Activists Respond to Barclays Center Opening

Henry Stewart Sep 28, 2012

The Barclays Center, the first and flagship phase of Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards development, opens on Sept. 28 with a series of sold-out Jay-Z concerts. The Brooklyn Nets home-opener is on Oct. 15. We reached out to a number of key figures in the years-long battle to see how they felt as the opening date approaches.


He became the face of Atlantic Yards opposition when he refused to sell his condo, holding out for five years before he lost his home to eminent domain. He is co-founder and spokesman of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

How are you feeling now that the arena's opening? 

I feel that Brooklyn has been swindled. And while I completely understand that there is some level of excitement about the arena, it doesn't justify the process by which we came to this day: the ongoing broken promises and the failures to deliver the promised and critically needed affordable housing and living-wage jobs. Sadly, this is no surprise to opponents of the project. While I'm not bitter about the arena, I am bitter and enraged about most of the media coverage of the Barclays opening, because most of these reporters are newbies. It's as if collective amnesia has hit the press corps, and few remember the corrupt manner in which this arena came to be. Which is why things such as the extraordinary documentary feature film about the fight, Battle for Brooklyn, the counter-narratives to all the hype and hoopla, are so important. With this film nobody can truly ever forget what happened here.

Are you still involved in issues surrounding Atlantic Yards?

I'm very involved in organizing public events around the opening of the arena. These events are not protests against the arena. Rather, they'll use the spotlight on the arena to alert the media and the public to what happened here and what the community demands moving forward. We're calling it "It's A Crime" weekend, with events from the 27th to the 29th. Because unprosecuted crimes have been committed at this site: the crimes of crony capitalism, eminent domain abuse, taxpayer subsidy misuse, baiting and switching. And for goddsakes, the most corrupt bank in the world, the LIBOR-fixer Barclays, gets to have its name splattered all over Brooklyn, using us to spread its global brand. It's pretty sickening.

Beyond that weekend, the biggest thing moving forward is that the New York State Court, because of a lawsuit DDDB and others won, has ordered a new environmental review for the second and largest phase of the project. We believe this is a political opportunity to make things better at the site, specifically to expedite truly affordable housing and living-wage job creation, by bringing in multiple new developers to build so that Ratner stops holding 22 acres in the heart of Brooklyn because he doesn't have the wherewithal to build what he claimed he'd build—and what the state approved.

What's next for you? What's next for Atlantic Yards?

Next for Atlantic Yards is a Big Question Mark. What I expect—unless Governor Cuomo, Bloomberg, and/or his successor change their tunes and reconfigure the project or mandate a new one—is that most of the site will sit dormant for decades so that a once vibrant and growing community that was bogusly deemed blighted for eminent domain purposes will truly become blighted by vacant lots and stagnation. Is that what I hope happens? Certainly not. But it will happen if there is no political will to keep it from happening. 

I also expect Mikhail Prokhorov to act on his option to own 20 percent or more of the project site beyond the arena. What that may mean is anyone's guess. And DDDB will continue to monitor what is occurring with the project and take whatever actions may help to bring political change. Overall, that site is going to be faced with controversy and contention for a long time, and the neighbors close to it are going to have to deal with the onslaught of crowds and who knows what. It's not fair to them. Ratner gets this whole site and the neighbors get sleepless nights from noise. Not a fair bargain.

How are things otherwise for you?

I'm okay and enjoying raising my daughter, who is now almost four.



The former manager of Freddy's, the popular bar snatched through eminent domain by the development, he's now co-owner of the new Freddy's in South Slope.

How are you feeling now that the arena's opening?

There's not much to say now; eulogies, perhaps. The corporations and the politicians won, the neighborhoods and the small business owners lost. I feel it's sad; I don't think that any small communities put up any better of a fight than we did against overwhelming odds, and I am very proud of that. The battle was lost, but the war continues, a war fought all over this country and world. And a war that we best not lose, or no one's property will be safe. (To clarify, I was the manager of the last Freddy's, booking agent, artist in residence, etc. I did everything there, but I was not the owner. I had all the responsibilities of the owner and I was considered by most to be the owner. I am co-owner of Freddy's this time, and the previous owner is no longer in the picture.)

I always said the best neighborhoods were always the ones that grew organically from the efforts, struggles and lifetime investments of small time entrepreneurs, not large corporations. Park Slope is the perfect example. Corporations had nothing to do with the Slope being considered one of the best neighborhoods in New York, but once the Slope got that title? Boy, did they want in. And in the situation of the arena project, it was done by bypassing traditional routes like neighborhood associations, city council members, etc. It was basically an illegal land grab that the city wanted so badly that it was willing to look the other way, and it did. That was a seven-year battle that for us ended approximately two years ago; it ended in a struggle for the survival of employees, the staff and a scene. Long before anyone knew who Bruce Ranter was, Freddy's had been voted one of the best bars in America. After the Bruce Ratner payout, the previous owner of Freddy's exited the bar for greener pastures on the West Coast, so even though Freddy's original owner had promised to finance the new bar—and partnership with yours truly as a reward for all the years of underpaid service—he did not. No "Ratner Money" went into the building of the new Freddy's.

Are you still involved in issues surrounding Atlantic Yards?

No, not directly since we were forced out. The battle for us is over; the war continues for others, who we fully support. But the battle is over! They won! Now we are digging in, trying to make a new life for ourselves, one that hopefully people that have more power and money than we do won't take from us! You have to understand: we were warning people of these issue—traffic, noise, population density, etc.—seven years ago. The issue is really the capacity of those that Have to take from those who Have Not, or have very little. What right does ownership have?

What's next for you?

We reopened our new space here in the South Slope, on Fifth Avenue between 17th and 18th streets. It's a larger space with a full kitchen, backyard, art gallery, and free nightly live music.

What's next for Atlantic Yards?

Rust and reevaluation.

How are things otherwise?

Great! Love the new 'hood! Getting new crowds in, new accolades from the press. Life goes on, no matter how injured you may or may not be.


He's the director, with Suki Hawley, of  The Battle for Brooklyn, a documentary about the Atlantic Yards development that was nominated last year for an Academy Award. It will screen on Sept. 28, the day the arena opens, free and outdoors at the nearby Dean Street Playground.

How are you feeling now that the arena's opening?

We spent the last 10 years making and distributing a documentary about the Atlantic Yards fight because as soon as the project was announced we could see that the story encompassed a number of themes that we are interested in. It was a story about the soul of democracy, and by covering it over a long period of time we hoped we would be able to reveal some important truths about government, media, and power. Everyone who sees it tells us we did this very successfully. We are happy that the work we did makes it difficult for those in power to just sweep the past under the rug, though they are trying somewhat desperately to do so. Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a nostalgia-for-basketball op-ed by Dan Klores, who they described as a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. This is true, and he's a fine filmmaker. He also happens to be the chairman of the PR company that bears his name that pushed through the Atlantic Yards project (and in the process worked diligently to keep this filmmaker out of press conferences). It is true that he is no longer actively involved, but he was there when they kicked off the campaign. I'm deeply disappointed that the Times did not disclose this and refuses to correct it. The point is, without media like ours to take the mainstream to task and keep them on their toes, the PR people would just write the news, as they did in this case. It's a nice article, but it just so happens to be the exact PR message that his former company is pushing—it's all about basketball and let's just forget about the hundreds of broken promises.

Are you still involved in issues surrounding Atlantic Yards?

We never were actively involved in the fight against the project. We really wanted to keep a certain distance so that the film could not be summarily dismissed as an activist film. However, we are close to the characters we followed, and they are very active in working to get the rest of the site back from the developer and the state. They won their environmental lawsuit, so there has to be a fresh look at the project. There is a lot of work to be done, that is being done, by groups like Atlantic Yards Watch.


He runs the tireless watchdog blog Atlantic Yards Report, where he has published thousands of posts since 2006.

How are you feeling now that the arena's opening?  

I'm a little dismayed that you're not asking me about the ongoing series, "Atlantic Yards & the Culture of Cheating," on my blog. The round-up page is here. The opening of the arena comes with a huge publicity push. A good number of people are excited. Now Bruce Ratner says that, 100 years out, "No one will care what we had to do to make it happen." Notwithstanding the fact that, 100 years from now, all the buildings on the site likely will have been replaced at least once, people do care—and the press shouldn't forget.

Is there still work to be done by activists and journalists on Atlantic Yards?

Well, when the first component of an enormous, complicated, controversial project opens, when there are question marks about the rest of the project, when the developer seeks additional governmental help, when the impacts of arena operations remain to be seen, when there's a pending, court-ordered review of environmental impacts, and when there's a call to reform oversight and bring in new developers, then I don't think scrutiny should cease. Active opposition has understandably receded, though there is a protest set for the opening weekend; at the same time, the impact of arena operations likely will galvanize some neighbors to be more active. Note that the Atlantic Yards Watch initiative has steadily documented violations of construction protocols—and there are no penalties.

What's next for you?

I'm still scrutinizing Atlantic Yards in my daily blog. I'm still working on a book about the project; it's farther from the finish than I would've predicted, but, then again, the story keeps unfolding.

What's next for Atlantic Yards?

Atlantic Yards has gone through many twists and turns, so predictions are tough; for example, Forest City has said it aims to build all the towers via modular technology, but that's been delayed. I periodically lead Atlantic Yards tours; I did so on Sept. 23, and it was interesting to see the reactions of "civilians": more positive than not to the arena design, somewhat alarmed by the overall urban plan. I got to see the arena on Sept. 21, but the promised "public events and tours" seem to be off the table, likely because arena work has been down to the wire.

Henry Stewart is the Culture Editor at The L Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.

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