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Mr. Ratner’s Neighborhood

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Public schools? They’re already crowded. The study dutifully admits that “if all school-aged children introduced by the proposed project were to attend the public schools within 1/2 mile of the project site, the elementary and intermediate schools would be over capacity and could not accommodate the increased student population, resulting in a significant adverse impact.” One suggested “mitigation”? The thousands of new kids should scatter across school districts 13 and 15. But there’s no discussion of what that actually means, in human terms: Thousands of parents and kids competing for school slots outside their neighborhood, then trekking by subway, bus, or car each morning and afternoon to reach their far-flung destination, maybe in Sunset Park, where they’ll be bumping the teacher-to-student ratios ever higher.

You get to know your neighbors when you live in a place for nine years. But I was surprised, as I pushed past the public faces of the Atlantic Yards ­opposition, that the anti-­Ratner troops were not only not crazy, but they were my mild-mannered friends. Eric Reschke, the president of DDDB, is a youth-­soccer ­acquaintance. I’ve interviewed Dan Zanes, the rocker turned kiddie-music balladeer. On the DDDB Website, under BOARD OF ADVISERS, I find Jennifer Egan, novelist, fellow journalist, and neighbor, as well as Chris Doyle, architect and one of my wife’s oldest friends. Doyle, it turns out, was recruited for the opposition by his friend Jonathan Lethem, whose most recent novel, The Fortress of Solitude, is set on the Dean Street of his youth. One pivotal location in the book is the Underberg Building, an old warehouse at the corner of Flatbush and Fifth Avenue; in March, the Underberg was torn down by Ratner.

“Because I have written so sentimentally about areas that border this project, a lot of people were sort of expecting me to have very strong feelings about this,” Lethem says. “And I had a contrary reaction: No, no, no, I’m not gonna take the bait. I don’t have a strong feeling. I’m sort of a sports fan, I’m sort of weary of political struggles over changes in cities, which is mostly an ecological process that happens apart from anyone’s idealistic yearnings.” Then a writer friend, Sean Elder, nagged Lethem to do some research. “I started to feel the resentment of having been tricked,” Lethem says. “This wasn’t about a basketball arena and a Gehry building. And the opposition is not about a given building being torn down or fetishizing some particular half-ruined part of the city. I want to be the first to say that there ought to be development on the rail yards.”

Maybe it’s just that I have a shallow social circle, and that’s why all my actively anti-Ratner friends and acquaintances are white. Or maybe critics like Bertha Lewis are right about the opposition after all.

For fourteen years, Lewis has led the New York chapter of ACORN, the feistiest activist group for low-income housing in the city; she once chased a Giuliani welfare commissioner out of a community meeting and into the street. When Ratner built Atlantic Center, Lewis picketed, then stormed his office, demanding that the retail tenants pay their employees a “living wage.” This time around, Lewis approached Ratner much earlier and much more quietly. “He was proposing 4,500 units of luxury housing,” Lewis says. “We don’t think so. If any housing is coming to Downtown Brooklyn, we need to talk. There was no affordable housing in their original plan. None.”

Striking a deal made sense for both sides: Ratner gained the appearance of local support and took a skilled protester off the table; Lewis got the promise of low- and middle- income housing. Lewis’s public endorsement of Atlantic Yards was crucial, and brilliant, stagecraft. It came in the middle of the 2005 mayoral campaign. After Lewis, Ratner, and Bloomberg announced the ­subsidized-housing deal at a press conference, she planted melodramatic kisses on each man, making for invaluable photographs.

Lewis has devoted her life to making grudging gains for ACORN’s membership, and she sincerely believes she’s scored a major victory for them with the Atlantic Yards housing deal. Any suggestion that money played a role enrages her. What’s of greater value to acorn and Lewis is that after all the years of scuffling, the Atlantic Yards deal certified them as serious political players. “For years, we fought, we squatted, we did whatever it took to get to the table to sit down and say, ‘Let’s make something happen,’ ” Lewis says. “There are activists who talk about how it ‘should be.’ But, dammit, at some point somebody has got to actually do it. We’re developers now.”

That’s part of why Lewis is so ferocious in denouncing the Atlantic Yards opposition. “You want to talk to me about traffic, you want to talk to me about density, you go right ahead,” she says, implying she considers it all a pretext. “Talk to me about what your resolution is to the resegregation of Brooklyn. Black and brown folks have been driven out of central Brooklyn!” Lewis ladles on the “street” theatrics as she warms up, shimmying in her chair and dropping her g’s. “We’re looking at the gentrification—I don’t see a lot of black and brown folks in the wave runnin’ up in here! The overwhelming folks who are opposed are white people and wealthier people and more secure people and people who just arrived. Come on! This is about the power dynamic of who in fact is going to be living in Downtown and central Brooklyn and where the power ­really is going to be. And we’re down to get it on! We’re tired of being pushed out. If we can stop one iota of gentrification, we’re gonna do it!”


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