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Civic activism post-Jane Jacobs: stamina, (AY) "insurgencies," and "retaking our souls"

As with the first two panels in the programs tied to the Municipal Art Society's Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition, on the loss of "soul" and the "activist press," the panel October 16, A Civic Activist Boot Camp: Working Within and Without the System, ventilated a good deal of unease, with only some partial solutions. The session was held at the MAS, with about 100 chairs moved into the two rooms housing the exhibition.

Savitri D of the Church of Stop Shopping led off with a catalog of lament, including, “Dancing is illegal, riding bikes is dangerous… chain stores ascendant in the boroughs… First Amendment rights threatened.. public parks privatized.”

In the middle of that, she cited “major rezonings”—the implication being that such rezonings violate community, though they obviously vary in effect—and also laid the blame on the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development: “Dan Doctoroff is in charge of our future.”

Her partner Reverend Billy (right), the performance artist also known as Billy Talen, suggested some creative pushback, talking of “exorcising the cash register” at an Astor Place Starbucks and sending a bike ride through gentrified neighborhoods. “The First Amendment is our bulwark against consumerism,” he declared.
(Photo by Fred Askew)

The AY example

Architect Marshall Brown, of the Atlantic Yards Development Workshop (AYDW), which produced two alternative plans for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt yard, flatly declared of the architects on his team, “We’re not activists.” (Other partners in the project that created the Unity Plan, like planners Tom Angotti and Ron Shiffman, surely consider themselves as such.)

Why not? “A lot of people practice activism who are trained,” said Brown (right), even as tributes to the not formally trained (but hardly unsophisticated) Jacobs surrounded the group. Moreover, said the thirtysomething architect, “I think the word activism is tied up with Old Left stereotypes” that are easy to dismiss, like sit-ins, hippies, Birkenstocks.

He noted that the pro bono project, to many, didn’t seem to make sense, because Atlantic Yards seems like a done deal. So, why do it? He cited a set of motivations. Given that he used to live in Fort Greene, it was a matter of personal survival, he said. “Professionally, I was offended and felt threatened by the way the architect [Frank Gehry] was used by the developer [Forest City Ratner] as a marketing tool.”

He said it also posed an “entrepreneurial opportunity,” given that big architectural firms wouldn’t touch the challenge, as well as an intellectual endeavor, “a great design problem.” He said he also wanted to contribute to the community, but cautioned the group about claims of pure selflessness; we all do things for complex reasons, he said, citing “the myth of altruism,” as posited by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals.

Souls and strategies

Alexie Torres-Fleming (right) of the Southern Bronx Watershed River Alliance, which is working to demolish the underutilized Sheridan Expressway and create a mix of uses, said her neighbors’ effort is “not just retake the land but retake our souls.”

Joshua David described how Friends of the High Line went from a group that fought City Hall, suing the administration of Rudy Giuliani to block the demolition of the historic 1.5-mile elevated rail line, then partnered with the administration of Mike Bloomberg to turn the site into a park.

David said his previous experience as an activist concerned gay and lesbian issues. He read from a 2006 article by the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp on The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle, “a very particular gay outsider perspective,” how our enthusiasm was not confined to broken-down divas. We also had a thing for broken-down buildings. We can give ourselves a lot of credit for the emergence of architectural preservation as a major force in contemporary urban life.

Out of balance

Moderator Richard Kahan (right) of the Urban Assembly noted that developers are supposed to make money and seek as much subsidies as possible, while “the public sector is supposed to keep that from happening” and, when it’s out of balance, activists and non-governmental organizations are supposed to fight back.

“But how do you win?” asked Kahan, who formerly headed the New York State Urban Development Corporation (now known as the Empire State Development Corporation) and the Battery Park City Authority. (His not-for-profit organization creates small public college-prep high schools in underserved neighborhoods.)

That was a tall order. Reverend Billy suggested, “We win one neighborhood at a time, one person at a time.” He talked about the potential in organizing, citing how, after the 9/11 attacks, people finally met their neighbors.

“We don’t have to win,” Brown declared. “When one looks at the history of mega-projects in New York and elsewhere, very often they collapse of their own weight.” Instead, he said stamina and persistence were needed to conduct “asymmetrical warfare… You can’t be bigger, but you can be smarter.”

(This week the Village Voice declares Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's efforts "Best Noble Failure," concluding, "But no matter how many white papers and challenges to environmental reviews and eminent-domain appeals they seem to file, Atlantic Yards looks increasingly like a done deal." Given that, for example, there's been no ruling on the challenge to the environmental review, and that during the court argument representatives of developer Forest City Ratner looked decidedly solemn at times, such an assessment remains premature.)

David (right) warned against high expectations. “If we had always concentrated on the big win, I would’ve thrown up my hands,” he said. “Winning has to be viewed as an incremental process.”
(Photo from The Villager)

City-wide rationality?

Kahan, the closest to an establishment voice on the panel, expressed dismay that the representatives had to persuade people that “these are good ideas, to build over the Sheridan.” How, he asked, do we get a rational system city wide?

Savitri D suggested, for example, that legislation could place limits on chain stores and banks. Still, she said, “You have to be willing to fail over and over to get anywhere… But I think the idea of rationality in the city is a crazy idea.”

Brown suggested that it was a question of education, citing the need to inform people of the true scope of the Atlantic Yards plan, not just a basketball arena but “17 skyscrapers.” (Actually, 16.) The opposition to Atlantic Yards has been so strong, he said, in part because Prospect Heights and Fort Greene are well-educated communities.

David said his Community Board carries on the long tradition of civic involvement in and around the West Village neighborhood where Jacobs lived.

Planning, not reacting

Torres-Fleming advised to prioritize community-based planning so neighborhoods aren’t reacting to others.

Brown took that up: “The whole Atlantic Yards debacle could’ve been avoided, easily… That site was sitting around for decades, waiting for a plan." (Later, he clarified that he meant the rail yards, not the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site, even though the AYDW is somewhat misleadingly named for the entire project rather than the rail yards component.)

Indeed, as I reported, while there was a plan in the 1970s to build a new campus for Baruch College, that foundered, and there was no effort or need to build over a working rail yard. In March 2006, Winston Von Engel of the Department of City Planning said the city hadn’t looked into it, given the effort to develop sites north of Atlantic Avenue. Forest City Ratner, according to an 11/24/06 article by the Brooklyn Eagle’s Dennis Holt, had been looking at the railyards since 1993.

The role of art

Kahan praised Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 as an example of progress. A questioner brought up the image of a city suffering from autoimmune disease. Brown took up the metaphor: “How do we infect this system? Art is one of the ways.”

Indeed, Atlantic Yards has inspired art (Brooklyn Footprints), music (the Ratnerville Singout), satire (the Brooklyn Bride), and documentation (photographer Tracy Collins' (De)Construction of the Neighborhood, as well as work by Jonathan Barkey and Adrian Kinloch).

What works

Longtime Harlem historian and activist Michael Henry Adams was far less sanguine, suggesting that the panelists were pollyannaish in taking the view that education—in his view, a long process—could have much of an effect. “He suggested a ballot initiative or picketing Bloomberg’s mayor’s house: “Can’t we do something real that will at least make him as annoyed as we are?”

“Harlem will become an ever richer whiter place,” he lamented, talking about the proposed rezoning of 125th Street as well as Columbia University’s planned West Harlem expansion.

Torres-Fleming said, “I can only fight one battle at a time, and noted she was circulating signatures on a letter for her group’s cause.

Brown responded that education doesn’t take that long, citing the effect he’s had on students he teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

Still, he added, “I don’t think there’s a big answer” about what to do, “because we all do different things. People have to look inwardly and ask, ‘what are the skills I have?’”

David suggested that “you don’t have to have any particular skills,” noting that he and Friends of the High Line co-organizer Robert Hammond found experts to help.

Citywide coordination?

Jim Vogel of Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods asked if there was a way to coordinate activist groups around the city. Savitri D was pessimistic: “My experience is that this country, at this time, does not trust movements.”

Brown suggested that “we live in a world with insurgencies and networks.” If the cell is a model, he mused, “how do we turn cells into a network?”

Reverend Billy emphasized the importance of stamina, noting that activist groups can suffer from attrition, while those on the other side can be paid to stick it out.

The politics of professional work

Is writing a political act, a college student asked. Brown said professional work always has a political element, so it’s less a question of adding an explicit layer of politics than recognizing it.

“The design community should have its feet held to the fire" on Atlantic Yards, he said. “Go after the architects and planners, he suggested, as Jane Jacobs did, “just because of their silence… So much of the design community could stand by quietly… it’s an abdication of responsibility.”

While the American Institute of Architects sat out the Atlantic Yards debate, the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association did say that the "proposal raises serious questions of good planning and design."

“There’s an opportunity for all of us to do something,” Torres-Fleming offered.

The unmentioned

"Jane Jacobs was not beholden to any strategy for making change happen," the Boot Camp's promotional material stated and, indeed, there were other factors that got less play during the discussion. One was the issue of money—a well-heeled opposition, such as that funded by Cablevision in the West Side Stadium fight, certainly as an advantage.

Political connections can help. Also unmentioned was the boost that Friends of the High Line got from then City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, the college roommate of Hammond, the group's co-founder.

Eminent domain, the subject of the poster/logo for the event (top), wasn't addresed. And what about the role of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who killed the West Side Stadium as a member of the "three men in a room," the Public Authorities Control Board, yet decided to bestow his blessing on Atlantic Yards? The discussion could've continued to take on New York's peculiar politics.