Brooklyn's Trojan Horse
What's wrong with the buildings Frank Gehry wants to put in my neighborhood?
When local politicians speak of the need for growth and renovation in the partly desolate areas encompassed within Ratner's footprint, they're not wrong. Those of us who have long lived in range of the Atlantic and Flatbush intersection do connect that area with the vanishing of the Dodgers and other symbols of Brooklyn's disappointment and thwarted potential. It's precisely that legacy of long expectation that dictates we not accept a pre-emptive engulfment by a single private corporation—especially one so imperiously allergic to genuine dialogue and meaningful compromise, and with such a bad track record.
Plans for the area ought to originate in a conversation among a broad range of stakeholders. We might want more than housing and jobs and sports—we might want schools for the extra kids who'd live in the housing (we're already underschooled). We might want a plan to solve the traffic crisis that already exists at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, let alone the new crisis that would radiate outward from this development (currently there is no plan). Ratner hasn't met openly with Brooklynites. Have you?
When I begin conversations about the Ratner development with local friends and neighbors, I find a pervasive mood of resignation. Despite their disgust at the project, they fear engaging in a hopeless struggle. What's saddest is how this lousy proposal exploits Brooklyn's residual low self-esteem, its hangover of inferiority. Does anyone doubt that in Manhattan such a thing would be shot down in a hot minute?
5) The principle of eminent domain. Actually, the seizure of private property, ostensibly for the public good, doesn't have an entirely pernicious history, at least in New York City; the creation of Central Park, for instance, depended on it. But compare that project with this one: on the one hand, the permanent establishment of a munificent jewel of the commonwealth. On the other hand, exclusive benefit and control for a wholly private corporation. In fact, in the present scheme, publicly owned resources—i.e., the demapped streets and an active rail yard—are here being converted into private property: commonwealth in reverse.
6) A moment's respect, please, for the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. This homely, absurd totem, with a clock on each of its four faces, has grown into a symbolic authority. By sight of this lone 34-story tower, visible for miles, a Brooklynite arriving home from the airport measures the infinitesimal rate of his cab's progress home along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Your proposal would both dwarf and block sight of the tower, the rough equivalent of erecting a new World Trade Center within a block or two of the Chrysler Building. Adding insult to injury, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower is being enlisted into the argument for your wall of towers—its anomalous height somehow becoming justification for your scale.
7) The drawings themselves. Any chance you want to take a harder look at your plans? When unveiling the latest, you explained the appearance of the spearhead tower, which you've named "Miss Brooklyn" (spurring the inevitable quip, We'll miss it, all right). You explained: "When we were studying Brooklyn, we happened upon a wedding, a real Brooklyn wedding. And we decided that 'Miss Brooklyn' was a bride. She's a bride with her flowing bridal veil—I really overdid it. If you had seen the bride, you would—I fell in love with her." Pardon me, but bleeechh. I don't know whether many great buildings have been founded on notions at once so metaphorically impoverished and so slickly patronizing. But somehow I doubt that any have.
You were also quoted as calling her—Miss Brooklyn, I mean—"my ego trip." Fair enough. It may be the case that every great artist deserves one work so willful and outlandish that the public's taste be damned. Melville's epic poem Clarel comes to mind, or Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara. The difference, of course, is that no one was ever forced to read Clarel or sit through Renaldo and Clara. An architect infilling an existing cityscape at such Titanic scale becomes, by definition, an urban planner, yet something makes me think that you haven't done that kind of homework here. Anyway, is Miss Brooklyn really good enough—as opposed to merely big enough—to be your ego trip? To my unschooled eye, these buildings have emerged pre-botched by compromise, swollen with expediency and profit-seeking. (Don't forget the compromises still to come, as we fight you tooth and nail.)
Your signature buildings elsewhere suggested that Brooklyn might be beneficiary of a single rippling arena, a kind of Guggenheim of basketball. I know that's very much what I was expecting, with great curiosity and good cheer, when your name was announced in connection with this project. I suspect that many locals, not having seen or heard descriptions of the towers, still believe that's what they're getting. Imagine their horrified surprise when they wake up one day to find a phalanx of towers instead. My suspicion is that persisting with this work means you'll be remembered in New York City for a scarring struggle, resulting (I hope) in failure—or, if you build, a legacy of vituperation and regret. Your prestigious presence in this mercenary partnership reminds me of Colin Powell giving cover to the Cheney-Rumsfeld doctrine: If he's on board, we're meant to think, it can't be as bad as it looks.
At a public seminar sponsored by the New York Times this January, you found yourself faced by surprise questions from an audience including Brooklynites who, denied any proper public venue by the Ratner process, wanted to know how you felt about resistance to the project. ** The tone of your remark that day suggests you were weighing the question honestly: "If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I'd walk away." I can only hope that what was once perhaps just a seed has grown. For I'm positive that is exactly what you should do, Mr. Gehry. Walk away.
Jonathan Lethem is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and Maine. His most recent books are The Disappointment Artist: Essays, Men and Cartoons: Stories, and the Fortress of Solitude, a novel.
Projected view courtesy Jonathan Cohn. Photograph of Atlantic Center mall © Daniel Goldstein. Image of "Miss Brooklyn" Forest City Ratner Companies and Gehry Partners, LLP.