An open letter to Frank Gehry.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 19 2006 12:14 PM

Brooklyn's Trojan Horse

What's wrong with the buildings Frank Gehry wants to put in my neighborhood?

Dear Frank Gehry,

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.

Click here to see a slide show

Most people, if they've heard of this proposal at all, believe you've been hired to design a sports arena, to house the New Jersey Nets, a team owned by Mr. Ratner. Anyone who's glimpsed the drawings and models, however, knows that other, larger plans have overtaken the notion of a mere arena. The proposal currently on the table is a gang of 16 towers that would be the biggest project ever built by a single developer in the history of New York City. In fact, the proposed arena, like the surrounding neighborhoods, stands to be utterly dwarfed by these ponderous skyscrapers and superblocks. It's a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives and, I'd think, to your legacy. Your reputation, in this case, is the Trojan horse in a war to bring a commercially ambitious, but aesthetically—and socially—disastrous new development to Brooklyn. Your presence is intended to appease cultural tastemakers who might otherwise, correctly, recognize this atrocious plan for what it is, just as the notion of a basketball arena itself is a Trojan horse for the real plan: building a skyline suitable to some Sunbelt boomtown. I've been struggling to understand how someone of your sensibilities can have drifted into such an unfortunate alliance, with such potentially disastrous results. And so, I'd like to address you as one artist to another. Really, as one citizen to another. Here are some things I'd hope you'll consider before this project advances any further.

A projected view of the proposal’s impact on the neighborhood.
A projected view of the proposal's impact on the neighborhood

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.

Ratner's Atlantic Center mall. Click on image to expand.
Ratner's Atlantic Center mall*

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.

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.

Gehry’s “Miss Brooklyn.”
Gehry's "Miss Brooklyn"

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.

Sincerely yours,

Jonathan Lethem

Click  here to see a slide show about Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards proposal.

*Correction, June 19, 2006: Due to a production error in the original version of this article, a photograph of developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Terminal mall was substituted for a photograph of his neighboring Atlantic Center mall. Click here to return to the corrected photograph.

** Correction, June 19, 2006: In addition, this article originally misidentified the time and place at which Frank Gehry made certain remarks about the Atlantic Yards development. The occasion was a public seminar sponsored by the New York Times in January, 2006. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

Correction, June 20, 2006: The name of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower was initally misspelled in this article and in the accompanying slide show. The spelling has been corrected. The sidebar to this article misidentified the Manhattan Municipal Building as the Federal Building.

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