Made in Brooklyn: The Civilians' Battle Over Atlantic Yardsby Michele Travis
If “journalism is literature in a hurry” (Matthew Arnold), then theater as practiced by The Civilians is a speed-walking cabaret with a conscience. Combining investigative and research techniques with a multi-disciplinary collaborative creative process, the 10-year-old company creates lively, accessible collages of song, dialogue, dance and new media, incorporating multiple points of view and encouraging the audience to make an informed assessment of the subject at hand. During the investigative phase of a project the creative team is fully immersed in the life of a community, conducting interviews, reading everything from local organizations’ official position papers to anonymous blog posts, and compiling a gigantic quantity of personal stories, statistics, sounds and sights to be shaped through multiple workshops into a play with music.
With a mission to pursue “under-explored subjects including those political or controversial in nature,” the company occasionally makes news while trying to bring current events to theatrical life. The recent announcement that The Civilians received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support the development of The Great Immensity, a musical play about the environment featuring interviews from the front lines of climate change study in Central America and Canada, provoked an outraged attack from a right-wing, global-warming-rejecting commentator. Pretty Filthy, an in-development musical about the porn industry commissioned by Center Theatre Group, has company members interviewing cast and crew while soaking up the atmosphere on Los Angeles film sets, and has already provided a couple late-night comedians with joke fodder. During the investigative phase of 2007’s acclaimed This Beautiful City, about the Evangelical Christian presence in Colorado Springs, conservative New Life mega-church pastor Ted Haggard was explosively outed. His meth-fueled liaisons with a rent boy became national news and the effects on his congregation and the city formed the center of The Civilians’ suddenly extremely topical play.
However, their latest investigative theater project, In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, is a local labor. The Civilians occupy an office a block away from the Atlantic Yards site, and several company members, including artistic director Steve Cosson, are longtime Brooklyn residents. While the work of the company focuses on shaping an unwieldy ongoing conflict into a theatrical narrative, Cosson notes, “being in the neighborhood every day reminds me that it’s real” and memories of the changed surrounding streets give the project a personal resonance.
First proposed by real estate developer Forest City Ratner in 2003, the Atlantic Yards Project includes a basketball stadium for the former New Jersey Nets, high-rise condominiums, office and retail spaces–to be built partially over the rail yards, and chiefly over an already—established neighborhood. Groundbreaking was delayed until March of this year, after seven years of community protests, legal actions, and bargaining ended with the New York State Supreme Court’s enactment of eminent domain.
You are only entitled to the space that you have.
You are not entitled to the space that’s all around you.
From “The Neighborhood Song,” In The Footprint
For the past two years, The Civilians’ team has collected points of view from all sides of the Atlantic Yards Project debate: activists, business owners, and community leaders, new and old residents of the area. Company members, including composer Michael Friedman and several cast members, conducted a series of writing and music workshops with local young people, with the research materials incorporated into and informing the work with the students. A musical overview of the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed development was informally presented in 2008 at the Brooklyn Lyceum as Brooklyn At Eye Level. The performance offered an affectionate, jumbled patchwork of uniquely Brooklyn people and places, with vivacious contributions from the Urban Bush Women, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, and student participants from the workshops.
While some Brooklyn At Eye Level interviewees will reappear in In The Footprint, the company’s conversation with residents continued and intensified after the performances. The new play focuses on the people most affected by the Atlantic Yards development and the recent turns in the complicated and racially charged ongoing debate over what constitutes necessary improvement, change and growth in an urban enclave. Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (and the last resident to leave the footprint), David Sheets, a rental tenant petitioner in the eminent domain lawsuit, Patti Hagan, the “Paul Revere of Atlantic Yards,” Bertha Lewis of ACORN, James Caldwell of BUILD, and Councilperson Letitia James are among the participants who generously agreed to interviews and to having their words incorporated into In The Footprint.
Five years ago, I came home from work Friday—a bunch of us, we see each other here at Freddy’s all the time. And here I sat down, front page of the Metro section was this splashy architecture critique by Herbert Muschamp or Mouchon or whatever the hell he calls himself about Frank Gehry’s wonderful design. I’m looking at this and it’s—that’s Dean Street—my God, that’s my house, what the hell is this? That was the extent of community involvement. Nobody ever asked us anything. Nobody ever asked us shit.
I am the President and CEO of BUILD, which is Brooklyn United for Innovative Land Development, and I’m also the president for the 77th precinct community council and I’d been the president of this community council about 6 ½ years when I got a call from Forest City Ratner asking me to come down and look at the project. So when I got the call, I said, well, the only thing I was thinking about was I could get me some season tickets so I went to the meeting figuring also that I’ll get the information about what was happening in our community cause generally in the black community we don’t normally get the chance to sit at the table. But I had this invitation to come down to Borough Hall so I said ok I’ll take a look.
From In The Footprint
A website, Brooklynateyelevel.org, has extended the dialogue with the community online, soliciting comments and posts that helped shape the collaborators’ ongoing understanding of the story. Bloggers and community members haven’t hesitated to chime in with clarifications. While much of the material generated online may not make it to the stage, Cosson cites passionate and well-informed community bloggers, like Norman Oder of the Atlantic Yards Report, as an “invaluable resource” aiding The Civilians in their quest to understand all sides of the issues of gentrification, public vs. private space, community services and economic disparity.
My neighbor kept pressing me to be the president of the block association but I don’t get along enough with people to do something like that [laughs.] Yeah. That’s why being a blogger is great. I don’t have to be around a lot of people. Norman Oder —do you know him?—he has the Atlantic Yards Report blog. He has a theory that in any other place in the United States, Brooklyn would be its own large city, that it would have one or two newspapers of its own and they would have fully staffed newsrooms. Like, nowhere else in the United States are so many people served by so little media. But we do have a lot of bloggers! One thing I kind of think is like, the bloggers, I kind of think we’re like a Greek chorus basically. We tell the people what’s really going on. You could do like a Greek chorus in your show. They could all be dressed like bloggers. Yeah. It’s, yeah. Typically that would be pajamas [laughs]. Occasionally in the buff. But, um, yeah.
From Brooklyn At Eye Level
Several voices in In The Footprint belong to people who were not interviewed. Public statements from Mayor Bloomberg, developer Bruce Ratner, architect Frank Gehry and landscape designer Laurie Olin are included. As Cosson notes, it is important to offer “the public political version of Atlantic Yards” and give audiences the chance to hear “what was promised and decide if that was delivered or not.” Cosson shared his own surprise at “hearing what [Gehry and Olin] felt…the gap between their work and the reality of the people who live in the neighborhood.” (Gehry and Olin are no longer involved with the development.)
That day when those models came out. People are looking at them and, ooo, ahhh, and then they look down and they see that that’s a car, and that thing that looks like a spec of rice is a person. And that’s when people are starting to get an impression of the scale of this thing. And they’re standing there going, like, “Where’s my house?” And they can’t find it.
And they can’t find it.
Cause it’s gone!
From In The Footprint
Cosson was also taken aback by the knowledge that an unelected authority, Empire State Development Corporation, ultimately ended up in charge of the project, though the development is technically a public-private partnership. “The whole political process behind this development was a revelation to me…I grew to appreciate the impact of what happened and how politics work in New York.”
Though the networks of civic organizations and neighbors that were built or strengthened during the years of opposition, compromise, struggle and debate are now scattered, the performances of In The Footprint are likely to keep the conversation alive. The company plans to host pre-show and post-show dialogues, in an effort to discover what we can all learn from this uniquely Brooklyn neighborhood battle—about politics and politicking, change vs. status quo—and apply to the places we call home.
Cosson is looking forward to the continuing discourse. Recalling Brooklyn At Eye Level, he observed “the audience reaction of Brooklynites, including myself, had a special intensity. How rare it was to experience a cultural event in Brooklyn, about Brooklyn, about something important to us, with your neighbors.”
In The Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, written and directed by Steven Cosson, co-written by Jocelyn Clarke, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, will run Nov. 12 through Dec. 11 at The Irondale Center (85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn). For tickets and information: www.irondale.org
Michele Travis was a member of the dramaturg army who transcribed and researched for The Civilians' This Beautiful City.