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Radio show State of the Re:Union's lame take on Atlantic Yards: "Isn't any job better than none?"

Here are the money quotes from the public radio show State of the Re: Union and its Atlantic Yards segment, courtesy of host Al Letson. (The show will run on WNYC this weekend but is available online. You can comment here--though they didn't post my comment.)

Letson's not so much a journalist--his bio reads "Renaissance Man: Playwright/Performance Poet/Public Radio Host-Producer"--so analysis is less important than feeling. Indeed, the name Forest City Ratner is never mentioned in the segment, which lasts less than 13 minutes.

Letson said on the Brian Lehrer Show yesterday that he came in against eminent domain but emerged with a more nuanced sense of the controversy. Yes, he's sincere, but his takeaway is shallow:
But those who oppose Atlantic Yards will tell you that the jobs are a pipe dream, that the work created won't be sustainable middle-class building careers, and they may be right, but I wonder if it matters. In these tough times, when families are losing their homes and unemployment is through the roof, isn't any job better than none?
Isn't any job better than none? Well, no, because enormous public subsidies might be used to create more jobs and more housing.

Main characters

The three characters Letson tracks are former footprint resident and eminent domain plaintiff David Sheets; Prospect Heights neighbor (and, unmentioned, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn activist) Jezra Kaye and family; and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) Chief Operating Officer Marie Louis.

Letson sums up, to a soundtrack of street noise and keyboards:
In the coming weeks, months, and years, David will occasionally wander through his own neighborhood to commune with the ghosts of what was. Jezra and Jerome will look out of their bedroom window, and spot where Atlantic Yards will be. They'll wrinkle their noses as they can almost smell the instant gentrification that 17 high-rises will bring. Marie Louis will drive down the same street in Prospect Heights that as a kid she would've avoided like the plague. She'll see the change she's helping to bring about and think to herself she's doing the right thing. Onlookers will walk by the initial construction of Atlantic Yards and not think twice of what used to be here, but what's happening now, or what it will look like in the future.
Hold on. There won't be 17 high-rises, or even the officially promised 16; there will be a long-lingering construction site and interim surface parking. There probably won't be instant gentrification because there won't be many towers; rather, there will be a basketball arena with its attendant crowds and cars.

And Marie Louis, who lives in the adjacent neighborhood of Crown Heights, not Prospect Heights, won't be driving down "the same street" because that street is almost surely Pacific Street, which will be demapped for superblocks, one for the arena and one to create space for parking, construction staging, and, in the distant future, privately owned but publicly accessible open space.

Opening up

The segment begins with Sheets detailing what it was like to live on Dean Street in the middle of construction activity; his "really nice garden" was dug up in order to take soil samples for the project. He was regularly awakened at 7 am by construction equipment 40 feet from his bed. (Unmentioned: He works the afternoon shift, so that makes a big difference.)

Then we get a quick intro to "the biggest development project in the history of Brooklyn" with quotes from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and various TV/radio news announcers.

Letson narrates:
This Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Heights, is getting a facelift: a new basketball arena, 17 high-rises with condos, a shopping mall, office space. Well, this--this is the future of Brooklyn. But in order for that future to start, the past has to be swept away.
It's not exactly a facelift if the "lift" part isn't finished for 25 years. The office space is a pipe dream.

And it's not so much that the past must be swept away--though it will--but that an unelected state agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, with the city's consent, will override city zoning to install a project of unprecedented density, declaring the site blighted to acquire property by eminent domain.

Sheets goes on to describe life in the neighborhood--"like living in a small town"--and the uphill climb trying to fight eminent domain in court.

Letson's narration:
This is David's understanding of the situation: Rich men look down from their ivory towers at the same block he sees every day, but from their lofty purchase, they see something completely different: from so high up, people look like ants. They don't see a neighborhood, they see a place to build.
Interestingly enough, the "ants" perspective is exactly the one you get from the renderings of the arena and the towers, created as if from a helicopter.

An opponent

Letson asks Kaye, "Can I ask you, what does Atlantic Yards mean to you?"

"Theft," she responds. "Theft of property, theft of billions of dollars of public assets, and fraud."

That sounds like hyperbole, and it is, so it can be used to triangulate the Atlantic Yards debate as the center of clashing perspectives, rather than an analysis of what exactly happened.

"They're outraged by what they see at the city's underhanded attempts to help the developer, like when a neighborhood bridge was closed without notice," Letson narrates.

Actually, Kaye was talking about the the developer closing "a city street in the middle of the night," which I don't think happened without notice.

Questions of development

Kaye's husband Jerome Harris describes living through the "height of the crack period," and Kaye says, "The neighborhood did just fine in coming back from that challenge without any help from any government or any fancy developers. Nobody did anything about it except the people that lived here... and then as the neighborhood was coming back and getting more valuable, that's when they need to come back and say that we're blighted so that they can throw people out of their houses and take their land."

"People like Jezra, Jerome, and David Sheets think of community as something that grows organically from the bottom up," Letson observes. "But others have a different view. They remember the same bad times the neighborhood went through, but draw completely different conclusions."

Hold on. This is a little more complex. Community can grow organically, but if there's to be an enormous increase in density and changed land use--as with Atlantic Yards--such non-organic growth should be a public process. Atlantic Yards, with its dubious blight determination and unelected ESDC, is a bad example.

But Letson and the show treat it as a debate over gentrification.

Enter Louis

"I'm the first generation born of Haitian immigrants here," says Louis, saying she wanted to buy her home in a "community where I was born and raised."

Unmentioned is exactly the boundaries of "community," which is key to an understanding of the AY controversy and the notion of the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that BUILD and allied groups "negotiated" with the developer.

Louis's neighborhood is part of Community Board 8, which includes a segment of the AY site. But all three affected Community Boards either opposed the project as proposed or expressed serious questions.


Letson notes, "In my time in Prospect Heights, everyone I talked to opposed to Atlantic Yards was very skeptical of [BUILD] because its primary funder is the company developing Atlantic Yards."

He let that go without aiming for a neutral party, like those looking at CBAs from a national perspective, who say that's a bad idea for a developer to fund CBA partners. (And he let it go without calling Louis and BUILD on their deceptions.)

Letson explains that the CBA "is a contract signed by several community organizations to ensure that the project gives back to the community by doing things like funding workforce development."

"While the opponents say it's not binding, Marie disagrees," Letson narrates.

Hold on. Read the CBA. Forest City Ratner can get out of the obligation to BUILD by paying $500,000 for workforce training. It's not binding on FCR's successors.

Much more importantly, it's impossible to enforce the obligation to build subsidized "affordable" housing, because that depends on available subsidies, and the Development Agreement signed with the state allows for a smaller amount of such housing and delays if subsidies are unavailable.

Louis gives the standard mantra that "I don't know of any developer that's reached out" to the communities. Unmentioned is that Bloomberg now thinks of CBAs as "extortion."

Gentrification and job training

What's Louis's hope? She cites gentrification. "My hope is that as the community starts to thrive and do better economically, we want to, as much as we can, help people build up their economic wherewithal, so if you want to stay here, you can."

The concern about gentrification is legitimate, but not analyzed is whether this project--and this set of subsidies--is the right way to go about it. So there's no analysis of the affordable housing issue.

Rather, the segment goes to the issue of job training. Letson visits BUILD, where President James Caldwell "is addressing an overflowing room of people, mostly African-American men looking for work."

That leads to an interview with one of those men and Letson's money quote about whether any job might be better than none.

The coda

The show continues with mention of the groundbreaking, with the quote from Bloomberg that "nobody's going to remember how long it took, they're only going to look and see that it was done."

That's bogus, of course, given the persistence of construction and surface parking.

Letson asks Sheets what it's like to lose. "I don't think it's a matter of one side winning," Sheets response. "I think that we lost because our neighborhood is gone... I think that proponents of the project and the public at large are losers because I seriously question whether any of the benefits will ever actually come to be."

Well, with a project this big and the significant subsidies, the public at large may be losers--so says the New York City Independent Budget Office regarding the arena's impact on the city--but there surely would be a good number of people who consider themselves individual winners, with construction jobs and the first segment of subsidized housing.

(Actually, Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov is a winner, leveraging his expected ownership of the Nets as entree to business in America. So are many Nets fans, who will see the team improve. Is that what eminent domain is about?)

Sheets says, "I've heard projections of when the remaining buildings within in the footprint will be demolished. I think that's when it's really going to be strange. There are a lot of ghosts, for me, wandering around out there."

And that leads to the final quote noted above. Too pat.


  1. We, the news consumer, would be better off without this sort of soft news about hard issues.

  2. Re this answer supplied above to the question of what Atlantic Yards means:
    "Theft," she responds. "Theft of property, theft of billions of dollars of public assets, and fraud."

    Yes, as AYR suggests that "sounds like hyperbole" and perhaps it can be used "to triangulate the Atlantic Yards debate as the center of clashing perspectives, rather than an analysis of what exactly happened."

    It "sounds like hyperbole," but is it? Or is "Theft. Theft of property, theft of billions of dollars of public assets, and fraud" really the best practical and most realistic description of what is going on if you are honestly trying to get your bearings with respect to what happened? What other few succinct words could be more accurate?

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York

  3. It's a little scary that a nice guy like Al Letson who comes into Brooklyn with an anti-eminent domain stance was so easily persuaded by Marie Louis and Co. that benefits will actually be delivered, and that anything other than the arena will actually be built. The massive parking lot we all know is coming will blight this portion of Brooklyn for decades, and whatever eventually gets built... well, let's just say that Bloomberg's and Ratner's track records in this area suck.

  4. It seems as if the State of the Reunion segment wasn't a 15 minute hit piece on Ratner, you wouldn't of liked it. Why have we been conditioned to look for journalism in everything instead of the human element? This is a story with both sides. Initially I didn't think the segment was going to get to the other side but it did, and it put it out there in a way that creates conversation instead of hyperbole and incessant demonization.

  5. It didn't even mention Forest City Ratner by name.

  6. He-said/she-said journalism is not only sloppy and lazy, it “creates conversations” that are about the wrong things: “Is there or isn’t there global warming?” (That is not a useful conversation.)

    The moral is: No matter how “sincere,” don’t send a poet in to check a developer’s PR math. Mr. Letson should have at least found a few experts to talk to. I know he didn’t talk to me. Did he call you Norman? You know more about the project than even the developer does, certainly more than the state officials theoretically responsible.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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