Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

In a new book on Brooklyn gentrification, a revelation about Forest City and Newswalk; questions about framing Atlantic Yards

This is the first of two articles on recent work by two scholars regarding Atlantic Yards. The second concerned their article on eminent domain.

A book published last year, What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn, focuses on a close analysis of retail signs. It also contains some interesting insights on Atlantic Yards, plus--I'd contend--some misreadings.

This isn't the last word on Atlantic Yards from sociolinguist Shonna Trinch and cultural anthropologist Edward Snajdr, a married couple who both teach in the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College, CUNY, who are pursuing a larger study.

They gained a 2010 National Science Foundation award to research “the dynamic and mutually transforming relations between local communities and urban development projects.” So this book reflects part of that research, focusing on retail markers of gentrification. The gist:
The unique and consistent features of many words, large lettering, and repetition that make up Old School signage both mark and produce an inclusive and open place. In contrast, the linguistic elements of New School signage, such as brevity and wordplay, signal not only the arrival of gentrification, but also the remaking of Brooklyn as distinctive and exclusive.
They'll be discussing the book tomorrow, Feb. 23, in the first of a two-part virtual series sponsored by the Center for Brooklyn History: What Signs Say Part One: The Aesthetics of Gentrification. I may address the book's larger topic another time, but here instead look more narrowly at a few mentions of Atlantic Yards.

A revelation about Newswalk

For close watchers of Atlantic Yards, there’s an intriguing anecdote about Forest City’s failure to buy the closed New York Daily News printing plant in Prospect Heights, later bought by Shaya Boymelgreen and transformed into the Newswalk condos, opening in 1999.

A former Forest City executive, not identified, recalled being asked in the late 1990s by Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman to look at the building. “We thought the neighborhood was nowhere close to being ready,” the former executive told the authors. “In fact, I think Bruce [Ratner] and I agree now, in retrospect, we were wrong, dead wrong. We just didn’t see it.”

That’s interesting, because Forest City had already built the Atlantic Center mall nearby and, presumably, was formulating plans for the adjacent Atlantic Terminal. So they saw something in the area.

What’s “affordable”?

One chapter begins with a quote from Bertha Lewis, who headed New York ACORN recalling how at age nine, upon seeing luxury towers rise in Philadelphia, her grandmother shushed her: “‘Let me tell you something Bertha Mae, them people got plans, and they don’t include you!’ I’ve never forgotten that, ever.”

That’s a powerful memory of racist exclusion, and helps explain Lewis's career as a housing activist. But Lewis is also a veteran of the theater, so using that story to explain why she supported Atlantic Yards strikes me as powerful but incomplete. 

The authors connect the dots: “Bruce Ratner promised he would include low-income housing and jobs for local working class people.” They conclude that Lewis's story from her youth and later support for Ratner means "urban landscapes can be complicated things to interpret."

Sure, but for a study attuned to the subtleties of language, this was a lost opportunity I hope they remedy in their future Atlantic Yards articles and book. (Yes, I’m writing my own book, and they generously call my work a “valuable public resource.”)

After all, Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) didn’t promise mainly low-income housing. As I wrote in January 2015, for the first few years after Atlantic Yards was announced, the developer and project supporters used a more precise, if less self-serving, locution: "affordable and middle-income housing."

Only later was it all generalized as "affordable," which papers over the vast differences in expected rents between low-income and middle-income households--and the fact that the latter draws far less interest than the former.

About the CBA

As to project benefits, the authors write, in a footnote: “FCRC backed up this promise with a Community Benefits Agreement, which outlined specific public benefits, and which several local organizations signed, including Lewis, who at the time was the head of ACORN.”

That leaves out a lot. The Community Benefits Agreement was a pledge, not a guarantee enforceable by government, and signed by hand-picked counterparties. Not only I but others (one calling it a “borderline calamity”) have dissected its illegitimacy, including the failure to hire the promised Independent Compliance Monitor. (Lewis never pushed for that, at least publicly.)

As to the promise of “jobs for local working class people,” the CBA notably promised a pre-apprenticeship training program (PATP), a pathway to lucrative construction industry careers. But that PATP dissolved in a bitter lawsuit.

BUILD, job training, and gentrifiers

Referring to interviewee James Caldwell, longtime head of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), the authors write that Caldwell established BUILD. Actually, it was Assemblyman Roger Green, with Darnell Canada and Eric Blackwell, though the latter two later withdrew, leaving Caldwell in charge.

“BUILD’s focus was on providing job training,” they write. But they missed the opportunity to explain that BUILD had no track record in such work, or to describe the PATP lawsuit, which involved BUILD and led to its dissolution. They write:
While opponents of Atlantic Yards sometimes painted Caldwell and his community as having been exploited by FCRC’s corporate development plans, Caldwell may have been on to something regarding what corporations could provide for young people in his community that many gentrifiers could not: entry-level jobs.
That's not wrong, but it's not the full story. First, Caldwell offered something that existing job-training groups couldn't offer: a contingent of people to rally for the project.  BUILD was responsible not just for entry-level jobs, under the rubric of workforce development, but also a pathway to middle-class construction careers.

Also, it wasn't the job of Atlantic Yards opponents, whether gentrifiers or not, to resolve that challenge, but rather the job of government.

Atlantic Yards opponents did ultimately support major development, such as the Extell plan for the Vanderbilt Yard, a project smaller than what Forest City had proposed, and without an arena. 

That said, the authors' framework should remind us that Ratner could offer pie-in-the-sky promises because no competing plan was on the table, and the city and state government hadn’t seen the opportunity to develop the publicly-owned railyard and nearby land.

An opponent's criticism on tactics

The book quotes Patti Hagan, the original project opponent from Prospect Heights, as complaining that the opposition “fought the project from behind their computers!”

Sure, but that's only a partial criticism. The world was changing, and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn found it could reach more people digitally--something to which Hagan, from an older generation, was not attuned. Crain's New York Business Editorial Director Greg David, no development foe, in 2009 said Atlantic Yards opponents had "conducted one of the most imaginative campaigns" he'd seen.

Opponents' street organizing was not insignificant, but it was constrained in a big borough. Forest City needed significant carrots for its Community Benefits Agreement partners.

The authors recognize that it was complicated: longtime residents, both Black and white, agreed that Brooklyn “was sorely in need of investment,” an argument for Atlantic Yards, but some established Black churches nearby remained opposed.

So how square that circle? I think it has to do with trust in the developer, and his governmental allies.

The Atlantic Yards legacy

The book suggests that the Atlantic Yards opposition failed, but did “succeed in the creation of an archive,” including articles, websites, and blogs. (Also, of course, the documentary film Battle for Brooklyn and the documentary musical play, In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards.)

Yes, there's an archive, but I think there's also a legacy of taint, a Culture of Cheating.

The authors contend that, because in 2014 Forest City renamed the project Pacific Park, the entire archive of the struggle” is “now buried under a new name, especially for those who are yet to come.”

That remains in question. First, it was Greenland Forest City Partners, dominated by Greenland USA, an arm of the Shanghai-based conglomerate Greenland Group, that changed the name. It wasn't Forest City's call, since they were a minority owner.

Second, a lot of people still call it Atlantic Yards--witness the 7/17/20 personal essay in the New Yorker by Keith Gessen, referencing "the huge Atlantic Yards development."

Even Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project, must still call it Atlantic Yards. It's part of the official name, as shown in the screenshot at right.

What remains?

“As a built environment, the new Brooklyn itself contains no record whatsoever of the conflict,” the authors write. “Only the outcome remains.”

Sure, there's no affirmative physical record, and it's possible that a good number of their interviewees expressed ignorance of the conflict.

But the question marks continue, due to the unbuilt and unfinished nature of the project. The promised green space of "Pacific Park" won't exist until the project is finished.

The project could take until 2035, most likely, with lingering question marks about the 1) platform needed to deliver the “park” and 2) the 2025 deadline for affordable units.

So, even though there's now an office project in Atlanta called Atlantic Yards, I don't think the Brooklyn project will be fully "buried under a new name" for a while. This limbo will linger.

From cheeky signage to dissing dues-paying

The authors make a curious connection between signage--the main focus of the book, remember--and Atlantic Yards.

They discuss the gentrified Flatbush Avenue restaurant Don Chingon, the name of which references a “masculine figure who is a badass or a ‘badass motherfucker’ in either a good or a bad way, depending on tone or effect” and conclude, after talking with “Hispanist linguists and anthropologists and with native Spanish speakers,” that some older Spanish speakers would consider the sign inappropriate.

Then they add:
Both [Jane] Hill and [Geneva] Smitherman find that many African-Americans see linguistic appropriations like this as a type of theft because the appropriators have not paid the same emotional or social dues to use them. In doing fieldwork, we have found that many urban newcomers believe that have "paid dues" of some kind because the neighborhoods they have moved into have been neglected by landlords, city maintenance and commercial and individual investment. For example, gentrifying Prospect Heights residents living near the Atlantic Yards project footprint told us that they organized "community clean-ups" in the area around their newly purchased condos, which were valued at over a half a million dollars in 2003. These clean-ups included gathering with their neighbors to pick up trash and remove unsightly abandoned items around the railyards such as cars, washing machines, and refrigerators.
(Emphasis added)

That seems a bit of a leap--from linguistic appropriation to hinting that those who believe they'd "paid dues" have performed a type of theft. (Hmm, remember "the real land-grabbers" accusation promulgated by the Notorious Stephen Witt?)

It also strikes me as a cramped reading. Generally speaking, paying dues can mean simply enduring--as claimed by many residents, gentrifiers and not--or taking civic action, which is what a clean-up represents. 
From my 9/24/07 post

Would it have been better for the new residents to have not organized clean-ups around the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard?

Keep in mind the political component to those clean-ups; they served to counter the state's claim that the project site was blighted, and to remindpoint out that such seeming blight could have been ameliorated by routine maintenance of public property.

Getting the details right

As with other books mentioning Atlantic Yards, it's hard to get the details right. 

No, Forest City did not in 2003 enter into a partnership with New York State. While it announced the project in December 2003—with the state’s implicit support—it didn’t sign a Memorandum of Understanding until February 2005.

According to the book, Lewis decided to support the project because Forest City promised that some 2,250 out of 6,860 apartments would be made “affordable."

Actually, the project was announced as 4,500 rentals, half affordable (the "50/50 plan"), with four towers devoted to office space. When Lewis in 2005 signed the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding that was the official configuration.

Soon after, the previously announced office space was swapped for condos, thus diminishing the 50% pledge. That led to a projected total of 7,300 units and later 6,860 apartments; Atlantic Yards was approved in December 2006 at 6,430 units.

“For help with financing, FCRC also later partnered with Russian and Chinese development groups,” the book states. That leaves the misleading impression that Forest City remained in the driver's seat, merely using others to raise money.

The partnership with the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov meant that he became majority owner of the basketball Nets and minority owner of the arena operating company—and later bought out the rest, before selling them to Joe Tsai.

Forest City didn’t merely partner with Greenland USA, it in 2014 sold a majority interest in the project, excepting the arena operating company and the B2 (461 Dean) tower.

Greenland built three towers with Forest City, and then bought all but 5% of Forest City's remaining share going forward. Since then, Greenland Forest City Partners (GFCP), dominated almost completely by Greenland USA, has leased three sites: two to TF Cornerstone and one to The Brodsky Organization. 

Four towers are now under construction: two built by TF Cornerstone, one by Brodsky, and one by GFCP with Brodsky.