A Brand Called Brooklyn

“It makes me mad / and it’s such a pity / they’re trying to rename Brooklyn / “Forest City,” lamented roots rocker John Pinamonti in his fight song/elegy “The Burrow,” performed in 2007 at Freddy’s Bar & Backroom in Prospect Heights, the clubhouse of the Atlantic Yards resistance.

Photos by Norman Oder.

His target: developer Forest City Ratner. After building MetroTech in Downtown Brooklyn and the Atlantic Center and Atlantic Terminal malls, Forest City had just muscled through state approval of the Atlantic Yards project, which promised a basketball arena and 16 towers over just 22 acres, including an 8.5-acre M.T.A. railyard.

Now Freddy’s (since relocated) and its row-house neighbors have been obliterated for the Barclays Center, the spaceship/rusty turtle/Brooklyn monument that occupies the confluence of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, its hulking mass encroaching on residential Prospect Heights.

Meanwhile, the folks running the show are “trying to rename Brooklyn,” or at least exploit its reputation as a world-class destination. Built by Forest City, the Barclays Center is named for the shady British bank, while the Brooklyn Nets are owned by a Russian oligarch with his own dubious track record. All are doing their best to wrap themselves in variable elements of Brooklyn’s allure: earthy history, hardscrabble streets, and nouveau creativity.

“Brooklyn is an iconic brand,” Brett Yormark, the hyperkinetic C.E.O. of both the Nets and the Barclays Center, recently told Billboard. That may be so, but while few of the main players in the new arena helped create that brand, they all are doing everything they can to capitalize on it.

As Yormark told Billboard, “One out of every seven Americans has a connection back to Brooklyn, whether it’s relatives, friends, or themselves.” That one in seven claim, eagerly retweeted by Nets followers and prominent in the arena media kit, is hokum, a product of a 1980 tourist push.

But it’s irresistible: there’s enormous value to Brooklyn, and if the city and state had tried halfway to calculate that, they might have driven a tougher bargain when they bent zoning rules for developer Bruce Ratner, doled out nearly $300 million in direct subsidies, provided significant tax breaks, and pursued eminent domain to deliver the site.

Combining the retro style of the twee Brooklyn Flea and the hip-hop aesthetic of Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn We Go Hard,” the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center brand can be sold internationally. Not only does Yormark salivate over it, but so too does the N.B.A. After all, the Nets—with guard Deron Williams posed in front of a 1970s-style graffiti wall—just made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Yormark, who embodies the C.E.O. as Vishnu, regularly gestures to both the marketplace and the borough. Consider the announcement that insurance giant Geico would be an arena founding partner, slapping its name on the entrance atrium while getting “unparalleled ‘Street-to-Seat’ brand signage.”

“We are pleased that Geico and Brooklyn support each other,” Yormark declared. “And we are excited to continue to partner with brands of excellence.” Brooklyn supports Geico? And on Twitter, Yormark’s inner Louis XIVBrooklyn, c’est moi—emerges periodically. In August, he tweeted: “Brooklyn congratulates dwill [Nets guard Deron Williams] on his second gold medal.”

When the Barclays Center naming rights deal was announced in January 2007 at an elaborate ceremony in the Brooklyn Museum, wall slogans suggested that “Brooklyn gave the world” a lot: inspiration/opportunity/dreams/flavor/memories. The conclusion: “It’s time the world gave something back to Brooklyn.”

Thus, a sketchy private deal rewarding Forest City was cast as a gift to Brooklyn. Not only did the state give the developer naming rights to sell, but the gift was also never counted as a subsidy. And the only reason the state could give those rights away was that the arena remains nominally publicly owned (and leased for a song), to enable tax-exempt financing, another benefit to Ratner.

Today, when aircraft pass over the arena, the visual on the roof is “Barclays Center,” not Brooklyn. Inside the arena, after entering through the Geico Main Entrance and passing the Foxwoods Bar, you can walk to the Honda Club, then back to the EmblemHealth elevator, which takes you to your MetroPCS seat. Nearly everything’s branded: the tip-off is brought to you by  Party City, and the halftime show by Haier, a Chinese-owned appliance manufacturer.

There could be no better frontman for the arena/team than Jay-Z, a Nets micro-investor with a media halo. He has turned his followers into Nets fans while uttering un-rebutted banalities and wearing a custom Nets uniform. His influence is such that the Times Magazine declared the Barclays Center “The House that Hova Built.” (Announcements at the arena, on the other hand, deem it “The House that Bruce Built.”)

“Tonight’s a celebration of where I’m from. So tonight, everybody here’s from Brooklyn,”  Jay-Z claimed at his eighth and final show at the Barclays Center on October 6. “So when I say, Brooklyn in the house, I wanna hear everybody in this building.”

But Mr. Carter didn’t count the Brooklynites who—for “some strange reason” (in his words)—opposed Atlantic Yards. And in his hit Jay-Z reminds listeners that he’s “from Marcy [Projects], son,” where “news cameras never come.” At Barclays, the cameras were out in force, as were the cops, who were no doubt happier to be there than in the ’hood.

Though based in TriBeCa, Jay-Z still gets to speak for Brooklyn. When discussing the Nets’ impending move in 2007, he summed it up for celebrity interviewer Charlie Rose: “Brooklyn, you notice, when we love something, when we get into something, our love for it is unmatched.”

Now, thanks to Jay-Z, ever more people wear trendy Nets gear. Most of the profits flow to Ratner, who lives on the Upper East Side, and the Moscow-based Prokhorov, who has used the Nets to buff an image far more controversial outside of hoops. Never mind that the 2012 Nets were assembled in a flash this summer, thanks to Prokhorov’s checkbook. Or that few if any Nets will even live in the borough, according to the New York Times. (So much for the second coming of the Dodgers, a team whose players lived modestly in Brooklyn.)

Even so, the Times concluded that “Brooklyn seems ready to adopt the Nets,” a judgment based on the popularity of the team’s gear, billboards galore, and Nets advertising in local businesses. (What is rarely mentioned is that those “First Home Game since 1957” signs appear in stores thanks to a $25 payment.)

Money helps win media friends. The Daily News, sponsor of the arena plaza and recipient of much advertising, has led cheers for the arena. The Brooklyn Paper, which in an earlier incarnation crusaded against Atlantic Yards, now offers benign neighborhood profiles under the banner “Brooklyn’s Backstory,” sponsored by the Barclays Center.

The tentacles stretch further. The Barclays Nets Community Alliance, funded to the tune of $1 million a year by Ratner, Barclays, and Prokhorov, has doled out gifts to local nonprofits ranging from high-culture outposts like BAM to the Salvation Army. Elected officials are in on the deal. For example, even though the Brooklyn Borough President’s office has contributed a far greater share of the cost of renovating school playgrounds, the Community Alliance gets the credit.

For his part, Yormark continues to recruit “brands of excellence.” He even wants to put ads on players’ jerseys, which is not unlike those found in Nascar (his former employer) and world soccer, but it’s a line not yet crossed in the N.B.A.

In any event, Yormark was not elected to speak for Brooklyn, wheareas Borough President Marty Markowitz was. Marty, however, spends much of his time acting as a cheerleader for the arena. In July, on the steps of Borough Hall, Markowitz enthusiastically hosted a rally for “Brooklyn’s backcourt,” the starting guards Williams and Joe Johnson who, respectively, had nearly decamped for Dallas and just arrived from Atlanta. (In the Nets’ “Hello, Brooklyn” ad campaign, Johnson is un-ironically described as a “lifelong Razorback.”)

On October 3, Markowitz welcomed the Harlem Globetrotters to Borough Hall, promoting an upcoming arena event; Disney on Ice followed October 16. More crucially but more quietly, in late 2010, the borough president appeared in a video claiming, fantastically, that “Brooklyn is a thousand percent” behind Atlantic Yards, thus helping recruit Chinese investors to provide Forest City cheap financing.

In November 2011, the headline of a GQ feature pronounced “Brooklyn is the Coolest City on the Planet: An Eater’s Guide.” The first half of that headline promptly became a Forest City refrain—and it worked: company executive Jane Marshall garnered enthusiastic applause when addressing working-class black and Hispanic youth who’d just gone through unpaid customer service training for entry-level arena jobs.

It’s unlikely those youth looked to Mile End and Roberta’s to define the borough’s sense of cool. And only one of the 25 establishments mentioned by GQ, Fatty ’Cue, is represented at the arena, while there are numerous Brooklyn purveyors, some new, others stalwarts like Junior’s and L&B Spumoni Gardens. But the servings at “Brooklyn Taste” are actually made under license, controlled by the catering behemoth Levy’s, and both early reviews and my assessment were quite mixed. (Hint: go for the pulled pork, not the pizza.)

Still, the arena champions its authenticity by naming grills for neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, and Park Slope, as if a local nod rescues an overpriced burger. And while one must search to find the local beer on tap, Budweiser 1876 signage pervades the arena.

Yormark likes the term “Brooklynize.” So too does the Brooklyn Water Bagel Company, a Florida-based franchise that claims to transform ordinary water into “Brooklyn” water to make better bagels. (A taste test suggested it wasn’t quite so.) The company’s plan for an arena outlet was derailed—they blamed venting systems—but they’ll still provide water at some arena events. Until then, you can pay $4.50 for a bottle of rootless cosmopolitan Dasani. And while the Barclays Center may be the first food service establishment to adopt Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce  limit on soft drinks, a 12-ounce Coke is still cheaper than water.

If Yormark wants to both partner with “brands of excellence” and “deliver for Brooklyn,” Bruce Ratner seems less candid. The developer last year claimed that the arena was “largely about the children and youth of Brooklyn.” In September, he told Charlie Rose, a longtime Bloomberg ally, that the goal “was to do something great for Brooklyn ... It was not economic.”

Meanwhile, of course, Ratner delayed the promised “affordable housing,” trying to get more government subsidies and reconfiguring the building mix to avoid less lucrative family-sized units.

At a memorable 2006 Atlantic Yards public hearing, state Senator Carl Kruger vigorously declared that Atlantic Yards was “putting Brooklyn first.” As it happened, Kruger was putting himself first, taking part in a corruption scheme that left him shamed, convicted, and imprisoned.

As part of the investigation, Kruger was caught on tape with Forest City executive Bruce Bender, an old South Brooklyn crony who unsuccessfully tried to wrangle $9 million in public funds to rebuild the Carlton Avenue Bridge, a Forest City obligation before the arena opened. Needless to say, that deal put the developer’s bottom line first.

Chatting with Ratner and Prokhorov on his show in September, Rose helpfully suggested that Ratner was worried about making sure that “it doesn’t look like Brooklyn has been bought.” “That’s correct,” Ratner clubbily affirmed.

Given his turn, the oligarch Prokhorov suggested it was just a matter of time until the Barclays Center becomes integral to the landscape, not unlike the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Rose took the hyperbole in stride, musing about icons like Central Park and Empire State Building. He neglected to point out that the Eiffel Tower is named for its engineer, while Brooklyn’s arena reflects its ethically dubious sponsor.

On Oct. 24, the Barclays Center announced that starting in 2015, the Nets would be joined by the New York Islanders, whose owner, Charles Wang, had been unable to get Nassau County taxpayers to pony up for a new arena. (In Brooklyn, of course, there had been no vote regarding public assistance.) Unlike basketball, there is no rich tradition of hockey in the borough, making the team’s connection to the Brooklyn brand problematic.

But that didn’t stop Ratner from claiming that the addition of a hockey team would make the Barclays Center on par with Carnegie Hall, “a place where there’s great stuff always.” Don’t bet against Wang, who insisted the hockey team would keep its name, in three years reversing that pledge to market the “Brooklyn Islanders.”

“September,” the Barclays Center declared in ubiquitous pre-opening advertisements, “is just the beginning.” Brooklyn, you’re on notice.

Contributor

Norman Oder

Brooklyn journalist NORMAN ODER has written the Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog for nearly seven years, and has contributed to the New York Times, New York Observer, Columbia Journalism Review, New York Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and other publications.

SUMMER FUND DRIVE
We need your support in order to continue to offer insight, provocation, and dialogue.
$100       $200       $500       Other

ADVERTISEMENTS
×