In Spite of It All, Paterson Still Has Sense of Humor at Atlantic Yards Groundbreaking

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Protesters wore signs with the faces of the development's political and financial supporters.
Photo: Tim Sohn

The scene outside of today's groundbreaking for the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn was a traffic-snarling circus. Helicopters hovered loudly overhead while hundreds of police officers erected barricades, and protesters rang cowbells, blew whistles, waved signs, and sounded air horns. Their placards ranged from the coherent ("Atlantic Yards: a Sham and a Shame") to the slightly more esoteric ("KGB comes to Brooklyn!!"). Inside the white tent erected at Fifth Avenue and Pacific Street, trays of lobster rolls circulated while dozens of cameras zoomed in on a stage stacked with one-namers: Bloomberg, Paterson, Markowitz, Sharpton, Ratner, Jay-Z. The politicians took their turns at the podium, trading lame jokes, patting Bruce Ratner on the back, and invoking Hova's name to milk applause from the crowd. But one man, having embraced that liberation that lies just the other side of rock bottom, seemed to be enjoying himself more than the others.

Given David Paterson's recent problems, he could be expected to be in a down mood, especially after the prayer offered by Reverend Herbert Daughtry in his invocation. "We pray for the honorable governor of this great state, our friend and our Governor David Paterson, we pray especially for him as he is besieged from every side during this severe, testing time," intoned the reverend as Paterson listened impassively. "We pray, oh God, that you will grant him the strength of his convictions and give him the deep comfort of knowing that those of us who love him will be with him come what may."

It was, to say the least, a little bleak. But when the governor approached the podium a few minutes later, there was a smile on his face. "Thank you so much, Reverend Daughtry," he said, "I thought I was at my own funeral for a moment. But as Mark Twain once said, rumors of my death are grossly exaggerated." The governor was clearly enjoying this small triumph of seeing the Atlantic Yards project, one of his pets, finally set in motion. Solidifying his reputation as a trivia machine, Paterson reeled off the project's projected (and disputed, by some) stats — on jobs and housing units and the percentage of minority contracts — to the point of almost losing the crowd's (and Jay-Z's) interest. But then he veered back towards the personal, and began reminiscing about being a Nets fan as a kid: About how ecstatic he was when the Nets signed Julius "Dr. J" Erving in 1973, and about how heartbroken he was when, in 1976, the Nets traded him to Philly.

"It was one of the worst days of my life," he said, pausing a beat before adding, "before I became governor."