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Paging Cincinnatus: how (the only?) two models of civic virtue were unable to criticize Atlantic Yards

It's not just that the press has trouble departing from the spoon-fed consensus on Atlantic Yards. So too do elected officials and organizational leaders, either supportive or silent though, for example, the affordable housing--despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's words--skews from the "original promise."

Morgan Pehme, the (recently departed) editor-in-chief of City and State, wrote, in his thoughtful 8/28/14 essay Paging Cincinnatus, about the difficulty in finding models of civic virtue (like the revered Roman) in New York, people willing to look beyond their own interests to the common good.

Ironically, his two admirable examples, former Parks Commissioner and New York Civic head Henry Stern and former MTA rescuer and former Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, were both unable to utter criticism regarding Atlantic Yards, whether for dubious use of eminent domain, (apparently) free public land, or departures from longstanding promises regarding housing or, say, the Independent Compliance Monitor.

Pehme cited the effort for honest redistricting led by Stern, along with the late former Mayor Ed Koch. (Pehme worked for Stern at New York Civic, now inactive.)

Stern, however, lacked Koch's profile, acknowledged Pehme:
It’s a shame, because now is one of those moments in our history when our system is so distressed and rotten that we could really use another Cincinnatus— an elder statesperson who comes out of retirement to champion the people’s interest armed with the unique purity of purpose possessed by a politician who clearly has no future electoral aspirations. Unfortunately, so many of our esteemed leaders of past generations continue to derive their livelihoods from government, and thus their ability to speak truth to power is compromised. Others have significant financial interests that deter them from making waves with those who could affect them adversely. Then there are those who are the parents of current officeholders.
One notable exception to these disqualifiers is Richard Ravitch, who despite his wealth has never shirked from taking bold stands, and has on at least two occasions already played a significant role in wrestling New York back from the brink of disaster.
Is it possible that Ravitch and Stern are our only remaining leaders of yesteryear with the virtue and audacity to serve the people without strings attached? Surely there must be others. Now is the time for them to step forward.
What about AY?

When it comes to Atlantic Yards, a clear issue of good government beyond the muddy question of whether Brooklyn "needed" an arena, Stern and Ravitch were supportive or silent. Both men--who have very admirable records in general--were compromised, as far as I know, for reasons of history and family.

Call it Bruce Ratner's luck that he found Stern as a mentor early in his career. Recognize Ratner's savvy to send contributions to Stern's fledgling organization, leading to Stern's overall silence but basic support for Atlantic Yards, as I wrote in December 2005.

And call it double-luck that Ratner used investment banker Joe Ravitch, son of the statesman, in deals to both buy and sell the Nets.

From Ravitch's memoir: HDC

Ravitch's recent memoir, So Much to Do, has received numerous good (though, from the right, measured) reviews.

A couple of elements struck me. For one, in 1971, Ravitch "suggested that Mayor [John] Lindsay ask the governor and state legislature to establish a new financing agency that could issue bonds like those issued by the state’s housing finance agency,and I worked with the mayor’s staff to draft the legislation that created the New York City Housing Development Corporation."

That's the agency that issues bonds for projects like Atlantic Yards.

From Ravitch's memoir: no campaign contributions

Also, Ravitch describes a certain amount of old-fashioned virtue. Because his family real estate company HRH Construction "did business with the government, I rarely contributed to any New York state or local candidates," he wrote.

That's exactly the opposite pattern of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and many prominent members, including Bruce Ratner.

From Ravitch's memoir: working for no salary

It's notable that Ravitch, like other wealthy men in government like Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, worked for no salary. Why is it that Ravitch was perceived as doing it out of virtue while, for Bloomberg and Doctoroff it generated criticism, such as from Lee Siegel in the Observer in November 2011:
When Mr. Bloomberg’s rich appointees boast that they are taking only one dollar as an annual salary, they want to demonstrate a public servant’s self-sacrifice. But what they are really doing is displaying an investor’s indifference to the relationship between money and work.  
Perhaps because Ravitch was clearly trying to do the right thing.

From Ravitch's memoir: no press agent

Also, Ravitch states that he never used "a press agent or public relations firm—not out of an excess of modesty but because I quickly understood that if you are seen as seeking self-interested publicity, the press will lump you together with all those politicians whom journalists view as manipulative supplicants."

Well, Bruce Ratner is not a politician, but he can be a "manipulative supplicant," and the press plays along, whether it be regarding arena food or help for a blind ex-slave or a "100% affordable building" that's not so affordable.


  1. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Let's not forget over the past couple of years there has been how many Presidents/CEO's of Empire State Development. To date each ESD employee averages a span of 2 years working on the Atlantic Yards project and then leaves.There is no consistency and currently the employees assigned do not have the best interest of the neighborhood. Does anyone think Ken Adams, Joe Chan & Marion Phillips are looking out for the citizens of the surrounding area? Sadly, these 3 are just lobbyist told what to do by the 2nd floor of the Gov office and just follow the money trail to Cuomo. How much money did Forest Ratner give to Cuomo?

  2. "An elder statesperson who comes out of retirement to champion the people’s interest," does not describe Cincinnatus very well. He is best known for resigning after 2 weeks the dictatorship he was given, and the Society of Cincinnati was founded in George Washington's honor because like Cincinnatus, Washington was victorious in battle and did not want to be dictator. Cincinnatus was also famous for being an aristocratic opponent of the plebeians.

    Similarly, Koch and Ravitch were quite different. Did Ravitch ever run for office? Not that I know of. So why stop with those two? What about figures like Kent Barwick, did many good things as head of the Municipal Art Society (including being a key player in the formation of the coalition that sued Ratner). Now in retirement, Kent seems to be active in groups like the Waterfront Alliance and the community group opposing some of the development at the South Street Seaport.

    And for that matter, what about the younger people involved in Brooklyn Speaks, like Gib Veconi and Michelle de la Uz? Or all the bicycle people in Brooklyn, like Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon?

    I'm all for civic virtue, but think Pehm's analysis needs a little more depth.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think Pehme was talking about people with statewide and citywide clout among political players--and note that I, not he, extrapolated the discussion to Atlantic Yards.

      Note that Kent Barwick led the Municipal Art Society during the period of time it actively criticized Atlantic Yards, and formed the "mend it don't end it" coalition BrooklynSpeaks. But also note that, after Barwick left MAS, the organization dropped *out* of BrooklynSpeaks when it decided (successfully, it turned out) to sue, with a judge requiring a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

      The "bicycle people", while having a significant impact on such things as the way the NYPD investigates auto "accidents" (which might be better described as crashes or collisions, often with the driver at fault), have had little role regarding Atlantic Yards.

      As for de la Uz and Veconi, they long were potent critics of Atlantic Yards, albeit with relatively limited clout. However, when they signed a (flawed) settlement that set a new timetable for the project, they declared victory, without acknowledging how the developer and mayor would be proceeding with "affordable housing" far different from the configuration promised. That's a disappointing departure from their previous, more analytical stance:

  3. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Well, at least you mentioned Morgan's work with uncle Henry at his solo operation civic. If he is the virtuous, I wonder what the $21 million settlement the tax payers footed for racism in the parks dept means.

    1. Here's info on the settlement the commenter mentions:
      That doesn't make Stern virtuous, of course, but Stern was, on several issues (including term limits), a voice challenging the consensus.


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