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Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood

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Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant in their Pacific Street apartment.  

Today Goldstein, 36, is at Freddy’s, a bar at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, in the footprint of the Atlantic Yards project. The location, coupled with the independent spirit of Freddy’s regulars, has made the bar the clubhouse of the Ratner resistance. This afternoon, Freddy’s is the set for the taping of interviews with Bill Batson and Chris Owens, the two local candidates who’ve taken the strongest anti–Atlantic Yards stands. Batson is running for the State Assembly seat being vacated by Roger Green, who’s running for Congress; Owens is running for Congress in another district, to succeed his father, Major Owens. As the candidates sit at a small table answering questions from the host of a Brooklyn cable-TV show, jokey soft-core porn plays on two TV sets hanging from the ceiling.

“Black and brown folks have been driven out of central Brooklyn,” says Ratner supporter Bertha Lewis. “and we’re tired of being pushed out. if we can stop one iota of gentrification, we’re gonna do it!”

Goldstein stands to one side, wearing a yellow DEVELOP DON'T DESTROY BROOKLYN T-shirt, shorts, and a battered straw hat. At first, Goldstein seemed to snugly fit the obstructionist stereotype. He’s frequently antagonized people who could have helped his cause, haranguing reporters and elected officials. The son of an investment fund manager, Goldstein took the bait when a build member taunted him at a public meeting as a “trust-fund baby”; Goldstein wheeled around and cursed the woman. In June, he shot off a hyperbolic e-mail to Daily News columnist Ben Smith accusing black Atlantic Yards supporters of merely following orders from their “white masters.”

“Initially, he was extremely abrasive,” says Joan Millman, who’s had multiple meetings with Goldstein. “He’s toned down some. And the opponents have learned to play the game better.” Lately, DDDB has been upgrading its tactics. The opposition, fragmented by geography and motivation, was been slow to gain traction or media motility. But after three years of small gatherings in living rooms and church basements, the anger and activism are gaining momentum. In part that’s come through the obvious public-relations tactic of recruiting celebrity spokesmen—from Heath Ledger, of Brokeback Mountain and Boerum Hill, to Rosie Perez, lifelong Brooklynite and member of the Spike Lee ensemble—which has given the anti-Ratner campaign a not-always-helpful tinge of radical chic. But Dan Zanes is no Lenny Bernstein, and the core of the opposition remains a wildly diverse, mostly anonymous mob of regular folks, from Bed-Stuy ministers to Prospect Heights senior citizens. The turnout at the Grand Army Plaza rally, in mid-July in 90-degree heat, was impressive in head count—somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000—and composition: teens, retirees, yuppies, bohos, young mothers, and old lefties.

What’s galvanizing the protesters is an issue that reaches far beyond Brooklyn: Every vacant lot in the city suddenly seems to have become a construction site, with developers in a frenzy to erect out-of-scale apartment towers and office buildings before the economy tanks or the zoning tightens. Atlantic Yards is becoming the magnet for the growing rage against overdevelopment, and the emotion is likely to peak at the August 23 public hearing on the project’s ­environmental-impact statement. It’s hard to imagine, though, that one night of yelling and guerrilla theater can compete with four years of Ratner’s savvy, spare-no-expense political spadework. Just the opposite is more likely, proving the perverse genius of the campaign to build Atlantic Yards: The New York ritual of howling locals, especially if they’re white, will only help Ratner’s spin that he’s the real populist.

Goldstein may be no match for Ratner in terms of political strategizing, but he does have one important thing that Ratner wants: his address. Since February 2005, Goldstein and his girlfriend, Shabnam Merchant, have been the sole residents of their apartment building on Pacific Street. The other residents were bought out by Ratner for $850 per square foot, roughly twice what most of them paid. Last summer, he was trapped in the building’s elevator for three hours in the middle of the night; the lift’s emergency phone was dead, and Goldstein thought he might be, too. “How pathetic is this?” he remembers thinking. “I’ll die, and they’ll go on with their development.” Goldstein pried the door open and got back to work. He’s inspired by Merchant’s mother, an activist in India who spent years leading the opposition to a mammoth industrial-port project that would have pushed poor residents out of a small coastal town. Tired of the delays, the corporate developers eventually walked away, giving the Indian activists a huge upset victory and proving that the impossible sometimes happens.

“I’m staying in this apartment to be a plaintiff,” says Goldstein, noting that the DDDB has hired eminent-domain lawyer Jeff Baker to fight on behalf of all 60 remaining footprint residents. “My home is gone. I’m staying because this project is wrong, our City Council has no say in it, I have more say in it, and I’m gonna use that.”


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