“We want this project to be shaped by the vision of this community,” declared Roger Green, State Assemblyman for the 57th District, to the cheering crowd of constituents. Fort Greene and Clinton Hill residents gathered October 8th to discuss the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) proposal for a cultural district development project.
Harvey Lichtenstein, the former director of BAM who gained fame by transforming the institution into a $34 million enterprise, heads the enigmatically named Local Development Corporation (LDC), which oversees the project. Lichtenstein has hired celebrity architects Rem Koolhaas and Diller + Scofidio to plan the district, which is slated to include a boutique hotel, theaters, retail spaces, and housing around BAM. Momentum has been furthered with $80 million of the proposed $630 million budget already pledged by the city and state.
Over the last year, in public and private meetings, there has been a growing outcry from local residents who are concerned about the future of their traditionally African-American, middle-class neighborhood. Many fear that the LDC’s mega-development proposals will hasten the gentrification of Fort Greene and, in the process, contribute to the further displacement of the existing community.
Situated in the shadow of the BAM Opera House, the threadbare 80-year-old theater of Brooklyn Music College bristled with an atmosphere of well-organized, righteous indignation. A recently formed association of local churches, arts organizations, activist groups and elected officials, calling itself the Concerned Citizens Coalition (CCC), convened the debate over the LDC.
Many speakers pointed to the results of a recent CCC survey, which had been mailed to over 2000 local residents. The survey focused on four categories: housing, education, economic development, and arts and culture. The results indicated that the majority of respondents were primarily concerned about increased real estate prices, the eradication of the neighborhood diversity, corporate development collusion, and a lack of support for existing local arts organizations.
As the meeting opened to questions, many audience members revealed deeper racial anxieties and economic fears in their complaints about gentrification in Brooklyn and other cities. “All across the country, this same trend is taking place,” warned Reverend Cliff Wilson of Brown Memorial Baptist Church. “Large conglomerates are recognizing that there is a market in the cities. It all started in 1492. You know the rest.”
“As the community improves we all need to stay here, if we want true diversity, which is what America is all about,” echoed Reverend Taylor, of the Church of the Open Door, which has a congregation in a local housing project. Audience members also expressed concern about the fate of co-op housing residents, local businesses, as well as homeowners and renters, all of whom have been affected by the increasing desirability of the neighborhood.
While many of the comments focused on the need to maintain cultural diversity through BAM sponsorship of local arts and subsidized housing, some surveyed also felt that BAM should bear a broader responsibility to the community, including the provision of childcare and medical facilities. But as one audience member responded, “I don’t think the BAM LDC can be expected to solve all of the neighborhood’s problems.”
Many of the questions from residents focused on the logistics of becoming involved with the planning of the LDC, the nature of its funding, and the timeline for the project. These were met by a strained silence, as the representatives of BAM had not presented themselves to the audience.
Reverend Anthony Trufant, of the Emmanuel Baptist Church and the head of the CCC, called to Harvey Lichtenstein, who had sat quietly in the audience, even as his name had been repeatedly invoked, to “come up and make yourself seen by everyone.” Lichtenstein went to the front of the hall and explained that the LDC had been envisioned to “give a context to BAM. Today, we have come to understand we have a larger constituency.”
Lichtenstein expressed his concern that Fort Greene not become another victim of gentrification, citing Williamsburg as an example. The audience responded positively, until he defended the racial diversity of BAM’s programming by pointing to the 1983 production of “The Gospel of Colonus,” which prompted an elderly woman in the audience to yell, “That was 20 years ago!” After the meeting, Lee Silverman, Lichtenstein’s spokesman, said the LDC was satisfied that most survey respondents said yes when asked if they actually supported the idea of a cultural district in general.
The evening closed with the announcement that the Concerned Citizens Coalition had hired a consultant, architect Craig Whitaker, to assemble the concerns into a cohesive proposal of the community’s needs. “We felt we had been too reactionary,” explained Assemblyman Roger Green. “We wanted to be more disciplined. We need to conceptualize our comments.”
Claire Hoffman is a journalist based in Williamsburg.