Development, previously filed under the more uplifting rubric of “progress,” has always had its malcontents. Growing up in north-central Queens during the early sixties, our heroine was one Mary Sendek, an archetypal little old lady who flummoxed the R.H. Macy Company’s plan to build the world’s largest round store at Queens Boulevard near the Long Island Expressway.
“I’ve got a dog and he has to have a place to run,” said Ms. Sendek, mother of six, explaining why she refused to sell her brown shingle house, even after Macy’s offered a then-unthinkable $200,000 for the tiny plot. Macy’s had no choice but to build around her, leaving a pie-slice divot in their dream of the perfect 360-degree emporium.
There have been numerous other New Yorkers, like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo snarling, “I’m walking here!” in Midnight Cowboy, who have held their tenuous ground against the seemingly implacable forces of commerce and taxicabs. Some might call them cranks. To others they’re saints. Foremost among these is Jane Jacobs, who would not get out of the way of Robert Moses’s no-doubt neighborhood-killing Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs has been justly lionized for saving downtown, but brutally overpriced Soho shoe stores have yet to erect a plaque in her honor.
Much in this crank-saint tradition are Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant, who bought a condo at 636 Pacific Street in 2003 only to find out that their new home was situated within the celebrated “footprint” of Bruce Ratner’s mammoth, colossally controversial Atlantic Yards project. There was nothing to be done about it, city officials said. With much shock and awe, the Forest City Ratner Company bought out the vast majority of local residents. But Goldstein and Merchant refused to move. Immune to deal sweetening, the couple have been the lone residents of 636 Pacific Street since 2005, spending most of that time trying to stop the $4.2 billion project.
Now the battle may be entering its final stages. Along with ten other plaintiffs, including Freddy’s Bar, the community icon where the White Stripes’ “There’s No Home for You Here” is a popular choice on the jukebox, Goldstein and Merchant have filed suit against Forest City Ratner (which, as fate would have it, redeveloped the Queens Macy site, walling the space once occupied by Mary Sendek’s house). “Our last, best shot,” says Goldstein, who’s banking on recent Supreme Court rulings pertaining to eminent domain, the basis by which Ratner claims the right to replace 636 Pacific Street with an arena for the Nets to play in.
“We’re not cranks, unless letting powerful people do whatever they want, without any public review or regard to law, makes you a crank. That sounds more like a citizen to me—a New Yorker,” Goldstein says. “If it was another kind of project, we’d have been out of here a long time ago. All this makes me tired, saying the same thing over and over again. But how can you give in when you know you’re right?”