Brooklyn's Trojan Horse
What's wrong with the buildings Frank Gehry wants to put in my neighborhood?
We've never met, but last month I sent you a letter. You didn't answer, so I'm trying again. I'm a novelist who grew up in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, and who lives there now (I've also lived in Oakland, Toronto, and in rural Maine, in case you find my perspective suspiciously parochial). The subject of my letter is the ill-conceived and out-of-scale flotilla of skyscrapers you propose to build on a series of sites between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street in Brooklyn, in your partnership with a developer named Bruce Ratner and his firm, Forest City Ratner Companies.
1) Brooklyn-based architect Jonathan Cohn's rallying cry: "It's the scale, stupid." The primary objection to your project always was, and always will be, its outlandish disproportion to the neighborhoods around it. None of the array of low-scale, largely residential communities directly adjacent to this proposed "neighborhood from scratch" (your words) want or need such an intrusion. Residents have been enticed with goodies: major-league sports in Brooklyn, housing at a variety of income levels, an influx of jobs. Yet in this case, none of the carrots that have been dangled are worth it—or, necessarily, realistic. Let me quote Cohn from his superb article: "The ambitiously scaled projects of the 1960s failed … because interventions, at that scale, in existing fabric, were extremely traumatic to the urban morphology. This project (now 8.66 million square feet) would be like locating the former World Trade Center towers (only 7.6 million square feet combined) plus Madison Square Garden, somewhere near the West 4th Street transit hub because of all the trains there." With all due respect to your accomplishments, you've not made your career as an urban planner; your emphasis, rather, is sculpted steel and glass. The scale of this project was one of Ratner's company's preconditions for the site; it's not something that originates in your aesthetic. Guess what? It's a huge mistake—emphasis on the huge.
2) Your partner's manipulative dishonesty. Let me begin with the now-legendary brochure that Brooklynites found in their mailboxes two months ago; evidence of bad faith couldn't be more vivid. The brochure purported to outline Ratner's plans, but the towers he and you propose building were hidden behind corny images of racial harmony and the sunny sidewalks and low-scale buildings—precisely the stuff soon to be thrown into shadow at the foot of your epic pylons. The arena rooftop—a private parkland fantasia, well above ground-level—is palmed off as an open meadow, as though accessible to the public. The brochure is a piece of mendacious flimflam. It suggests embarrassment on the part of the company who hired you: Where are the towers? Obviously, someone thought they would seem unpalatable to the community that is to be persuaded to live with them. How can an artist of your standing be willing to sneak in Brooklyn's back door?
The appalling brochure is, of course, just an example. The deeper deceit is in Ratner's shadow-show negotiations, in lieu of forging any genuine consensus among the affected communities. Of the eight community groups supporting his project (as opposed to this long list of organizations standing for a reconsideration of the project), six were formed after the project was announced, and seven of the eight receive funding from Ratner. At least one seems to have been wholly conceived in Ratner's PR office. In other words, while claiming a mandate from community groups, Ratner has essentially negotiated with himself.
The worst falsehood is also the most basic: Ratner's company has fudged its unwillingness to conduct open public meetings with the community. In its PR world, such a meeting is always on the verge of taking place. Yet it never does. The public has zero access to this planning process—in every real sense the project is being foisted upon them as a fait accompli. In the spirit of calling a liar a liar, let me be absolutely clear: Your partners have been lying to Brooklyn.
3) Ratner's abhorrent track record. Have you had a close look at what he has already inflicted on Brooklyn? First came Metrotech, as blandly Orwellian as its name. Then the shameful failed mall, the Atlantic Center, dubbed by architectural historian Francis Morrone as "the ugliest building in Brooklyn." Offered as a supposed benefit to the local economy, its forbidding design was explained by Ratner to the New York Times thusly: "Look, you're in an urban area, you're next to projects, you've got tough kids." It was behind those chilly facades that you recently unveiled your latest models, at a tightly managed press conference that squelched any risk of dissent. How can it have felt for you to stand in such a horrid structure making your case for your proposed collaboration with its builder—while shutting out the possibility of true debate? After all, it's these dim, soul-crushing buildings that created such distrust in Brooklynites in the first place.
4) The divisive zero-sum politics. In a sop to tabloid-level discourse, Ratner's PR stance suggests that to stand against this specific proposal is to stand generally against bringing jobs, housing, and sports to Brooklyn. Sen. Chuck Schumer even implied that to criticize this development was to stand against the forces of life itself. He recently dismissed the opposition as "this culture of inertia, this small group of self-appointed people … " and ominously warned his listeners, "If we don't grow, we die."
You ought to be reluctant to lend your voice to this crude tactic. Yet we heard you at the latest press conference suggesting that critics of the proposal "should've been picketing Henry Ford. People aren't riding around on horseback anymore." Let me be clear: The vast majority of opponents of the present proposal are—shockingly!—in favor of creating jobs and housing, and in favor of progress generally. Many might like to find a way to bring a major sports team to Brooklyn (and we recall the appealing Coney Island proposal for a sports arena). We're simply dead-set against the present calamity-in-progress to which you've mortgaged your credibility.
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.