The fight over the Atlantic Yard Development is a battle for the heart and soul of Brooklyn. It is a part of the larger war being waged around the issues of gentrification vs. stagnation and progress vs. authenticity.
The award-winning theater company The Civilians takes on this issue and several others in a new docudrama with music, Brooklyn At Eye Level, which had a workshop production December 4-7 at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Based off of testimonials and interviews from all sides, The Civilian actors collected a wide scope of opinion on the Atlantic Yards, the protests, the backroom dealings, and the people on both sides.
“We wanted to do something about development in Brooklyn since the Atlantic Yard proposal was rolled out in 2003,” said Civilians artistic director, Steve Cosson, who directs the piece and lives in Ft. Greene.
“It wasn’t until The Civilians connected with [a] Rockefeller Grant that something could get done. The project was five years in limbo, but it turned out to be the perfect time to look at the Atlantic Yard and the ongoing story of gentrification.”
For those not familiar with the case, the Brooklyn Atlantic Yard project was set to be one of the biggest development deals in 21st century New York. At the end of 2003, Forest City Ratner and its CEO Bruce Ratner worked out a $4 billion deal with the city to turn a 22-acre space in Prospect Heights into an arena for the New Jersey Nets and a series of skyscrapers, hotels, and commercial projects. The proposed redesign of the community would take the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard and the surrounding area and transform it over the course of 10 years.
There was one small speed bump that wasn’t factored into this plan: the people living in the neighborhood. No one bothered to see if residents of the surrounding area would want their houses and businesses demolished for high-rise luxury condos and a tax-payer funded sports arena. Most discovered that the city had already decided it was in their best interest to build a 20,000-seat stadium, tear down surrounding housing, and put up luxury condos.
“Government is supposed to be beholden to the community,” said Melanie Nicholls-King, a Civilian actress in the play. “I don’t think Bruce Ratner realized how much the community would get involved. Once he realized people weren’t going to roll over and play dead he knew he was going to have to do something.”
What was once considered a speed bump grew into a mountain of obstacles. Over the years, the Ratner project has become a developer’s text-book example of what not to do: compromises, restructuring, and litigation has dragged on for years. In the process, the different sides of the issue have ratcheted up their PR blitz, and spread of half-truths, innuendo and rumors. Brooklyn at Eye Level attempts to clear some of this up.
“It was an amazing experience because all sides are equally passionate and believe they were right,” said Nicholls-King. “I was empathetic toward whatever side I was listening to at the time.”
Reaching out to all sides willing to talk, actors fanned out across Brooklyn to get the information directly from people.
“We interviewed people from all different sides. Community activists, urban planners, developer lawyers, and long-term residents,” said Colleen Werthmann, long-time Civilians actress and collaborator. “The issue of development is big for New Yorkers because neighborhoods are always changing and it’s always a topic of discussion.”
Through developing the piece most collaborators have discovered that both sides make sense, but that the current way of bulldozing public-works and massive development projects through without open debate isn’t a good model for the future.
“If I was mayor for a day I don’t know what I would do,” said Nicholls-King. “It depends on which day it was. If it was back then, I would have said this is the wrong. This issue isn’t for three people in a backroom to decide. If I was mayor on that day I would have said no.”
“I don’t know,” continued Nicholls-King. “The damage has already been done. People have been moved out. I don’t know.”
Fellow actress Werthmann agreed that the strange, unfair way the project started off soured people from the start.
“The way the proposal was crafted was sketchy and anti-democratic,” she said. “A group of highly powerful people had an agenda and slammed it down on the people.”
Theater has been one of the few public forums where concerns, grief, emotion, and dialogue can be aired out. After each performance, The Civilians facilitated a talkback with audience members.
Werthmann reported that the audience’s response was spirited because it’s something everyone knows. As New York constantly morphs, Brooklyn might be undergoing the change that Manhattan’s rougher areas experienced in the ’90s.
“I moved here from St. Paul, Minnesota in 1988. The city was a lot grimier, chaotic, and a lot more homeless people on the street. I don’t miss getting harassed in Times Square, but what I find now is depressing and awful.”
The Civilians collaborated with Urban Bush Women, composer Michael Friedman, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, neo-soul singer Grace Kalambay, local youth from the Atlantic Terminal Community Center, Brooklyn Tech High School.
Now, The Civilians hope to develop Brooklyn at Eye Level further and remount it in an extended run. Due to the constantly changing situation with the Atlantic Yards, there will probably be a lot more twists and turns to the story as it develops.
Numerous grassroots organizations, bloggers, and activists have joined together in forming a loose-knit coalition posting new information about the project. The David vs. Goliath battle will go on for many more years. And it will certainly expand to other cherry-picked areas in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx as real estate developers seek cheap land and permissive residents.
For now the Atlantic Yards project has been postponed—but not because of citizen protest or government rethinking. The financial crisis has ruptured the lines of credit necessary to proceed with the massive project.
On December 4th, it was reported that all demolition and clearing work on the Yard has been halted. The project was a year behind schedule, still isn’t fully-funded and doesn’t look to even have the capital to move forward with the very first phase in tearing down the railroad yard.
The question is if and when the economy does recover will Brooklyn be fighting this battle again in 5-10 years?
For more information on The Civilians’ Brooklyn at Eye Level, please visit brooklynateyelevel.org.
Aurin Squire is a playwright and reporter who lives in South Park Slope. He is also co-creator and writer for the online cartoon Bodega Ave.