Daniel Goldstein is the spokesperson and one of the founders of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. He has spent the last five-and-a-half years fighting against—and living in the footprint of—Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project. As developer Bruce Ratner continues to face serious financial and legal hurdles, Brian Carreira—the Rail’s former City Editor and long-time writer on Atlantic Yards—sat down with Goldstein at his apartment on Pacific Street in Prospect Heights to discuss his ongoing battle against one of the city’s most powerful players.
Brian Carreira (Rail): You moved here in May 03, and you said you were looking for a place for four years. What made you bite the bullet on this place?
Daniel Goldstein: I was renting on 7th Street between Third and Fourth for seven years. I think about half the time I was there I was looking—it was a little bit of a hobby. I thought it was a good idea to try and own an apartment. I liked the neighborhood. And I liked the building, it had the location that I wanted. I definitely did not know as much about the neighborhood as I do now—what it has to offer. I managed to outbid someone else by a little bit, so it was real close in terms of me getting this place. Atlantic Yards became a rumor, I think in August, because of Patti Hagan, so—what’s that, three months?
Rail: And what did you think its chances were at that point?
Goldstein: Patti was posting signs around the neighborhood that said “This Neighborhood is Condemned,” which catches your attention. In September that year this building and others on the block started meeting separately and together about what to do. No one wanted the project. By September we knew that there was this project coming that would take this building, this block, and these other blocks, but I remember thinking Ratner’s not gonna get the Nets, why would he get the Nets? And I was pretty surprised when he did.
Rail: So then he gets the Nets.
Goldstein: That was pretty upsetting. I was invited to paint banners at Freddy’s, and I reluctantly went, thinking that’s not the sort of thing I want to do. I went and it was rather disorganized and I was about to leave, but I didn’t. And I got talking to Patti there, and painting a banner that we ended up putting on this building. But I was going to the building’s meetings.
I was thinking that it was a lot of bullshit—the project—and I was angry that I settled on a place to buy, and here is this situation. I remember, when I bought the place I thought that as long as I can keep my payments going, I’ll always have a place. If everything else falls apart, I’ll have this place. I never expected something like this, so I think there is a lot of anger. So, like, a lot of people get involved because it’s hitting you over the head. I remember in one of the those early meetings I said that I hope to see this go the Supreme Court, so I was pretty committed to challenging it, and that wavered at times in five years, but I decided pretty early on that I was going to commit myself. I definitely wasn’t looking to sell.
Rail: What made you make that commitment?
Goldstein: That’s a good question. I was very reluctant at first. Early on in the fight, we were preparing for a meeting with Senator Schumer and someone said, “Hey we need a spokesman for us”—it wasn’t DDDB yet—and someone else said, “Hey Dan, how about you?” I said, “No, I really don’t want to do that; I’m uncomfortable doing that. I’m shy.” Eventually I took that role, but I was reluctant to do that.
Why did I decide to commit to this? I think the combination of the anger about this being my home, and immediately this threat coming against it, and learning more about this project, I just, decided, I’m gonna fight this. I had been laid off not too long before, then this came along and I had some time to devote to it, I didn’t know it was gonna be this much time. And I really felt this is wrong, and I can impact it, and if I’m gonna let this happen to me, and to people I know then I would probably let anything happen. I don’t think I thought about it so much, I just did it. And then the more you get involved, you’re committed to something, and then it becomes, in part, about succeeding at it. Even if we don’t win, I think we have succeeded at a lot of things.
Rail: Let’s go back to this space of time between where you went from being interested because it had a personal effect on you and being pissed off, to I’m gonna fight this thing. How long did you think you were going to be committed to this, and what did you think the result was going to be?
Goldstein: I don’t think I was considering how long it might take, which probably means I didn’t think it would take this long…I thought we could challenge the project in court and I thought we could win. I remember conversations with other owners who just thought there was no way to do anything, so why not sell? And that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s hard to explain how I’m the only apartment owner out of two condos and a co-op that stayed. I don’t know how I maintained optimism or a sense of hope that there was something we could do.
After everyone else in the building negotiated a deal with Forest City Ratner, I got a call asking if I’d meet with them. I did, with my lawyer. I think I was just curious what they were going to do. I never seriously considered it. After everyone has sold, what’s the point? And I think I’ve learned what the point is—that basically the sales meant nothing to Ratner. It didn’t get him silence because the people who sold weren’t loud anyway. It didn’t get him this building to demolish. It really didn’t get him anything. If over time they thought they’d isolated me, they haven’t done that either.
Rail: Yet by February 2005 or maybe March 2005, it was just you kicking around this building by yourself. How did that feel?
Goldstein: [Laughs.] Well, maybe I don’t have strong feelings about stuff. Ok, obviously I do, because I’ve committed to this fight. But I think things—I haven’t let these things strongly affect me. If they did, it’d probably be difficult to be here. I was living here, literally alone. Shabnam [Merchant, Goldstein’s wife, a fellow DDDB leader whom he married in 2007] wasn’t living here, so I was alone for about a year and a half here. And I’d been asked, when everybody moved out, “How did it feel?” and it didn’t feel. It really didn’t. The moving out wasn’t the blow to me—it was the fact that everyone had settled, and that had happened months before. I thought it was kind of an interesting living situation, one that I didn’t expect to continue for as long as it has.
Rail: Well, the other side of it was you becoming the public face of this opposition, and becoming a public figure. You became the spokesperson for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn—often for the larger opposition to Atlantic Yards, and in many ways one of the public faces of opposition to large-scale development and over-development in New York City. How has that been?
Goldstein: I had no experience being a public figure whatsoever. The first few times I was quoted in the Courier Life paper, I saved it and thought wow, this is funny. It was amusing, but it became less amusing and more frequent. When we formed Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn in March of that year, we announced ourselves and that we had retained Norman Siegel. It came upon me to run the press event, and I was extremely nervous about that, unsure of what to do. I think there have been stages of comfort for me being the public face and voice of this fight. I would say I’ve become a professional at the press portion of it, and public speaking, and have come to like that work and everything it involves. It’s a different way of living, people knowing you who you don’t know, and being responsible for what this organization is saying and how it represents itself. It’s unusual that the spokesperson for a campaign has so much at stake for himself, and his own or her own feelings about what’s going on. Often spokespeople do a job and then they’re on to the next one.
Rail: Did you ever feel you were in over your head?
Goldstein: Sure. I still do at times. There’s no net at all. Having said that, I’ve learned a great deal and I think we’ve killed them in the press. It took some time, but besides the editorial boards at the dailies, they don’t get any good press. And being David to Goliath—the press likes David. There’ve been a lot of different hardships from this fight, but, also, I’ve gained a lot.
Rail: What hardships?
Goldstein: Just living with this day in and day out and not being sure when or if this home will be taken from me. Having to represent an organization—I don’t know if that’s a hardship, but a struggle—I can’t say everything that I want to say because I’m not speaking for myself, that’s a struggle. I don’t feel what I’ve been doing is some separate part of my life that I have to get back to my life from. It’s what I do, but at the same time, I know it will end and I want to do other things, and I’ve found that I can’t devote the time I need to this and also do other things. I found the time to have a child in this situation—which is fantastic; though I don’t like when this work—or anything, really—pulls me away from her. But other interests have gone away, and the type of income I could be making is not there.
Rail: Well let’s talk about that. You’re getting a salary or a stipend for your work at this point, but for a number of years you weren’t. How have you been able to do that?
Goldstein: Right now I get paid, not a salary, but as a consultant. It’s about $30 thousand a year, if it were thought of as a salary, which is a lot less than I could make in other fields or other jobs. So for some years I was living off savings. Most of those savings were left to me when my mother died—which happened in the midst of all this, in December of 2004. I’ve spent down savings that I never intended to spend down.
There’s absolutely been a campaign, not a very strong one, and I don’t think a very smart one, to make me out to be born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I’m just dabbling in this—“Isn’t this fun, this activism stuff?”—like I’ll go out on my yacht after the meeting today or something. And it’s ridiculous, and intentional, and it’s said by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m not saying I’ve been a low-income person, I’m not, and I haven’t been, but I’m not what Forest City Ratner has tried to turn me into. They don’t have the issues on their side so they try things like this.
Rail: You grew up in Eastchester, New York, in Westchester. How would you describe your upbringing?
Goldstein: Suburban. I think, probably, a very typical suburban upbringing, I lived in a predominantly Italian town, not particularly diverse. Ethnically diverse, not racially. A house, I would say a modest house, relatively modest, for a family of five. Backyard, front lawn, public school, we lived on a dead end, so a lot of playing with the kids in the dead end. I’m a dead-end kid. [Laughs.] We were relatively well-off, absolutely, but I’m not, and have never been, someone who can just sit around doing nothing. And I don’t sit around doing nothing.
Rail: You said your mother passed in 2004. You were still processing the idea of how much you wanted to commit at that point.
Goldstein: She died unexpectedly. I was with Shabnam and Gustav Peebles after a meeting with the Regional Plan Association and we went to eat something, and I had all these messages on my phone from the police that I need to call them. The police said, “You have to go to such-and-such hospital,” and I got there and found out that my mother had died on the subway platform, from a heart attack, I guess, I’m not really sure that’s what it was. And I know that as I was waiting at the hospital for her boyfriend to come, and my sister to come, I was deep into this Atlantic Yards fight. I had just come from this meeting. And I made a commitment to myself that was already there somewhat—but re-affirmed it—that I was going to see this through, I was going to do this fight. And, you know, a sense that my mother would want that, she’d be proud about it, I’ll do it for her. I also felt that look, life’s short, you should do what you care about as much as you can. This is what I care about, and I’m going to do this…and I knew life was short before that, by the way!
Rail: You went to Colgate for undergrad where you majored in English and Peace Studies. Do you think young Daniel Goldstein in college doing Peace Studies would have envisioned that you’d be a full-time activist now, 15 years later?
Goldstein: Probably. Many people don’t go into work that has anything to do with their majors in college, but what I’ve been doing these past years has a lot to do with it. I got pretty disillusioned with peace studies and affecting change, and I’ve become re-illusioned and believe it’s possible with this work. What I didn’t realize before this work was that local politics is something much more important than trying to get involved in national politics. If you don’t pay attention locally, you’re probably not getting much done anywhere else. And we have some pretty tough politics in Brooklyn and New York City, very tough. But even though it is, you can have an impact.
Rail: So what have you learned about yourself, what have you learned about people?
Goldstein: I didn’t have a great opinion about myself, what I could do. So I’ve learned that I could do plenty. Specifically I’ve learned that—I mean I used to be terrified of public speaking, terrified. And now I enjoy it, thrive on it.
I’ve learned a lot about people. There are people who are sincere and genuine and know what they’re trying to do, and there are people with hidden agendas that lose sight of the bigger picture. And I’ve learned to moderate anger that’s bound to be there about this. I mean there are some things that have gone on that have been just infuriating. People want to paint me as offensive, paint DDDB as something we’re not. I’ve learned that each day you survive to the next day, and whatever bad turn you have one day is pretty much gone the next day.
Because I’m the public face and voice of the fight, I get most of the praise as if I’m doing this by myself, and I’m not and I couldn’t. I get a lot of appreciation for what I do, you know — “That’s great. I hope the fight goes well, I hope your fight goes well”—and I have to say I’m not doing this for myself, it’s not my fight, it’s our fight, and I really believe that. I wouldn’t be doing this if it was my fight, if this wasn’t a huge community fight and it wouldn’t be such a huge fight if there was a true benefit to the public.
At this point, I think I’m pretty tough, and maybe I’m oblivious to some things. The Senate hearings that Senator Perkins had, there were “Goldstein Get Lost” signs at this thing, being held by people who probably have no idea who Goldstein was, or why he should get lost. And when I got up to testify I was—like pretty much everyone else—jeered, so I addressed the people who were doing it from the table, I said “You can jeer me all you want. It’s Ratner that isn’t building. He’s got a rail yard he can build on. The state can actually take my property any day they want, but they haven’t. So I’m not in the way. But you can jeer me.”
Rail: So this will eventually end. What do you think you’ll do with yourself?
Goldstein: I think I’ll take a little break first. There’s a number of things I’m thinking about, but I really like the public relations work, so I think that’s what I’m inclined to do. And I don’t mean selling some product or person, but being in the fight. You know whether that means political campaigns or something more related to this we’ll see, but I think I know how to do it, and I like it. Public relations can be public service depending on how you use it. I’ve started writing a book about this. Having no time for it, but getting this all down, and making it interesting, and writing it well, is a big challenge. But I think it would be a shame not to attempt it. But I like the fight. I do find it tough to talk about myself in all this, because that’s not really my job. But it happens…you know, people want to focus on the individual, the story. And I always make it clear that this is a big fight. There are other people in the footprint, most of them don’t want to talk to anyone, so I have volunteered to do that. You get into a mode of representing a position, and not how I feel—I mean, who cares how I feel?
Rail: What do you think is going to happen with the project?
Goldstein: It would be nice to have Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn remain after this fight is over, whatever the outcome is—but particularly if we stop the project and advocate for some better form of development over the rail yard. I don’t foresee it happening unless we get some steady, institutional funding, though. But we just got our eminent domain case into the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. And that’s very exciting. Like I said, years ago I said at a meeting that I’d like to get to the Supreme Court, and we didn’t get there but we’ve gotten to the highest court in the state. And I think we have a good shot at winning that. I think it’s an important case—and we also have another outstanding case that we haven’t heard whether we’re going to get the right to appeal it in the Court of Appeals. So the fight continues.
ContributorBrian J. Carreira
BRIAN CARREIRA is a writer living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianCarreira.