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Brutally weird: in new book on Brooklyn, departed Stuckey spins for AY, sans rebuttal

On the heels of Marc Eliot’s awkward, not-quite-oral history, Song of Brooklyn, comes another from Florida-dwelling sports book author Peter Golenbock, In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World, with another distorted view of Atlantic Yards, courtesy of former Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey, whose self-serving statements go unrebutted.

For example, Stuckey claims that the developer has spent its own money on land acquistions and infrastructure that the city has paid for; he asserts that the "legislature" approved the project; and he suggests that New York will turn into Detroit unless the city "steps up" and helps projects like Atlantic Yards move forward.

And, in a master stroke reminiscent of his work spinning the New York Times, he claims that the critics, not the developer, are creating a deceptive picture.

Overstuffed and unbalanced

This lengthy (nearly 700 pages) book is both overstuffed (the interviews could be trimmed) and skewed, showing a distinct legacy from the author’s Brooklyn Dodgers’ oral history, Bums. (Of 46 interviewees, only three are women and none, as far as I can tell, are under 40.

While the Dodgers and early/mid-20th century left-wing politics get a good airing, the institutional causes of Brooklyn’s post-WW II decline get scant notice, and the impact of historic preservation and immigration on the post-1960s revival get mostly ignored (except for the singular case of Soviet Jews).

Rap music? South Asian and Arab Muslims? Caribbean-Americans? Not here, except for a mention of Shirley Chisholm’s protege [updated] and an interview with Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Collective.

While telling the story of Brooklyn is inevitably impossible, Golenbock pretty much punts on the present-day borough, telling the story of the 1980s through the 21st century via only nine people, two of them developers.

Worthy nuggets

Interviewees like author Pete Hamill and DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow are predictably good; even better are Daily Worker sports editor Lester Rodney, a crusader for sports integration, and historian John Hope Franklin, the first black “hired at a major white college" (and incoming history chair, to boot, at Brooklyn College), who was stymied in his attempt to find housing in Brooklyn.

Old-timers (and the voluble Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa) portray a rougher Brooklyn: corrupt street cops, race battles at schools, and even the struggle to get a free table at Lundy’s.

No counter-evidence

There’s a neat trick to these oral histories: you can bulk up a book with testimony rather than analysis, and it’s easy to disregard counter-evidence. There’s also no obligation to fact-check the interviewees even on basic information, so, when one recalls that 1851 East 32nd Street meant “we weren’t far from Red Hook,” the Florida-based author doesn’t tell us that the location is close to Kings Plaza and rather far from Red Hook.

Rival author Eliot, who comes off as Woodward and Bernstein compared to Golenbock, achieved some counterpoint by popping in quotes from secondhand sources. Golenbock, when it comes to Atlantic Yards and Coney Island, sups at the feet of Stuckey and then Thor Equities' Joe Sitt.

So that means that readers of this book get the Atlantic Yards story from Stuckey (right), once president of the Atlantic Yards Development Group, with an assist from Borough President Marty Markowitz and a mention from one project supporter.

(Photo from PBS Newshour.)

Layers of weirdness

The most brutally weird thing in the Atlantic Yards chapter is not that Golenbock relies solely on Stuckey. It’s not that the interview occurred just two weeks before Stuckey’s mysterious departure, which might have given the author some pause. It’s not that Stuckey, whose FCR bio deemed him "an accomplished musician, capable of playing ten instruments," doesn't mention his musical prowess.

And it’s not even that Stuckey, who like other interviewees supplied personal photos, agreed to share with the world a picture of his teenage self (and future wife) at his high school prom. (Click to enlarge--the scan is from a pre-production galley.)

No, it's that Stuckey, famous for his November 2005 claim to a credulous New York Times reporter "It's Orwellian, almost," regarding critics' charges of little transparency, claims that “the opposition to this project hopes if they say something enough times, people will believe it.”

It’s Orwellian, almost.

"Atlantic Yards" and O'Malley

Golenbock makes the fundamental error of periodically backfilling Brooklyn history with the term “Atlantic Yards,” which didn’t exist until it was announced by Forest City Ratner in December 2003.

And he more than once repeats the canard that Walter O’Malley wanted to move the Brooklyn Dodgers to the same site as Atlantic Yards, though the actual location was across Atlantic Avenue.

(It makes me wonder: if the New York Times hadn’t stonewalled a request for a public correction, maybe authors like Golenbock would get it right.)

So that leads to passages like this, about a Brooklyn man named Abram Hall:
[S]o in the fall of 1987 he returned to his Brooklyn roots, first settling in Fort Greene near the Atlantic Yards, where Walter O’Malley had wanted to move the Dodgers...

Or this quote from Markowitz:
I didn’t know about the role Robert Moses played in not letting the Dodgers build a new ballpark at the Atlantic Yards.

(Later in the interview, Markowitz more accurately says it was “opposite” where O’Malley wanted to build.)

Dubious logic re Prospect Heights

Hall “remembers when his Prospect Heights neighborhood was a slum,” and thus is among those rooting for Ratner.
Those of us who lived here when Prospect Heights was a crime-ridden empty area remember what it was like. We knew where we wanted Brooklyn to go based on where we started. But the people who moved in just ten years ago, they liked it the way it was, and they don’t want it to change. But this is a snapshot. It is not the end of the movie.”

But many question claims of blight when the area already began to recover.

Hall may not be the most reliable witness; for example, in describing the Brooklyn Marriott, he shows a dubious grasp of the hotel business:
It has a very low vacancy rate. For some strange reason a lot of people who come to the city don’t want to stay in Manhattan, but they don’t mind staying in Brooklyn.

Hall asserts that people in black and Hispanic neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant are “100 percent for” Atlantic Yards. That picture is complicated by the opposition of East New York City Council Member Charles Barron, who’s interviewed extensively in the book but not asked about Atlantic Yards.

Basic errors

Golenbock’s grasp of Atlantic Yards is shaky. No, 50% of the housing would not be for low- and middle-income residents; that’s 50% of the rentals.

No, the Public Authorities Control Board didn’t vote its approval in February 2007, and that was not “the same time” Ratner sold the naming rights to Barclays Bank. No, the parent company in Cleveland is not named “Forest City Developers.”

Stuckey’s grand sweep

The Stuckey chapter begins by describing his work on the MetroTech complex as a representative not of Forest City Ratner but of the city's Public Development Corporation, precursor to the Economic Development Corporation.

Golenbock describes Stuckey as a “magician” in both finding a developer (FCR) to build MetroTech, which would help keep Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and attracting tenants to the complex. Unmentioned: the significant subsidies that accomplished the magic.

Stuckey, for years a resident of Staten Island, talks about his life growing up in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park:
There were all sorts of fights between the Puerto Rican gangs and the white gangs. It was very much a West Side Story kind of situation. Unfortunately, I was not always a spectator, but I don’t want to glorify it.

Stuckey's empathy

He links his youthful experience in making friends across racial and neighborhood lines to his work on the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, a link, perhaps to an author enamored of the Jackie Robinson example, to the book's subtitle:
I think deep down inside, how my empathy for the less well-off led me to make sure some of the local groups--predominantly African-American and Caribbean-American groups, will be involved in the job growth and the development of the Atlantic Yards project... I look back and wonder how maybe those years were very formative in my understanding how important it is today to do a community benefit.

Or maybe it was strategy.

Markowitz and hoops

Stuckey claims Markowitz wanted any pro team:
If you go back to when Marty became borough president in 2002, one of his promises was to bring a professional sports team to Brooklyn. When he first called, he wasn’t partial to whether it was baseball, basketball, hockey, or soccer.

Actually, Markowitz, in March 2002, announced he wanted to bring an NBA team to Coney Island.

Spinning the creation story

As for the location for an arena, Stuckey says it was unresolved; in doing so, he merges the project’s name into the location:
The idea of doing it at the Atlantic Yards was not necessarily a front-burner idea on anyone’s plate. And then, as much as Marty pushed, Bruce agreed that we would look into this.

Well, consider Forest City Enterprises’ executive Chuck Ratner’s version of the creation story:
We saw that land sitting there for this last 10 years, realizing it would be a great opportunity if somebody could turn it on.

Who pays for the "fair deals"?

As for eminent domain, Stuckey asserts:
We worked diligently to make fair deals, buy people’s homes and businesses so what’s left, predominantly, that has to be condemned are vacant lots and abandoned buildings, chop shops, places like that.

Well, not really. And many of the "fair deals" are based on the public's money, via the city’s $100 million contribution, we now know.

Approval by the legislature?

As for public approval, Stuckey says:
Ultimately we had to be approved in the state process, but we had to have the city planning people help us with design. We had to negotiate a business deal with both the state and the city. We had to get approved by the Public Authorities Control Board [PACB], the governor, the legislature--assembly and senate.

Well, the “three men in a room” PACB consists of representatives of the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Assembly Speaker. No legislative vote was taken.

A sop to critics

Golenbock does offer a sop to critics:
While researching Jim Stuckey’s interview, I saw that the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project was fierce and constant. I read Stuckey a laundry list of the major complaints: the project is too big; it will bring too many people to the area; there isn’t enough low-income housing in the project; the character of Downtown Brooklyn will change too dramatically; the area will become too much like Manhattan; Bruce Ratner will make too much profit; the project tears down too many landmarks; the public schools will become too crowded; Ratner has tricked everyone using sleight of hand; the tax giveaways are too great; the centerpiece of the project, Frank Gehry’s sixty-five-story building, is ugly; the residents were never consulted; blacks will we driven out of central Brooklyn; who wants a basketball team anyway?; and finally, the only reason Ratner is doing this is for the money. I could hear Stuckey let out a long sigh when my recitation was completed.

Well, as a laundry list, it can sound incoherent, and some of those criticisms are far more valid than others. What they need is a closer look, but it sounds like Golenbock didn’t even come to Brooklyn for the interview.

Had he visited, he might have cited the issue of eminent domain for a private developer and the bypass of the city’s land use review, essentially turning Atlantic Yards into a private rezoning.

Stuckey’s response: I’ve heard all of those too. And we obviously have responded.

The "beauty" of working at FCR

He goes on to defend “the beauty of working here at Forest City Ratner,” where those at the campany can make a difference in a city that needs to grow, that faces a housing crisis in the midst of growth.

Does the “beauty” include having Stuckey’s presence scrubbed from the FCR web site, with no thank you, after his departure?

Opponents newcomers?

Then he gets to the point:
And then you have to also look at the fact that the ones who get hurt traditionally are the poorer people, the minority populations. In fact, if you were to look at the demographics in Brooklyn, and if you were looking at the people lobbing the criticism, largely they are the wealthier people who have lived in the neighborhood less than ten years--most less than five years.

Well, some are, but testimony at the DEIS hearing showed a lot of long-time Brooklynites.

Defending density

Stuckey defends building density near public transit, which is of course logical--the question is how much density. Critics like planner Ron Shiffman warn that the project exceeds the carrying capacity of the area.

Stuckey’s financial deception

Stuckey continues:
Now layer on top of that the fact that in order to build this, we had to spend a tremendous amount of money to acquire properties, to acquire condemnation, and on top of that, we have had to spend about $600 million on infrastructure, building platforms, relocating rail yards, doing subway connections, doing new sewer and water mains, rebuilding bridges over Sixth Avenue and Carlton Avenue--it’s going to cost $50 million alone just to clean up the dirty soil there. So before you put a shovel in the ground, you have close to a billion dollars in cost between the infrastructure and the land. So the basic economics demands you do a certain density if you're going to build there at all.
(Emphasis added)

Hold on. Who’s “we”? The city has contributed $100 million for land and $105 million for infrastructure. The state is contributing $100 million for infrastructure. The city is paying for rebuilding bridges, subway connections, water mains.

In a May 2006 radio interview, Stuckey offered a similar formulation, but used “one” rather than “we”:
In order to develop on the site, one has to spend $600 million on infrastructure before you could put a shovel in the ground for a residential building or for the arena. You have to build railyards, you have to build subway connections, the platform, retaining walls, you have to relocate sewers. It’s $50 million alone just for the cost of cleaning up the environment. The site today is not a very clean site. You put all that together, as well as you look the cost to assemble land, you get close to $900 million.

In a July 2006 radio interview, he said:
There are $650 million worth of public infrastructure that has to be built before the first shovel goes into the ground to build a single affordable housing apartment or the arena or any other part of this project. There’s another $350 million of cost, of money that we would have spent on acquiring land to avoid condemnation. A billion dollars before you start. I think that’s a very significant investment. That does deserve to make a profit. It is, after all, America.

Again, he suggested that the developer was spending the money.

“Not a shred of truth”?

On a page of the book that includes a picture of Stuckey and his wife celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary, the interview continues, spinning furiously:
So while it’s easy to make the developer the target--it’s a TV story line: corrupt officials, big developer, overdevelopment--we can all write that script. We’ve seen it on TV a million times. But when you peel back the onion, there’s not a shred of truth to it. Everyone knows the hundreds of meetings I’ve been to.

At very few were critics allowed to ask questions.

They can’t dispute that I’ve gone out into the community more than two hundred times. They can’t dispute the fact I’ve made two city council presentations ...

But the city council has no vote, because the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) was bypassed, for a state process.

I’ve gone to community board meetings where we had support from more than nine hundred people from three community boards.

What’s he talking about? Maybe the joint meeting of three CBs at the Klitgord Auditorium in November 2004, where the crowd was highly divided (and supporters got preference, according to DDDB).

Later, Community Board 6 voted that it could not support the project in its current form, while CBs 2 and 8 filed testimony expressing strong objections to or concern about the plan.

But the opposition to this project hopes if they say something enough times, people will believe it.

Or, perhaps, that's Stuckey's tactic.

Brooklyn = Detroit?

Stuckey continues;
Well, the fact is, it’s not true. Unless the city steps up, unless the people step up and do this, then this city is a goner, it’s dead. It will become the next Detroit or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or other cities where people see there is no growth and decide to leave. If companies don’t have workers who can live in the city they are going to go to cities where they can get cheap labor. This is not rocket science. You can see how strongly I feel about this.

Actually, New York has no chance of becoming the next Detroit, a city based on one industry, with no public transportation, and which is not exactly the country’s cultural and financial capital.

The question of where to place “workforce housing” is a pressing one, but it's a citywide challenge. Atlantic Yards remains mostly a luxury housing project.

And when Stuckey talks about whether “the city steps up,” he’s certainly not endorsing an open bidding process or ULURP, either of which might have delivered a project that gained more public support and delivered affordable housing earlier.

Listening to whom?

Stuckey asserts:
These criticisms are not the community view. Polling shows that close to 70 percent of the people in both Brooklyn and New York City as a whole support this project.

Actually, the highly questionable poll from Crain’s was 60%, though it went up to 71% after people were read some rather favorable statements about the project.

Though the poll was misleading, Golenbock's treatment of Atlantic Yards is worse. In fact, it's brutally weird.


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