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Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood


An aerial view of the Atlantic Yards project, including projected shadows. Photograph by Vincent Laforet. Illustration by Jason Lee.  

Most of the time, though, Ratner plays a much smoother political game, and he clearly understood that Atlantic Yards would be as much sales project as real-estate deal. Ratner employs some of New York’s most prominent lobbying firms and has Dan Klores Communications, one of the city’s best-connected PR firms, on retainer. Forest City Ratner commissioned a study from the leading critic of stadium deals, Andrew Zimbalist—and, surprise, this time Zimbalist liked what he saw. But it’s Ratner’s deep in-house team that’s particularly valuable. The key players are Scott Cantone, who was Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of legislative affairs; Stuckey, who ran the city’s Public Development Corporation in the eighties; and Bruce Bender, a longtime aide to former City Council speaker Peter Vallone.

Bender, 49, is a curly-haired, fast-talking imp and, like his colleagues, a highly skilled salesman. He can spin the project’s economic benefits or play to old Brooklyn’s inferiority complex. “Can you imagine what it’s going to mean one day when we’re sitting home watching a game on ESPN and the blimp’s gonna be overhead and you’re gonna see the aquarium and you're gonna see Grand Army Plaza and you’re gonna see the communities from Bushwick to Sunset Park to Fort Greene to Clinton Hill to the brownstone belt?” he asks. “The whole nation is gonna be seeing our borough!”

Bender has deployed his charms relentlessly on city and state legislators, many of whom he shares longtime bonds with. “I know him from the City Council, with Peter Vallone,” says State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who represents parts of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. “And Bruce is a constituent—he lives in my district, and his wife is co-chair of the PTA at P.S. 321. We have a lot of friends in common.” Concerned about Brooklyn’s rapid growth and increasing congestion, Millman has come out against Atlantic Yards. Not for lack of trying by Ratner’s team. “They called and asked if there were two school libraries in my district that I would like to see get an infusion of library books, something like $1,500 apiece,” Millman says. “My response was, ‘All the school libraries in my district are equally deserving; you pick them.’ I’ve made it a policy not to take money from developers.” She couldn’t help notice, though, when Ratner’s gifts turned up elsewhere.

While he wasn’t able to win over Millman—or Tish James, who represents the City Council district where Atlantic Yards would be built—Ratner has still been deft at portraying the “real” community as being on his side. He’s flipped the debate upside down, depicting the old-timers as open to progress and casting as the enemy the white, gentrifying, brownstone-owning, white-collar, semi-recent arrivals to the neighborhood. In other words, me.

My wife and I are a cliché. We lived in a Manhattan one-bedroom in the early nineties, had a child, wanted more space, moved to Brooklyn, bought a brownstone. It’s a pretty house on an unlovely street. There’s a big shady magnolia in the backyard, but two lanes of constant traffic out front.

To us, the house was plenty expensive, and we borrowed every dime we could. The place is now worth triple what we paid, at least in theory. Appreciation is nice, but it’s just dumb luck; we bought the house to make a home. And the neighborhood seemed ideal for that: Fort Greene was a bold mix of young and old, black, white, and Latino, fairly well off and just getting by, with quirky small stores and a convenient public park. Things have certainly changed in nine years—beloved, useful spots like Octagon Hardware couldn’t handle the rising rents; a cluster of French bistros suddenly appeared. But the essential feel of the neighborhood is the same. The residents remain a mix of tie-wearing Bishop Loughlin high schoolers and too-cool Pratt students, buppies, yuppies, ankle-tattooed hipsters and floral-hatted church ladies. People chat over the backyard fence.

The first sign of trouble came a couple of years ago: A frizzy-haired woman in a grocery store on Flatbush Avenue was ranting about a looming disaster called Atlantic Yards. I grew up upstate, in the people’s republic of Ithaca during the seventies, when a day didn’t go by without an anti-nuke or a Free Leonard Peltier rally. Even when the protesters were right, their self-righteousness was hard to take. So I ignored the frizzy-haired woman—who I later learned was Patti Hagan, former New Yorker fact-checker and leader of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition—and bought my gallon of milk.

But a guy named Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who had bought a condo in a building on Pacific Street overlooking the rail yards, was alarmed when he saw one of Hagan’s THIS NEIGHBORHOOD IS CONDEMNED posters slapped on a lamppost. He tracked her down and learned that his building was right in Ratner’s path. Gradually, Goldstein became the spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the group that’s sprung up over the past three years to coordinate opposition to Atlantic Yards. DDDB comprises 21 community groups, hundreds of active volunteers, and thousands of disparate, petition-signing, money-­donating supporters.


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