The Brooklyn Brand is upon the borough, stenciled on six-packs, fall collections of “mod pocket hobo bags,” and fashion models alike. And here I was thinking the only proper brand for Brooklyn was a stiff middle finger. Now Labradoodles bearing the county’s name are pissing on the forsythias, the borough’s official flower, if you don’t know. I was talking to the guy who runs the sporting-goods store on Seventh Avenue. He used to sell softballs, basketball shorts, an old Dodger hat or two. Now his window was full of what he called “Brooklyn Wear.” He had shirts that said brooklyn, pants that said brooklyn, towels that said brooklyn. Asked how much of his business was “Brooklyn-oriented,” he said, “Are you kidding? Brooklyn is my business.”
This week’s big Brooklyn branding moment is the opening of 18,200-seat Barclays Center, which will begin its run with over a week of performances by the Marcy projects’ favorite son, Jay-Z. There was some New-Old Brooklyn symmetry to that. In the early nineties, not counting the Pepper and Potter car dealership (“Picky People Pick Pepper and Potter”) and the Dime Savings Bank sign on which the E was always burned out, the first thing the Brooklyn traveler saw upon exiting the Manhattan Bridge was a billboard for Kool G Rap’s current knowledge drop, Live and Let Die. The poster featured a pair of men hanging by the neck as other thugs in ski masks fed what looked like slices of pizza to Rottweilers—like, welcome to the BK, baby!
This was when Jay-Z was still Shawn Carter, going to school on Kool G Rap’s multisyllabic rhyming technique. Amazing how far a brother can go in this land of milk and honey if he manages not to get shot or put in jail. The synergetic J not only “inspired” the ambience of Barclays Center’s premier luxury suites, the Vault ($550,000 per year apiece, with a three-year minimum purchase), but he is also credited with helping design the stark black-and-white branding logo for the arena’s lead tenant, the Brooklyn Nets.
“Jay-Z’s design is the Brooklyn Brand!” declared Marty Markowitz, the blustery borough president, whose main claim to fame may be that any Brooklyn comic, living or dead, can “do” him in their sleep. Jay-Z’s logo was “the absolute distillation of the borough’s ability to charm you off your feet and be in your face at the same time,” Markowitz proclaimed. “Simple, classy, and tough, with a big B in the middle. It says: Brooklyn! Everyone understands that.”
Well, maybe not everyone. By the thrum of the BQE, a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect peered up at a large billboard done up in the Jay-Z design featuring a picture of Joe Johnson, the Nets’ recently acquired shooting guard. “Hello Brooklyn,” the ad said. “I’m No. 7, Joe Johnson … six-time NBA all-star and lifelong Razorback.”
“Vat is this razorback?” asked the Satmar, furry shtreimel on his head in the August heat. Given the answer, he said, “Trayf from Arkansas, this is basketball, this is Brooklyn?”
Bruce Ratner first announced his intention to build at what came to be known as Atlantic Yards in 2003. The plan eventually called for sixteen towers—including the 620-foot-tall, 60-story “Miss Brooklyn” (later politically corrected to “Ms. Brooklyn”)—surrounding a state-of-the-art arena. It was a huge idea, the biggest development ever proposed in Kings County, one of the largest in the city’s history. At the time, there had been almost no major construction, save Ratner’s own MetroTech, in Downtown Brooklyn in more than a quarter-century. With architect Frank Gehry signed on, Ratner’s plan was touted as a utopian greenback generator that would provide thousands of badly needed jobs and a high number of “affordable” apartments. With the full backing of almost every high-ranking local public official in the city and state, who through the years would provide the Forest City Ratner company with almost $300 million of public funds, Atlantic Yards was to be nothing less than a Brooklyn colossus, an appropriately populist Rockefeller Center that would single-handedly return the hard-bitten borough to its former glory.
As for what happened next—the protests, battles over eminent domain, charges of bait-and-switch on the reneging on jobs and affordable-housing promises, the vagaries of the 2008 market crash that led to more delays, the departure of Gehry, etc.—all that has been detailed in many places, most trenchantly in Norman Oder’s singularly obsessive website, Atlantic Yards Report. One line from the fight, however, does stand out. This appeared in a musical about Ratner’s project, In the Footprint, staged by a local theater group, the Civilians. After a Greek-chorus-style listing of a number of “things you could say” about the Atlantic Yards neighborhood (“the chicken box, the bottles thrown around the junkie park … the hipsters, Spike Lee”), a lone singer ends with the lament, “You are only entitled to the space that you have … you are not entitled to the space that is all around you.”