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Memory and the Atlantic Yards

In this era of internet, cell phones, and 24-hour news, memory is in a state of rather substantial humiliation. This wasn’t always so. Cicero considered memory one of the sublime qualities of Caesar (“Fuit in illo ingenium, ratio, memoria, literae, cura, cogiatio, diligentia,” Philippica Book II). Book X of Augustine’s Confessions is dedicated entirely to exploring its nature. Memory’s decline is in direct proportion to the ease with which one can depend on other means to retain information. With the internet, we no longer retain what we read, assuming it will be accessible later. Phone numbers are stored on memory chips in our cell phones, and calling when one arrives at a location has replaced actually committing to plans. The 24-hour news cycle sees laborious coverage of moments but no reflection to connect past events to present.

Those most successful in the backrooms of power exploit this situation to disassemble the plotted line of their activities, using misdirection to gain assent—or at least the perception of assent—in their varied endeavors. Momentary success is presented as total victory; a complete breakdown of order the province of a few misguided individuals. The key is not to put the only possible interpretation into the medium, it is to place a preferred version of events broadly in the public mind.

Here in Brooklyn, Bruce Ratner is on his own campaign of informational sorcery. In order to get his multi-billion dollar skyscraper and basketball arena complex built on the bones of a residential community, the developer has attempted to characterize Prospect Heights, the anointed locale, as dispensable.

The latest volley from Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) is a desire to demolish buildings now which would eventually lie in Ratner’s way should his Atlantic Yards be approved. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) has filed a lawsuit against Forest City and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state agency charged with approving the project. Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process that the developer entered into to gain approval of the proposal, buildings he owns within the “footprint” of his proposal cannot be demolished unless they present an emergency situation that threatens public health or safety. FCRC claims this to be the case and ESDC has taken the developer at its word, approving demolition.

Ratner has owned these buildings for months and did not move to demolish them until now. It is possible that the developer willfully neglected the properties with the intent of artificially creating the grounds upon which they would need to be taken down. If these structures are unsound why aren’t they cordoned off? Given these concerns, one might think that the ESDC would extend cursory efforts to examine the properties before making a judgment: but the ESDC has not. The recent suit claims a conflict of interest since the legal counsel to ESDC, David Paget of Sive, Paget & Riesel, was an attorney for Forest City Ratner prior to his current position.

Representatives of DDDB and City Councilwoman Letitia James arranged with Forest City to be present for an inspection in December 2005, with an independent engineer. After one cancellation by the developer a new date was proposed, but with changes: “FCRC informed DDDB that it would not be permitted to be present at the inspection, and it informed Councilwoman James that she would not be permitted to bring an engineer to the inspection,” describes the complaint. It was further noted that “since Councilwoman James is not an engineer, she declined to do the inspection without having a professional engineer with her.”

Whether the buildings are actually in danger of collapse and require demolition—or this is Ratner obscuring the collective memory by shoehorning a jagged, barren, blighted landscape where there was none—is an open question. The Daily News editorial board ignored the relevant issues and dismissed the whole affair as “futile” and “frivolous.” In case it is unclear where the News received their talking points, the rant wraps up with: “[Judge] Edmead must not allow her courtroom to become a tool for those who are bent on blocking the housing and jobs that would result from Atlantic Yards.” Self-righteous indignation abounds as adherence to a process—already handpicked by Ratner for its lack of stops along the way to approval—is cast aside in favor of painting the opposition as invalid and unscrupulous.

Memory tells us that the lawsuit is valid, and that how the Atlantic Yards has proceeded and might continue to proceed will set precedent for developments that require public money and eminent domain across the state and nation. But instead, memory will be shredded until there is only the Atlantic Yards—as there has always been. Anyone against the project just doesn’t want others to have jobs or places to liveincluding a City Councilwoman recently reelected with a huge margin of victory and members of numerous neighborhood groups. It follows that, according to the Daily News (and some might say according to the certain interested parties feeding the editorial board its lines), anyone questioning the soundness of Forest City’s proposal is a traitor to Brooklyn. So beware!

The myth of Bruce Ratner and the Atlantic Yards, sometimes hokey or just plain ridiculous, is slowly beginning to eclipse events as they have transpired and are likely to unfold. The actual potential for jobs continues to evaporate and the affordable housing is being relocated to other parts of the borough, but the project, its supporters, and its sound bytes live on. It is a willful attempt to reinvent the situation through sheer velocity of money and influence, relying on a preoccupied public to recall the myth as opposed to the shifting plateau of fact.

“Broad-based support” for the project was easily drummed up. For months, people would attend meetings to shout down anyone with even the mildest concern (like say, the loss of one’s home) about the project. Supporters of Forest City’s vision had the temerity to claim that anyone who didn’t like the project was against the community or didn’t represent the “real” Prospect Heights. Then we learned that they were on the payroll. But by then the damage was done. Journalists who had been duped for a year and a half accepted the Ratner tale that made paid supporters acceptable. And these supporters, however phony, planted seeds that those who wanted to save their homes and community were nothing but a pack of self-serving yuppies.

The community papers didn’t tow the Forest City line with enough gusto, and some were even critical of the plan. Undeterred, Ratner took a dead poet for a midnight spin and published the Brooklyn Standard, a Forest City publication that just about everyone is tired of not calling a fake newspaper. Tricking a State Senator into writing them a welcome letter, and using a freelance journalist’s name on articles he didn’t pen, the Standard shows to sleepy subway riders everywhere that the Atlantic Yards is the best thing to hit Brooklyn since the Cyclone. It also shows that determination and money far outweigh the need for good ideas in today’s memory-challenged society.

Even without their own media, Forest City can rely on the dailies to regurgitate promises made years prior that have no intention of bearing fruit. So throughout the city, Atlantic Yards remains about “Jobs, Housing, and Hoops” even when it is clear to critics that to the degree FCRC intends to alter the landscape, the development is going to give very little back. In addition to the trimmed ambitions of job creation or placing affordable housing on site, even the much touted public space is now understood to be largely off limits to the public. Bruce Ratner got the good message out early and often and he has powerful supporters willing to repeat it even if memory could demonstrate its utterly fantastical nature.

We are in an era where the powerful manage reporters, to write and re-write history at whim. It might be futile, but for a community to fight for reality is hardly frivolous. Even if he wants everyone to think otherwise, Bruce Ratner has not built, and is not approved to build, his Atlantic Yards. PR aside, the promised benefits of the project are being revised downward while its size and impact on the area grows. The memory of this century-old community does not deserve to be erased to benefit a rich man and his boondoggle.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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