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Seeds of Change, new history of ACORN, contains a fundamental myth regarding Atlantic Yards, Bertha Lewis hagiography, plus many AY misreadings

Update: full text of book embedded below.

The demise of ACORN, coupled with the failure to organize sufficient voters to stem the Republican tide in the recent election, has generated some respectful reviews of John Atlas's book, Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, published in June.

I can't disagree much with the analysis from Harold Myerson in The American Prospect and Tom Robbins in the Village Voice--that ACORN was mostly a victim of the right-wing media, fixated on the spurious "pimp" video.

Still, I can't trust Atlas's sympathetic book, because the chapter devoted to Atlantic Yards is riddled with errors, large and small.

Neither of the above reviews addresses the chapter titled "Atlantic Yards, the Nets, and the Battle of Brooklyn," and presumably none of the respected figures blurbing the book (William Julius Wilson, Sudhir Venkatesh, etc.) knew much about Atlantic Yards beyond what Atlas wrote.

Fundamental flaws

Though Atlas adds some texture to the story--notably ACORN leader Bertha Lewis's tendentious account of the deal with Forest City Ratner--the chapter is skewed by focusing on the early years of the controversy.

Atlas concludes that Atlantic Yards was a reasonable compromise and a battle between two groups of Brooklynites: the better-off, and the poor. That leaves little room to examine the larger bypass of democracy, the unhealthy power of the developer-government alliance, and the increasingly tenuous nature of the project's promised benefits.

(It's of a piece with the Brooklyn Paper's mis-judgment that Lewis, in the new play IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, makes a completely rational case for the project.)

More fundamentally, Atlas mythologizes ACORN's role. He suggests that, only after the project was announced did ACORN pressure Forest City Ratner to include affordable housing. Rather, ACORN was on board from the start.

And he fails to analyze--despite clear evidence--how ACORN leaders manipulated their constituents. As I pointed out in August 2006, ACORN negotiated an affordable housing deal in which most of the subsidized units would not be accessible to the group´s core constituency.

Atlas is not unsympathetic to the Atlantic Yards opposition. He's obligated to take AY opponents seriously, as the two progressive activists in Brooklyn who ushered ACORN into New York in the early 1980s wound up on the other side of the Atlantic Yards controversy: Ron Shiffman of the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Rev. David Dyson of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Still, Atlas underplays the breadth of the opposition to the ACORN/Ratner deal among housing activists whose politics might otherwise be consonant with ACORN.

A friendly, misleading review

The book was heralded upon publication by Atlas's friend and (as stated in the acknowledgments) "virtual co-author" Peter Dreier. In a 6/16/10 TPM Cafe review headlined ACORN's Kick-Ass Activism - New Book Reveals the Whole Story, Dreier wrote:
Seeds of Change also recounts the "battle of Brooklyn" that pitted ACORN against one of the city's most politically-connected developers, Forest City, that planned to build a megaproject - including a new arena for an NBA basketball team, luxury housing, and high-rise offices - at Atlantic Yards. ACORN threatened to stop the project if developer Bruce Ratner didn't include a significant number of housing units affordable to poor and working class tenants. ACORN won that fight, but earned the emnity [sic] of the project's opponents, including some local residents, for whom Atlas shows great sympathy, leaving the reader to wonder who won and who lost.
(Emphasis added)
Actually, the book doesn't portray the battle as between ACORN and Forest City, but Atlas still mythologizes the drama enough to confuse his friend Dreier. ACORN never threatened to stop the project after it was announced.

It's not the only instance of crossed wires. ACORN founder Wade Rathke in June commented about the book to former ACORN spokesman David Swanson (who considers the Brooklyn chapter "well-told"):
I’ve told [Atlas] directly that I think it is unfortunate that he made so many simple errors of fact in the writing and in other cases seems to have been easily duped and naive, none of which were necessary and all of which detract, even if these fictionalizations help his ‘narrative’ in some ways. At the same time I have told him that I appreciate the fact that he took the work and the organization seriously and tried as hard as he did with the best of intentions no matter how ill directed.
Full candor? No FCR loan

Dreier, in his review, writes:
Atlas's history of ACORN is sympathetic to the controversial group, but does not shy away from exposing its weaknesses, clashes over strategy, internal power struggles, tensions between white Ivy League organizers and a membership of mostly blacks and Latinos, as well as ACORN's trouble with staff turnover. Atlas' account of the Rathke embezzlement scandal is a fascinating inside story that you won't find in the New York Times, on CNN, or on Fox News.
Yes, but neither mention how Forest City Ratner bailed out ACORN when it needed a $1.5 million grant/loan in the wake of the embezzlement.

And, of course, only recently did it emerge that ACORN stiffed Forest City Ratner by declaring bankruptcy, but the developer didn't seem to mind.

Introducing the book

Atlas, a lawyer, organizer, fundraiser, and writer, has written a serious and readable book, but it verges on hagiographic, at least regarding Lewis.

He's interviewed numerous people, notably ACORN staffers, put in time at local controversies (New Orleans, not Brooklyn), witnessed internal ACORN deliberations (he's been the only journalist at an ACORN national board meeting or staff meeting), and read internal and external documents.

Atlas acknowledges how ACORN's politics belied its structure; by the mid-1980s, 70% of the members were women, most of them black, but white-middle-class men dominated staff decisions.

His bottom line:
The ACORN story illuminates an important tale about how community organizing can enhance democracy, advance progressive politics, and reduce poverty.
Or, I'd argue, in the case of Atlantic Yards, how it can muddy democracy with self-described pragmatism.

Timing issues: AY beyond 2008?

One fundamental flaw in the book is its timeliness. While Atlas does manage to update the book sufficiently to mention the recent dissolution of ACORN and its reformulation into state chapters with new names, he does not, for example, update Atlantic Yards much beyond 2008.

(In large part, the chapter reprises Atlas's AY chapter--readable online--in the 2009 book The People Shall Rule ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice.)

Nor does he update a chapter on the Working Families Party (WFP), co-founded by ACORN, beyond 2004, despite huge questions raised about the WFP's role in the 2009 New York City elections.

Describing Bertha Lewis

On the first page of the book's introduction, Atlas describes Lewis as a "razor-sharp, inspiring leader."

Well, Lewis is smart, theatrical, and certainly inspiring to her followers, but she can be much more than that. How about ornery, combative, and in-your-face? How about race- and class-baiting?

And no, I'm not applying stereotypes to a strong black woman who represents the disadvantaged, I'm describing the Bertha Lewis who's been part of the Atlantic Yards fight. Here's one report, here's her nasty attack on Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein, and here's some video.

Manipulation vs. empowerment

Describing ACORN's early days, Atlas explains how Rathke drew on Saul Alinsky's 1971 book Rules for Radicals, which suggests that organizers must use "guided questioning" to get bring out the community's ideas:
Alinsky admitted that this strategy was manipulative in the same way "a teacher manipulates, and no less, even a Socrates. As time goes on and education proceeds, the leadership becomes increasingly sophisticated... [The organizer's job] becomes one of weaning the group away from dependency upon him. Then his job is done."

The line between manipulation and empowerment is often thin.
True, but Atlas does not follow the thread to the Atlantic Yards controversy, in which ACORN leaders, essentially supporting the project at its announcement, went back to their members to get grassroots buy-in.

"Partnering with the enemy"

ACORN was not averse to "partnering with the enemy," in Atlas's words, citing a successful campaign to get banks to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act and invest money locally and partner with community groups. Hence ACORN Housing Corporation,

Atlas writes:
At first the banks resented negotiating with ACORN. As one community reinvestment banker put it, "The banks know they are being held up, but they are not going to fight over this. They look at it as a cost of doing business." Once banks took off their racist blinders, they discovered new markets and came up with profitable products that met the needs of ACORN's constituents.
After noting that some liberal housing activists criticized ACORN's methods, Atlas cites Brad Lander, "the former executive director of one of the most successful community development corporations in the United States," as defending ACORN.

Yes, but it's a little more complicated. While Lander is later briefly cited as a "critic" of Atlantic Yards, Atlas doesn't point out that the above-mentioned community development corporation, the Fifth Avenue Committee, is forceful critic of AY via BrooklynSpeaks -- or that Lander by May 2009 had emerged as a project opponent.

ACORN's "sophisticated methods" and the media

In living wage campaigns and the subprime crisis, ACORN learned a legal/media strategy. Atlas observes:
ACORN did learn an interesting lesson: that class-action lawsuits could not only help individual victims, but also make ACORN more credible... Daily reporters don't have the time to understand the complex issues ACORN addresses, partly because they involve the unfamiliar territory of inner-city life and also because the sophisticated methods ACORN uses to attack a problem would require a reporter to follow a story over time--time few reporters have.
Atlas's general point is valid--it's not easy for daily reporters to cover the inner city or to cover complicated issues over time.

But not every method ACORN used was sophisticated. Rather, it was sophistry to bring poor people who were deluded about the Atlantic Yards affordable housing to testify at public hearings.

And Atlas doesn't follow his own advice, given his failure to carefully analyze the Atlantic Yards conflict.

Unreliable AY history

Even the lead-in to the Atlantic Yards chapter is unreliable:
It started when Bruce Ratner, a wealthy New York real estate mogul, bought the New Jersey Nets and decided to move the basketball team to Brooklyn. ACORN, looking to ameliorate New York's housing crisis, would be at the center of the controversy with its credibility on the line.
Putting aside the careless redundancy of wealthy and mogul, Atlas has the story wrong. Ratner conceived Atlantic Yards before he bought the Nets. While the team was for sale when the project was announced in December 2003, the deal was not consummated until some six weeks later.

More importantly, there's more back story. As Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises (and Bruce Ratner's cousin), on 9/9/05 told investment analysts:
I will confess that it was less than two or three years ago we were sitting around in New York wondering where the next deals were going to come from. We had finished a whole bunch of office and we completed MetroTech and we didn't have the next great site in Brooklyn. That was one of the reasons we got so aggressive and creative, Bruce and his team did in this Atlantic Yards project. We saw that land sitting there for this last 10 years, realizing it would be a great opportunity if somebody could turn it on.
"Decaying" neighborhood?

The AY chapter begins:
New York ACORN's executive director Bertha Lewis remembers when she first heard about developer Bruce Ratner's plan to "revitalize" a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood. It was at a 2003 rally for Letitia "Tish" James, a Working Families Party candidate for a City Council seat...
(Emphasis added)

A decaying neighborhood? More like a "great piece of real estate," in Chuck Ratner's words, and the last pieces of developable land in steadily recovering Prospect Heights, as the New York Times's Real Estate section attested.

Lewis's roots

Atlas spends three pages detailing Lewis's path to activism, spurred by her ten-year battle in the South Bronx against a neglectful landlord and unhelpful city agencies, resisting eviction and ultimately becoming a homesteader with with her neighbors.

It's valuable perspective for understanding the roots of Lewis's righteous anger.

Potted history

However, Atlas then offers a potted history of the project, which sounds like it was written several years ago and barely updated.

For example, former Nets star (and Brooklyn native) Bernard King gets mentioned twice as a supporter of the project--as opposed to a paid mouthpiece--but he left Forest City Ratner's employ less than a year after the project was announced, in the wake of a domestic violence arrest.

ACORN skeptical from start? No

Then Atlas oddly cites New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's 7/5/05 review of Frank Gehry's project designs before mentioning the 12/11/03 review of an earlier iteration of the project by his predecessor, Herbert Muschamp, who declared AY a "Garden of Eden."

Atlas takes off from that:
But ACORN's Bertha Lewis was skeptical. To her, Atlantic Yards looked like disguised gentrification, another fancy urban revitalization scheme that would evict the poor to benefit the rich.

Seven months later... To the surprise of many, ACORN announced its support for Ratner's Atlantic Yards sports arena and urban development plan.
(Emphasis added)

Actually, Lewis was not skeptical but already on board before Muschamp wrote his gushing review. She attended the opening press conference on 12/10/03.

To quote Atlantic Yards opponent (and former Lewis ally) Patti Hagan, as recounted in The Civilians' new play, IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, the night before the event, Lewis left a message on her answering machine, rasping, "Well, so, I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow at Borough Hall, I guess you’ll be on the outside, and I’ll be on the inside."

Affordable housing from the start

It would have been hard to miss the affordable housing component. The initial public relations push for Atlantic Yards certainly mentioned "affordable, middle- and market-rate housing," but stressed the overall program of "jobs, housing, and hoops." Perhaps the housing deal had not been fully worked out, or that the strategy was to stress it sometime later.

But it was on. At that initial press event (video), Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz declared, "This plan goes even further, creating thousands of apartments affordable to Brooklynites of every income and producing thousands of jobs." (This was noted in the Times.)

Markowitz also said, “A major portion of the apartments will be affordable to low- and moderate-income Brooklynites, making the plan the largest affordable housing development in Brooklyn in many, many years."

“This city needs housing," asserted developer Bruce Ratner. "That housing doesn’t mean only market-rate housing. It means middle-income housing and it means affordable housing. And we will get that done."

Going to the members?

What happened? According to Atlas, shortly after the November 2003 election, Lewis began meeting with ACORN staffers and neighborhood leaders, including Ismane [sic] Speliotis, the director of New York ACORN Housing Corporation.

(Her first name is Ismene; Atlas has gotten it right previously, but errs multiple times here. But we do learn that she's "[e]nergetic, cheerful, and attractive.")

Atlas writes:
During November and December, the ACORN staff brought the issue to the membership. As always, participation was ACORN's key weapon against the widespread cynicism and despair that exists in the communities where it organizes.
That's revisionist history.

Rather the evidence suggests that ACORN members were led astray and remain uninformed. As I wrote in a public response to Atlas in August 2006, members polled about affordable housing were not asked if it would be accessible to those in their income bracket.

By use of the general term "affordable," ACORN encouraged support for the plan by members who would not qualify for most of the subsidized units.

One ACORN Nets Arena Survey that I have shows that 65 percent of respondents reported household income under $30,000, 11 percent $30,000-$50,000, 8 percent $50,000+, and 16 percent wouldn't answer.

Members as props?

In a footnote, Atlas tries to counter commentator and community development professional Mark Winston Griffith, who in a prominent 12/30/05 DMI Blog post, Calling the Question of ACORN, criticized the group, writing:
But if you have ever been to an event organized by ACORN in New York or a meeting with an ACORN organizer, it's hard to see their members as little more than animated props and set pieces in ACORN's elaborate political theater.
Atlas writes, piously:
It is not easy for outsiders to fully understand how the group works, since there have been few studies that document how ACORN makes decisions. Lewis, [Jon] Kest, and most of the organizers and leaders claim ACORN is a bottom-up group, with all major decisions driven by members.
(Emphasis added)

Perhaps the use of the word "claim" means Atlas himself isn't quite sure.

Misinformed members

Evidence bears out Griffith's critique. As I wrote in October 2009, ACORN members at a public hearing were woefully misinformed. Unmindful of the absence of private houses and the very limited amount of low-income housing, one claimed:
Now, in the first beginning, we asked for 50 percent affordable housing, that's rentals and also private houses, two-family houses and one-family houses. And they had to be for people who made $20,000 a year or less, less than $20,000 a year.
Another said, "The people in my building cannot afford $2,000/month rent," not recognizing that a good chunk of the subsidized housing would indeed be at that level.

Their needs and desires for better, more affordable housing are real. ACORN in some cases can help fulfill them. In this case, however, they were too often used as props.

Misreading Bruce Ratner

Ratner, Atlas reports via Lewis's perspective, was "tough, reasonable, and willing to negotiate." But Atlas doesn't understand Ratner too well. He writes:
His father, Albert, founded the real estate company, Forest City, in 1921 in Cleveland...
Actually, as this family tree (from a former version of the Forest City Enterprises web site) shows, Albert is Bruce's cousin, and not a founder of the company. He hadn't been born in 1921.

Atlas also describes New York Governor George Pataki as Bruce Ratner's "college classmate." Actually, Ratner went to Harvard and Pataki to Yale; they met at Columbia Law School.

Unprecedented demand?

Atlas writes:
The leaders and the staff agreed that an unprecedented demand for 50 percent affordable, nonmarket housing would have to be ACORN's bottom line. With their demands ready, Lewis called Ratner to set up a meeting. As usual, she was blunt: "ACORN might support your project if you're willing to build a significant number of truly affordable housing. I mean significant, not the 20 percent stuff. We're thinking half. Poor people, working people, we want half--you can't just do luxury."
Truly affordable? Actually, of the rentals, exactly 20% would be low income, affordable to families with household incomes of 50% of Area Median Income.

About half of the subsidized units would arguably not go to "poor people, working people," not the "we" that Lewis identifies as ACORN members and followers, or what the Daily News called "the real Brooklyn."

As I wrote in November 2007, Lewis declared that "the folks a dollar above the poverty line... are the folks we really need to be putting policies around.” They are, she said, "the missing class," which, according to sociologist Katherine Newman’s book, are the “near poor,” those with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for a family of four.

Only 900 of the 2250 subsidized Atlantic Yards units (of 6430 total apartments) would go to such families.

Truly unprecedented?

In January 2004, Lewis and activists met with Ratner. Atlas writes:
As usual, Lewis was charming. Instead of confronting Ratner and his executives, she calmly proposed a partnership that would preserve profits for Ratner and provide major benefits for disadvantaged Brooklynites.

...Jim Stuckey, the lead manager for Atlantic Yard [sic], said no. He insisted that anything more than 20 percent was not economically viable: "There's no precedent for 50 percent, period."
Actually, in 1998 the New York City Housing Development Corporation initiated the New HOP (Housing Opportunities Program), "specifically designed to increase the supply of housing affordable to middle-income New Yorkers, and the first such program to assist this market in more than twenty years."

The first building was well under way when ACORN was talking to Ratner. NYCHDC closed its first loan for The Aspen in Harlem in December 2002 and on 10/26/04 announced its opening:
The development is the first in the City to mix low- and middle-income restricted apartments with market-rate rental apartments.
(Here's Ch. 13's coverage of The Aspen. Middle-income two-bedroom subsidized units rent for $2385!)

The plan

Not until March 2004 did New York ACORN's board give the green light to negotiate a plan, according to Atlas.

Speliotis wanted some complexes affordable to families earning as little as $18,400 a year.

There wouldn't be many. What kind of families? Only 5% of the units would be geared to the lowest income, 30-40% of AMI. In fact, among six scenarios for the first building, five have no low-income units, and the one with such units would have only 3% (12 apartments) for the lowest-income cohort.


Atlas writes:
ACORN wanted a legally enforceable Community Benefits Agreement...
What does legally enforceable mean in this context? Atlas downplays or ignores the widespread criticism of the Atlantic Yards CBA by CBA supporters. For example, the crucial May 2005 City Council testimony by Bettina Damiani of watchdog group Good Jobs New York gets no mention.

There's no mention of the difference between the AY CBA and others which require the developer to put money in a housing fund or the delays for subsidy unavailability.

He writes:
Speliotis insisted that ACORN be given the responsibility of marketing the units. "Nobody is going to care as much as ACORN that the appropriate people are marketed to, reached and housed," she said.
OK, maybe. But it's worth mentioning that the fees to ACORN also add some strong self-interest to that request.

And, beyond the scope of the book, the absence, as I reported this week, of a required Independent Compliance Monitor also speaks to the lack of enforcement.

The arena, a community resource?

Atlas writes:
Ratner promised... that the arena would serve as a community resource, housing high school and collegiate sports, games, tournaments, graduations, and community activities.
Oh, really? Does a minimum/maximum of ten events a year sound like a community resource? Are big-time college basketball games a community resource or sports entertainment?

The opposition's critique

Atlas, having talked to people like Shiffman, is not unmindful of the opposition's critique.

Atlas, somewhat reluctantly agrees that "[t]o some extent," Atlantic Yards opponent Daniel Goldstein was right in calling the CBA process "a sweetheart, back-room deal that bypasses the democratic public approval process."

He even acknowledges there's some justification to the charge that ACORN's allies are "shell organizations," but adds:
What Goldstein did not understand was that ACORNs deep roots were sufficient to give the Atlantic Yards project street credibility.
Or, rather, cover, especially given shallow reporting.

Other opponents unmentioned

Unmentioned in the book is that long-established affordable housing organizations like the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) and the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC), members of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, have criticized the Atlantic Yards plan and the affordable housing deal.

And it's not just FAC and PACC, which might be said to have some self-interest in competing for scarce subsidy dollars, that oppose ACORN's deal. As I wrote in November 2007, Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, harshly criticized Atlantic Yards.

As I wrote in July 2006, WBAI radio host Scott Sommer, a tenants’ rights activist, offered forceful and sardonic criticism of the affordable housing deal, say "the project should be condemned and destroyed" and noting that affordable units "are going for over two thousand dollars a month."

Confusing account

Atlas writes, with several sloppy errors:
For a while, despite the opposition, it looked like Ratner would get the government approvals and vindicate ACORN's decision to partner with him. But Ratner, FCP [sic], and ACORN had underestimated Goldman's [sic] tenacity. After three years of assembling in living rooms and church basements, Goldstein's group began to gain allies such as the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and another longtime ACORN ally, David Dyson....
The timeline is off; it didn't take close to three years to get the opposition going.

Dyson was critical of Atlantic Yards in an interview conducted in early 2005 and published in April, 16 months after the project was announced. That was about a year after Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn was founded in February 2004.

The Pratt Institute was never an ally but issued an important--and little-noticed--report, Slam Dunk or Airball? in March 2005, 13 months after DDDB was founded. The report undercut the fantasy projections by sports-economist-for-hire Andrew Zimbalist about new tax revenues.

The "unexpected" EIS?

Atlas writes:
Just when it looked like Atlantic [sic] would move closer to fruition, something unexpected occurred. On July 19 [2006], the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) gave its nod of approval for what had grown from a $2.5 billion to a $4.2 billion project and released a 1,400-page environmental impact statement. The state's environmental impact study laid out all the potential effects of the proposed Atlantic Yards project for the first time, and to the opponents they weren't pretty.
(Emphasis added)

Something unexpected

The ESDC merely adopted the General Project Plan as the start of an approval process, rather than "gave its nod of approval"--that wouldn't happen until December 2006--but the environmental impact statement (EIS) was totally expected. That's why it was so long.

Elections key?

Atlas tries to gin up some controversy, writing:
With public opinion appearing to go their way, Goldstein and his allies had two big opportunities to defeat Ratner's plan. They would have to mobilize their supporters in the upcoming September 2006 primary elections to send a message to pro-Yards Brooklyn politicians. Then they would have to mobilize their supporters at the October public hearings required by law.
Yes, had anti-AY candidate Bill Batson beaten fence-sitter Hakeem Jeffries in the 57th Assembly District, it might have made some difference in the Albany debate, though it would not have changed the deal.

However, Atlas doesn't mention it. He cites only Charles Barron's attempt to unseat Rep. Ed Towns; the Congressional race was far less relevant to the project.

Contrary to Atlas's account, there were no public hearings in October. There was a public hearing in August, and two "community forums" in September.

More importantly, the public hearings were all for show, required process that did not change a foregone conclusion.

The race issue

Atlas writes:
A few black leaders opposed the project, but most blacks in Brooklyn supported Atlantic Yards. Opposition leaders like Goldstein were clueless when it came to effectively reaching out to the older, more established network of black community activists.
He then cites Goldstein's notorious "wealthy white masters email."

Well, it's a little more complicated. Yes, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn did not succeed at most of those needed alliances.

Most people were closer to the fence. (And, unmentioned, Barron and some other black critics of AY said they agreed with Goldstein's critique.)

And it's not that Ratner effectively reached out far beyond those who had a financial interest in the project. Three of the five black leaders who denounced Goldstein were from groups that got financial support from Forest City Ratner, while the other two--Roger Green and Carl Andrews--were elected officials who supported the project (and have dubious ethics records).

Did most black New Yorkers support the project? Yes, according to a September 2006 Crain's poll, but actually at a lesser rate than city residents at large. (The statistics are for the whole city.)

And the poll questions, as I've contended, were written in a way to encourage support (e.g., "The project will provide" affordable housing).

And very few black (and local) leaders--including ostensible supporters--bothered to attend the ceremonial 3/11/10 arena groundbreaking.

Let's go back to Mark Winston Griffith, who wrote 11/17/06:
There are good and compelling reasons for people to support the Atlantic Yards project or to fight against it. But as a resident of Central Brooklyn and a black activist who has fought for neighborhood-driven economic justice for twenty years, I'm even more struck by the cost that those of us who consider ourselves part of the "black community" in Brooklyn have already begun to pay for this debate.
Let's be clear: The most recent conversation about Atlantic Yards did not begin with a sober reflection on how to "improve" downtown Brooklyn or the lives of its residents. It didn't have anything to do with developing a "blighted area" or the need to create jobs and affordable housing. It didn't grow out of competing economic development visions between white and black folks, or between the affluent and the poor.
It began with a developer buying the New Jersey Nets, taking advantage of his considerable political leverage in the City, deciding he wanted to appropriate a huge chunk of land in New York, and then spreading enough money around to protect his investment.
Bottom line: pragmatism?

Of the lawsuits challenging the project, Atlas writes:
The opposition's criticism had merit. A private developer shouldn't be allowed to drive the disposition of public property. But ACORN was not powerful enough to stop Ratner's project, force a different type of planning process, and then guarantee the different process would bring a better result.
In the 2009 book, Atlas wrote, "The opposition's criticism had merit but was utopian." He seems to have moderated that slightly.

He writes:
[Letitia] James and other critics may have been theoretically correct when they said a better planned project could provide more affordable housing, with less harmful impact on the area. But that option was not available.
(Emphasis added)

I think hindsight shows that the question was not between Atlantic Yards and a "better planned" version thereof.

And that option was not available because ACORN, among others, decided so. If ACORN itself gave the project credibility, and Forest City Ratner saw ACORN's alliance as crucial to state funding and public support (if not official approval), then ACORN did not simply join a train that was leaving the station.

It could have helped stop the train or changed it.

Instead, it got on for the ride, and supported the project, no matter what, even when contract terms mean the affordable housing might take 25 years, not ten.

(Over 25 years, that's 36 low-income units a year. Does that merit the hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies for housing and the project at large?)

The endgame, 2006 version

Again betraying the fact that this chapter was written years ago, Atlas devotes a paragraph to the attempt by some civic groups to get the Public Authorities Control Board to delay its 2006 vote, and FCR's minor concessions, including the developer's agreement that "[a]t least two hundred of the market-rate condominiums would be subsidized."

What exactly does such an agreement mean?

That FCR will seek subsidies, not devote its own resources.

The Battle of Brooklyn

Atlas concludes by setting out the battle his friend Dreier misread:
This battle over Brooklyn captures the tensions between middle-class professionals who want their particular vision of the city to reign, and the poor who need the new jobs and housing that a big development project like Ratner's can provide... In a conservative era, where government has substantially withdrawn from supporting the poor, community groups have no choice but to directly wrench concessions from private corporations.
(Emphasis added)

It's not that simple. First, the new housing for the poor would be the byproduct of a private rezoning. The same amount of low-income housing could be guaranteed in any large development on public land.

More importantly, their particular vision of the city, in the eyes of many, is not stasis but a process that bring development with some legitimacy. There are huge questions in New York about the right way to develop, and Atlantic Yards has taught a lot of lessons (e.g., CBA) of what not to do.

How many of the new jobs and apartments would go to the poor? Atlas doesn't do any of the math. And the "concessions" are reliant on scarce government subsidies. In other words, by approving the project, the ESDC essentially gave FCR a boost in claiming housing bonds.

Yes, the public battle over Atlantic Yards understandably shows opponents emphasizing the issues most dear to them. Yes, middle- and upper-class residents generally have access to more resources. And, yes, those represented by ACORN generally get too little.

However, I think Atlas's frame is fundamentally wrong: this battle more clearly captures the tensions between the vision of a powerful developer backed by enabling government leaders and those who think there's a better, fairer way to pursue development.

Catching up

Atlas suggests that New York Daily news columnist Errol Louis captured the feelings of many blacks regarding "the emergence in Brooklyn of a pro-development coalition."

Had Atlas shown up at the 3/11/10 groundbreaking, he would've seen signs that coalition had fragmented.

However, even accounting for the fact that a book published in June likely had to be finished at least half a year earlier, the last two years or so go by in less than a page. So Atlas breezes by some important issues:
[Critics] claimed Ratner had consistently overpromised regarding the project's progress and the number of affordable housing units that would be built...

"We are confident we have the clout to push the developer to make good on his promises of the affordable housing component," said Lewis.
They do? The quote, as the 2009 chapter acknowledges, comes from a February 2008 conversation with Lewis.

Ending with a shrug

That's how the 2009 chapter (which has a two-paragraph 2008 epilogue) ends, but here Atlas adds four paragraphs.

He essentially shrugs:
In the event that the 50 percent nonmarket housing agreement gets undermined, ACORN still will have gained, because it has garnered lots of publicity, shown elected officials that ACORN can mobilize a constituency, and revealed to the business community that ACORN can be pragmatic in order to win victories that benefit the poor.

...Unlike ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, ACORN knew that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. It understood the benefits of compromise. "Rather than wait until something happens to use," said Lewis, "we go out and help shape the results." ACORN (the activist, poor people's organization) and Ratner (the rich developer) found a way to work together for the common good.
Well, ACORN may have gained, but that doesn't mean it's for the common good. Or that it benefits the poor significantly. Or that the benefits are worth the costs. Or that the benefits are fairly divided between ACORN's constituency and the developer.

Atlas should've looked more carefully. For example, summing up a section about about race and class, he writes:
When Forest City sponsored an information session on [sic] July 2006 about the project's subsidized housing, the forum was packed with thousands of the area's black working-class and poor residents.
Yes, but he doesn't mention how many were dismayed by the announced rents, or how Forest City timed this session to generate support at a public hearing.

More sloppiness

In the footnotes, Atlas lists several sources, but gets three names wrong: Ismane Speliotis, Cris Owens, and Errol Lewis.

He also describes p.r. workers Lupe Todd and Joe DePlasco (among his interviewees) as "members of Ratner's staff" rather than outside consultants.

Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group


  1. Anonymous5:53 PM

    I just had the opportunity to read your "review" of my book. Your petty complaints and so called factual disputes (really opinions) miss the larger themes of my book. You would never know about ACORN's successful work in housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, the subprime crisis, the living wage movement, gentrification, the helping save the Lower Ninth ward in New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane, voter registration and their work in partisan politics.
    The ACORN story sheds light on all of these issues, which remain relevant today. I connect the intimate links between civic engagement and economic opportunity. I show that when it comes to fighting poverty, organizational size, structure, philosophy and strategy count. The book shows how ACORN was built into a national federation, with local chapters, dues-paying members drawn from the poor, working class and middle class of all races and ethnicities, and capable of acting both locally and nationally, engaging in many issues and using many tactics. The book also dispels the myth that we can only help the poor through soup kitchens, charity and government services. In a country suspicious of state intervention, ACORN’s experience also shows that an activist government, when combined with well-organized, active civil society, can and should be a vital force in the struggle for a just and sustainable society. I do point out ACORN’s errors and the dilemmas groups face when the fight the rich and powerful to improve the lot of the poor. Appropriate for the Obama era, the book is also about hope, the kind of hope that instills in people a belief that the future can be a better day and that individuals, working together, have the power to shape their own destiny, the essence of democracy.

    You on the other hand seem more interested in building a case against ACORN, which blinds you by the bigger picture of how difficult it was to make even a small difference helping the poor since 1970, a conservative era. ACORN made a big difference. You are typical of many of ACORN's opponents and that is why people like you and other liberals are unreliable allies for poor people’s movements. I doubt we will ever see you on the front lines fighting against inequality and the persistence of poverty.

    John Atlas, author Seeds of Change.

    1. My review focuses on the chapter on Atlantic Yards, a topic I have covered at length as a journalist.


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