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New Improved Brooklyn

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Like Walentas, BAM LDC chairman (and longtime Brooklyn impresario) Harvey Lichtenstein is one of New Brooklyn’s founding fathers. Unlike Walentas, Lichtenstein thinks theaters, not condos, are the engine of change. BAM’s aesthetic cachet has been a key factor in luring Manhattan’s cultural elite across the East River. “The idea is to take advantage of being an outer borough and have a little more daring to it. You are not as constrained as institutions are in Manhattan.”

Now Lichtenstein wants his beloved Fort Greene neighborhood to become Brooklyn’s cultural hub, a goal he believes is now well within reach. Every year, a larger percentage of BAM’s audience (visibly younger and hipper than that of Lincoln Center) comes from the borough. “It is great for Brooklyn to be on the outside,” he adds. “Places like that have a special kind of energy. The Dodgers were out of the mainstream, and that’s happening now in a different way. Brooklyn shouldn’t just be a copycat.”

BAM lies at the center of neighborhoods to which artists, writers, and musicians priced out of Manhattan have fled. Brooklyn has taken over some part of Manhattan’s national role as an incubator of talent, a place to be not-yet-successful among like-minded people.

“We talked about the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn, looking between the two places to try to identify what is the Brooklyn thing,” says Charles Renfro, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner who was team leader for the firm’s BAM LDC master plan. “We researched how many artists lived there, and Brooklyn has way more artists than Manhattan. The reality about Brooklyn is that people are living there and doing their stuff and not screaming out for attention.”

In March, the BAM Local Development Corporation announced a Gehry project of its own: a 299-seat theater, co-designed with Hugh Hardy, for the 25-year-old Theatre for a New Audience, to be built, beginning in 2005, just two blocks from Ratner’s arena.

The choice of Gehry by both the BAM LDC and Bruce Ratner is not, as it happens, coincidental. The BAM LDC is run by Lichtenstein, BAM’s founding director, and Ratner is a former member of BAM’s and the BAM LDC’s boards of directors (as well as the owner of one of the LDC’s development sites). The theater project has been in the works for much longer than the arena, so Ratner stole a bit of its thunder—and more than a bit of its publicity.

‘‘This is to appeal to Manhattan commuters,’’ says James. &‘‘This has nothing to do with Brooklyn.’’

An emphasis on excellent architecture—cutting-edge, and brand-name—is written into BAM LDC’s mission statement, along with the project’s overarching goal: creating a mixed-use cultural district around BAM’s Opera House and Harvey Theater. Its master plan was masterminded by architectural stars Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rem Koolhaas.

“The idea was that the district itself would necessarily be totally experimental,” says Lichtenstein. “It would not be conventional. It would honor the need for public space and open space. We would make it as transparent as possible so that the buildings wouldn’t be intimidating and people would have some sense of what’s going on inside.”

Lichtenstein envisions Brooklyn as a younger-skewing alternative to Manhattan’s Museum Mile, with the culturally adventurous seeing a matinee at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, dining on Smith Street, shopping on Atlantic, and making it to BAM for an 8 p.m. curtain. The Brooklyn Museum, newly awakened to the marketing possibilities of not competing with the Met, could be another stop, not to mention Rafael Viñoly’s canary-colored addition to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (opening 2006).

Enrique Norten, of the Mexico City–based TEN Arquitectos, won an NEA-sponsored competition to design a new Visual and Performing Arts Library. Norten’s stunning design emphasizes the flow of Flatbush, its multicolored glass wall—which Norten has described as a billboard—striated by horizontal lines. “My library reconstitutes the texture of the city. It fills in a very broken condition. It is missing a tooth,” says Norten of his site. “The design brings in new urban spaces, spaces of gathering, and a new space of urban identity.”

Rather than setback restrictions and shaded squared-off blobs representing future development projects, Diller, Scofidio, Renfro, and Koolhaas came up with a spiritual mission statement for the neighborhood. “How do you spur development that’s a little more naturalistic,” says Renfro, “a bottom-up approach, as opposed to one that’s top-down?”

As it happened, naturalistic or not, many of BAM’s neighbors saw the plan as gentrification by another name. As adventurous as BAM was, it was still seen as Eurocentric. And of course it attracted white people—who displace, of course, people of color. That conflict is still and always the most complicated and intractable of the issues surrounding Brooklyn’s development.


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