“I’m thinking out loud here,” the developer said, “but on the whole we’ll be in a positive position for that.”
Then Ratner had to go. It had been a long day. There was still plenty to do before Jay-Z christened the arena with a bottle of his branded Armand de Brignac. The developer grew elegiac. There were days when his “every third thought was about mortality,” times when he felt the only thing that kept him going was “thick skin and the approach of death.” Yet, in his line of work, there was a consolation.
“You might be dead, but your buildings live on after you.”
This last comment echoed a couple of days later as I stood at Pacific Street and Sixth Avenue, at the back end of Barclays Center, where the construction guys were working 24/7 to get the place ready. A man named Kwame, a sound engineer from Crown Heights, stopped by. He was a Knicks fan but was intrigued by the proximity of the Nets. “It’s good for Brooklyn to get its own,” Kwame said, adding that the Knicks, mostly thanks to the jackass moves of their lucky-sperm owner Jim Dolan, had pushed him to the edge.
“I go back to Earl the Pearl, and I am fed up,” Kwame said.
“I go back to John Rudometkin, and I am fed up,” I replied.
This didn’t mean that either of us was throwing in with the Nets. In 1925, when he was at death’s door, the old Dodgers owner Charles Hercules Ebbets left word not to cancel the game no matter what happened. “Charlie wouldn’t want anyone to miss a Giants-Brooklyn series just because he died,” said Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson. The Nets are owned by a Russian oligarch and will play in an arena named for a bank (which reportedly paid $200 million for the naming rights) whose senior officials in France voluntarily handed over names of its Jewish employees to the Nazis, a hedge just in case the Germans won the war. Oh, yeah, let’s go bang a thunderstick for them.
No matter, Kwame said, snapping shots of the giant building. The arena was “epic!” he said. Brooklyn had two and a half million people. We deserved an arena and a team to play in it. So what if the traffic was going to be a nightmare? Those naysayers were going to change their tune as soon as their kids started whining about “Disney on Ice.” You could bet on that.
He loved the arena, Kwame said. He couldn’t imagine how cool it was going to look “when they finish it.”
“Finish it?” I replied. “It is finished.”
“No way,” Kwame said with disbelief as he pointed at the deep-rust-look “pre-weathered steel” that surrounds the place. “That’s the frame. They’re going to put some cool shit on there. They’re not leaving it like that.” He walked across the street to talk to the construction guys, returning a moment later with a crestfallen look.
“You’re right,” Kwame said. “That’s it. I can’t believe it. You know how long I’ve waited for this? I’m so damn depressed I could cry. With that rust, it looks like somewhere they put people after they declare martial law.”
We stood together for a moment, contemplating the beached-spaceship-like structure before us. Oh, well, we decided. We’re from Brooklyn. What did we expect? We’d get used to it.
The Brooklyn brand was a deeper, more elusive thing than a Chamber of Commerce doodle off the back of Jay-Z’s rhyme book. I knew it, and even if “Empire State of Mind” is beyond lame compared with the fierce post-9/11 defiance of “Welcome to New York City,” no doubt Jay-Z knew it, too.
The borough was a land of ghosts, doppelgängers, uncertain shadows. A few weeks ago, Jed Walentas, avatar of Dumbo, bought the Domino Sugar factory, the old pile beside the Williamsburg Bridge where in the late-nineteenth century a large percentage of the sugar sold in the United States was refined. Saying the site offered “an unparalleled opportunity to create a new vibrant and mixed-use community … [for] a long dormant waterfront parcel,” Walentas shelled out a reported $185 million for the place. That was swell for Jed Walentas, but the number I most associated with the Domino factory was three, as in $3 an hour, which is what my buddies and I were paid when we worked at the place back in the late sixties. We crawled around giant steel drums, knocking the residue of burned sugar off the walls with broomsticks. Black clumps big enough to put your eye out rained down. Stupid hippies, and we were wondering why everyone else was wearing a football helmet.