Hey, everybody, my new book The Brooklyn Wars is out today! (Yes, I know I said tomorrow, but I figured I’d give you all a chance to order it before tonight’s presidential debate numbs your mental capacities beyond the ability to read.) It’s a look at the ongoing transformation of Brooklyn, something that is not only inseparable from many of the issues we discuss here — public subsidies, skewed economic and political power, dunderheaded elected officials — but that involves two specific sports venue projects: There’s a long chapter on the Brooklyn Nets arena that spawned a boroughwide debate about development and eminent domain; and in the Coney Island chapter, the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium turns out to have been surprisingly (to me as well) pivotal to the reinvention of that famed beachfront neighborhood.
You’ll be seeing book excerpts popping up this week on a couple of major news websites, but I’ve saved a good bit just for Field of Schemes readers: a section on the aftermath of the construction of the Nets’ Barclays Center and the surrounding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park development, and what it did for — and to — the existing neighborhood. Enjoy, and if you’d like to read more, please buy the book!
On September 28, 2012, the Barclays Center arena opened its doors for the first time, for a concert by co-owner Jay-Z. Outside, concertgoers mingled with a few dozen protestors and various onlookers, including a Columbia University class on urban design. Inside, ticket buyers ogled the black-and-grey color scheme and three layers of luxury suites — two forming a vertical wall between the lower and upper decks, the other ensconced at floor level and dubbed “the Vault,” with a half-million-a-year price tag — while high-definition video boards flashed a pre-show message of gratitude: “Thank You Bruce Ratner.”
The building itself by then looked nothing like architect Frank Gehry’s original designs. The odd angles were gone, replaced by a perforated rust-colored steel façade designed by fill-in architects SHoP. (To prevent the rust from dripping on passersby on rainy days, the steel was “pre-weathered” in Indiana before installation; it ended up staining the sidewalks below with orange splotches regardless.) Its size had been trimmed as well, as part of a “value engineering” to cut costs during Ratner’s bond crisis, leading to a shape that fit fine for basketball, but not hockey, a condition that would lead to many obstructed views when Islanders owner Charles Wang chose to move his team in from Long Island anyway in 2015. A promised jogging path and public ice skating rink on its roof, floated as public benefits of the project, had faded away as well, replaced by a plain roof with the logo of naming-rights sponsor Barclays Bank on it, the better to be viewed from airplanes on the approach into La Guardia.
On event nights, the blocks around the arena were utterly transformed, as the surrounding streets swelled with traffic and the subways disgorged thousands of arriving fans wearing Nets shirts, Islanders jerseys, or rainbow-colored Barnum & Bailey circus hats, then reabsorbed them three hours later. (The arena developers had purposely built little parking to discourage car use; as Forest City Ratner senior vice president Jane Marshall explained at one community meeting during the planning process, “There’s a healthy fear that’s already there in potential attendees, and we’d like to encourage that.”)
For a sports arena, though, that’s a minority of the time. In its initial year, the Barclays Center was open for business about 200 nights, which is at the high end for most arenas. The other 165 days a year, plus most mornings and afternoons, it sat like a great beached robot whale at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush. An oblong video board tucked beneath its “oculus” — a kind of metal awning with a large hole in the middle, which was just as useful for protecting waiting fans from weather as it sounds — flashed promotions for upcoming events and for various building sponsors: the Daily News App, GEICO, Starbucks, Calvin Klein, Zappos, Bud Light. (Giant animated beer bottles hovering over Flatbush Avenue would normally require special city permission, but the state’s control of the site meant it could trump city billboard laws.)
The surrounding blocks, meanwhile, were an odd mix of the brand new and the remarkably unchanged. Across Flatbush from the new arena, a row of small shops had been converted into outlets of the Shake Shack upscale fast-food chain and the True Religion boutique clothing chain; other storefronts remained vacant, awaiting more revitalized uses. Across Pacific Street to the north, a PC Richard electronics store — itself put in place in the 1990s after a controversial deal to partially relocate a community garden that had been planted there during the previous decade, when the site was an underused parking lot — was fighting the state’s attempts to displace it via eminent domain for an office tower of unknown height. To the south, the former Triangle sporting goods store — named for the shape of its building, isolated on a tiny block bounded by Flatbush, 5th Avenue, and Dean Street — had been sold after ninety-six years in business for $4.1 million to a pair of real estate investors, but remained empty three years later, a wraparound cellphone ad covering its vacant windows.
South again across Dean, the owners of a Patsy’s pizzeria — a newly opened branch of the original East Harlem fixture that claims to be the first pizza place in the city to sell single slices — explained that the arena had been a great boon to their business, but they’d come to grab a slice of the greater Park Slope market as well. “Building a restaurant anywhere, if you have a quality product, you could be a back alley and people will come to you,” said Joe Juliano. “But it could take two-three years — and I don’t have two-three years to pay rent. So over here we have a captive audience across the street, and three nights a week we have the games. That really helps while you’re trying to pay the bills.” Not that capturing an arena audience that only arrives in three-hour bursts is easy, he explained: “You have 100 seats, they all want to be fed in one hour. Our pizza only takes a minute and a half to cook — that helps.” His partner, the Bensonhurst-born Anton Reja, put down his cigar to chime in: “Between this one, the corner, what’s happening over there, you got six thousand families coming into the neighborhood. But this is not working for everybody. People who are coming to see the game but going to eat, they don’t want to go four blocks away. They want to go fast.”
In fact, said Reja, while the arena was a nice bonus, his bottom line was reliant less on spillover from the arena than from the growing aura of Brooklyn as a whole. “I get a lot of locals, and then I get a lot of people who come in from Long Island, and from lots of different countries,” he said. “One night, in my restaurant, I had five tables, five different countries: New Zealand, Australia, France, Mexico. It was unbelievable. They came because of Patsy’s, maybe go to the games. And they’re just coming to see Brooklyn. Just coming to see Brooklyn!”
One block to the east, on a once-residential block of Dean Street now dominated by a police station, a fire station, and the arena’s hulking backside, the owners of Dubai Mini-Mart were finding themselves to be somewhat less of a destination. “The stadium went up, families moved out,” said Abdul Ibrahim, one of a group of cousins who opened the small grocery store in around 2005. Ibrahim, who grew up in part with his mother in Cleveland, in part with his father in East New York, said his family chose the site after the city renovated a small park nearby, building baseball and soccer fields that drew families to the block.
His main clientele, he related, still came from these families, plus police and firefighters at stations on the block, as well as workers at the arena and those erecting the pair of apartment towers that were being squeezed in on two of the arena’s sides. But even they couldn’t provide the same customer base as the now-vanished full-time residents. “Now groceries stand on the shelf. People just buy drinks sometimes,” said Ibrahim. “It’s not like when the neighborhood was a neighborhood.”
Smack up against the arena’s southern side, a bright-red 32-story tower was close to being finished, after years in the works; it had been held up when the contractors chosen to run Ratner’s new “modular” construction plant quit in a huff, saying there was no way to operate it without losing money hand over fist. (The modular technique, in which components of the building would be assembled off-site and then stacked like Legos, raised concerns about whether the project’s promised 17,000 construction jobs would ever materialize.) A couple of blocks to the east, a pair of housing towers — rebranded “Pacific Park, Brooklyn’s newest neighborhood” to avoid the taint of the Atlantic Yards name — were playing rapid catch-up, having broken ground with the aid of Chinese investors, attracted in part after Ratner sought financing via the federal government’s “EB-5” program, which doles out a fast track to green cards for foreign investors who provide low-interest loans to American development projects.
Once those buildings opened, Ibrahim would no doubt see an influx of new customers, but his landlord had warned him not to expect to be around to see much of it. “He told us he’s not going to renew our lease,” said Ibrahim. “We got to do the next four years, and then he’s going to push us out.”
Around the corner, the Slope Food Market had already shut down, shuttering after seventeen years on the spot. Its owner, who gave his name only as Khalid, had packed up and started over with a small luncheonette in the Department of Motor Vehicles building in Coney Island. “I took the store for three years, and the rent started going up high — five hundred dollars escalation every year,” he said there, while ringing up customers. An employee accidentally sold cigarettes to a minor, causing him to lose his Lotto and cigarette licenses for six months; after more losses and more rent increases, he chose to shut down. As for the arena, he said, its impact was almost unnoticeable: “Barclays Center, I tell you the truth, it has an advantage and a disadvantage. It improved the area, and made it look high-class. But as far as business impact, I would say it did not really make a big difference, because the only people we used to get from the Barclays Center were the employees coming into the deli to buy hot sandwiches.” The expansion of the Atlantic Avenue train station to bring more people to the arena, meanwhile, had meant fewer riders disembarking at the next stop, Bergen Street, which happened to be in front of his store. “We lost all the people coming into it. We didn’t see any people coming from the train.”
Two blocks away, the easternmost outpost of Pacific Park, a seventeen-story condo tower sheathed in grey fake brick, was going up on a double-sized superblock at the corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic Avenues. Vanderbilt, long the main shopping drag of Prospect Heights, was now jammed tightly with new stores and restaurants, including Ample Hills, a homemade ice cream parlor that had soon expanded throughout the borough, and Empire Mayonnaise, an artisanal mayonnaise store that attracted media attention for its $8 jars of white truffle mayonnaise, though it had few visible walk-in clients. After Saturday Night Live lampooned them in a sketch about gentrifying Brooklyn, co-owner Elizabeth Valleau told Good magazine: “We got a whole bunch of new customers because of that skit, so we’re very happy about it.”
Valleau, who said the opening of the arena “had little to no effect on our business” — the location, she explained, had been selected mostly because it was near to her and her business partner’s homes — was somewhat less happy about being painted as a harbinger of neighborhood doom. “People are trying to politicize us, but ultimately we’re just a couple folks from the neighborhood who have a condiment business and we’re making it in the neighborhood instead of in a big warehouse out in New Jersey,” she told Good. Gentrification, she continued, had changed in Brooklyn in recent years, from being “more about new families and small businesses that actually cared about growing a future with the neighborhoods they moved into. [But now] we have these machine-style corporations eating up real estate and literally pushing people out of their homes and businesses the second a new community garden or cupcake shop appears.” Some change was inevitable, she indicated, but the city could be doing more to mitigate the impact. “What it is, is depressing.”
In a subsequent email interview, Valleau reiterated that her store should be seen as “a part of the community that could be pushed out by further gentrification, as opposed to a driver of it” — even at $8 a jar, apparently, mayonnaise sales could only pay so much in rents. (In fact, the storefront eventually closed in summer 2016, though its owners planned to relocate their wholesale mayonnaise business elsewhere.) “I understand how our business could seem frivolous from the outside, but that’s only if the viewer doesn’t realize that we manufacture every jar that we sell worldwide in a 300-square-foot space. There is nothing fancy happening here whatsoever.”
It was the typical New Brooklyn quandary: The minute you arrived in a new neighborhood, it was time to start looking over your shoulder for who was coming after you. Back at the mini-mart, Ibrahim noted that the process had taken a toll on his upstairs neighbors as well: In the past decade, his building’s landlord had already raised apartment rents from $900 a month to $3500 a month. “I’m not mad at him, because development is always good,” he insisted. “But I just feel bad because of the families that we lose. The people that live in the neighborhood, kids, that’s what I’m used to growing up. Not all these big skyrises that could have stayed in the city. But I guess you can never stop change.”
His business partner Ahmed Khtri was more cynical. “To run a business and establish a business, have it in a poor neighborhood,” he advised. “More secure, reliable people. You have it in a rich neighborhood, it comes out greed, and people who love money more than humanity.”
“If they want people to move out of the city, they should make a place for them,” said Ibrahim. “New New York, for the middle class and the broke.”
Print and electronic copies of The Brooklyn Wars (Second System Press, 2016) are available for purchase from brooklynwars.com.