers have come and discovered us, and we never thought we were lost... and they’re going to build a new city on top of us.

Brennan noted that the city faces a challenge in accommodating increased density and population. Many people moved to Brooklyn because they loved its residential character, he said, but there's a difficult balance between growth and preservation of neighborhood character. (Brennan has called for the Atlantic Yards plan to be downsized by a third, albeit with additional subsidies, for which he was criticized by both supporters and opponents.)

Muir cited the recent rezoning of Fourth Avenue as “so far, very hopeful,” since at allows taller buildings on a “big wide boulevard” yet preserves scale on the adjacent blocks. (As noted, much of the rezoning doesn’t require affordable housing.) “The trick is to save the one while making room for the other.”

Muir’s observation is an argument for taller buildings along wider corridors like Atlantic Avenue, and, an implicit acknowledgement that the mid-90s rowhouses built just north of it represent a missed opportunity for density.

Hamill’s words

A live panel taped for BCAT suffered from some diffuse commentary, but the host, author Pete Hamill, was eloquent. He described the Eagle as one of the great factors in binding the borough together.

As for the role of the Dodgers, Hamill pointed out, “[Jackie] Robinson didn’t just integreate baseball, he integrated the stands.” The Dodgers’ departure in 1957 “was a crushing moral defeat.”

While the 1970s and 80s were a time of revival in brownstone neighborhoods, Hamill noted, many Brooklynites—white and black and Puerto Rican—had a sense of hopelessness, “contaminated” by guns and drugs.”

Hamill expressed incredulousness at the changes in his native Slope, where a dry cleaner became a wine bar and a Barnes and Noble and an art supply store emerged.

The name of a new neighborhood, “Greenwood Heights,” he said, “fills us with laughter, but without mockery.” He added, “We’ve gone from the age of redlining to fraudulent mortgage-granting.”

Affordable Brooklyn?

Still, Hamill noted, there are losses. “We have to have a Brooklyn where a kid who wants to be a painter can have a place to paint.” Similarly, someone who wants to be a writer or pursue a not-so-profitable career should be able to stay, he said.

Krase, professor emeritus of sociology at Brooklyn College, recalled growing up in the once-integrated Red Hook Houses and making it up the 9th Street hill to Park Slope.

“The opportunities Brooklyn afforded to me and my family—I’d like to make sure those opportunities are available today,” he said--a pregnant question that generated no immediate answers.

Panel of reporters

A panel of journalists described their experiences in the 1970s and 1980 working for the Brooklyn Phoenix (1972-1995) and other neighborhood publications.

Phoenix alumnus Doug Tsuruoka, who started a rival paper called Prospect Press, recalled how, in the late 1970s, blocks off Seventh Avenue in what is now called the South Slope were full of boarded-up buildings, covered in graffiti, occupied by junkies.

The buildings were no so much abandoned but owned by speculators holding them for future gain. When his newspaper ran a series of articles pointing fingers at the landlords, Tsuruoka said, reporters found themselves threatened, with tires slashed.

“There was a dark side to gentrification,” Tsuruoka allowed. “We started to lose some of the diversity,” given that longtime residents were priced out. The same issues, he said, persist today: affordable housing, public education, and quality of life.

Change coming

Dennis Holt, now of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, observed, “I think the last 20 to 25 years, and the coming ten to 15 years will be the most exciting period in Brooklyn’s history.” He noted that was once a slow evolution is now coming in “big chunks.”

Gentrification now has a different pattern—all of a sudden, tall buildings are being built, living in Brooklyn with a view. On his Bergen Street block in Boerum Hill, he noted, a neighbor bought a brownstone that had been turned into a rooming house, with 54 residents. “We don’t see that anymore.”

Holt brought a prop, a small bucket in which to hold pencils, that was given out at the 6/26/89 construction start of Forest City Ratner's MetroTech. Though he allowed that any benchmark was arbitrary, he said, “It’s about as good a date as we have to indicate a building of the new Brooklyn.”

Holt pointed out that, by comparison to the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, Atlantic Yards is “a far simpler plan.” “There are buildings going up that no one believed would be built,” he said. (There was no set of models for Downtown Brooklyn, obviously, since it was a rezoning rather than a specific plan.)

Broader look?

JoAnne Wasserman, deputy metro editor of the Daily News, noted that, while the News has done stories on the immigrant melting pot, she worried that journalists who live in brownstone neighborhoods don’t get out enough.

Michael Powell, now of the New York Times, acknowledged, “We tend to be both class- and race-based.” A one-time tenant organizer, he returned to East Flatbush recently and saw a thriving West Indian community where there were once abandoned buildings. “There’s a far more dramatic story happening over a broader swath of Brooklyn.”

He recalled that, during the era of the early Phoenix, “a lot of the future of Brooklyn was up in the air,” citing community empowerment battles all over the Borough.

Activist journalists

While the Phoenix was a shoestring operation, “there was a spectacular freedom," Powell recalled. "You could do these long sprawling investigative pieces. “ Now, he said, “I think there was a vitality, frankly, to the press… that you don’t see today.”

He cited a consolidation and corporatization of Brooklyn in general, “and I think you’ve also seen that in the media. You have certainly some perfectly nice papers here,” he said, but argued there’s a “waning of the activist ethic.”

(Nobody defined "activist journalism," but my sense was that it didn't mean taking sides but rather a willingness to devote time and resources to issues the journalists felt important, even if they were not following their readers and advertisers.)

Wasserman recommended Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle for an account of “what it was like to work for Mike” Armstrong, editor of the Phoenix, “including the checks that bounced.”

Added Wasserman, “She does a really good job of recounting, for all of us, what Michael [Powell] said, the freedom, the feeling that you were really on the—you were an activist journalist, but it was a terrific feeling, so Mike should really be congratulated for that.”

Preservation issues

Borough Historian Ron Schweiger noted the launch of the Four Boro Preservation Alliance, formed in response to overdevelopment and out-of-character development outside of Manhattan. He cited the demolition of turn-of-the-century Victorian homes in Flatbush. “There’s nothing wrong with development, but it’s got to be done in the right way, in the right area.”

Holt lamented underfunding of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. And that led to Powell’s comments, reported yesterday, about the Bloomberg administration’s failure to challenge developers during this “boomtown.”

Manhattanization worries

At an earlier Roots of Modern session April 26, former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden warned against the Manhattanization of Brooklyn, according to an account by Brooklyn College journalism professor Paul Moses in the Center for the Study of Brooklyn blog.

Moses wrote:
He complained that Manhattan is being overbuilt with luxury housing, attracting too many people to the city. The problem he saw was not so much with Manhattan's prosperity as its impact on Brooklyn - that excessive building in Manhattan is having a spillover effect in Brooklyn. His borough is becoming Manhattanized with high-end housing developments that raise housing costs, pushing out Brooklynites who can no longer afford to live here.
"The people who are leaving here are not the people we want to see leave," Golden said.

Moses noted that “Golden's remarks seemed off-agenda” given the mostly celebratory air of the conference. Moses considers Brooklyn’s “public conversation” to be insufficiently skeptical, noting that it’s dominated by those who moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan.

Of course, one of the biggest boosters of Brooklyn’s growth is the uber-Brooklynite, current Borough President Marty Markowitz. On Saturday, Markowitz spoke briefly, giving Golden numerous kudos for the improvements on his watch. But Markowitz can’t be a huge fan of Golden’s cautions.