Art or Advertising? The Contradictions of “You/We Belong Here” Neon Signage at Barclays Center

Is it celebrating social justice protest? Or co-opting it?

Norman Oder Dec 6, 2021

Photos by Norman Oder.

Approaching the Barclays Center from Downtown Brooklyn, a large neon sign looms above the turf-carpeted entrance to the plaza’s transit hub. In graceful cursive, it proclaims, “You belong here.”

In the background: the blue Barclays Center logo, affixed to the building’s oval oculus, and a series of LED signs, such as for ticketing partner SeatGeek, over the arena’s entrance doors.

It sure seems “You belong here” is encouraging people to buy tickets for the borough’s biggest venue.

No, say the sign’s sponsors; it’s art.

The signage — paired with “We belong here” on other side of the transit structure—is said to salute the #BlackLivesMatters protests that coalesced around the shuttered arena after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, creating what I called “Brooklyn’s accidental new town square.”

It’s the work of Tavares Strachan, a Bahamian-born artist who’s produced several earlier versions of “Belong,” albeit in much less commercial circumstances.

The signage was sponsored by the Social Justice Fund of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, founded by the billionaire owners of the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center operating company. But in this case, just as with the overall Atlantic Yards (renamed Pacific Park) project that includes the arena, it’s tough to disentangle art from commerce.

In the wake of the 2020 protests that engaged NBA players — remember the “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” and “Say Their Names” jerseys worn during the 2020 playoff “bubble”? — the Tsais made a 10-year, $50 million pledge “for social justice initiatives and community investments that will benefit the BIPOC (especially Black) community, with a priority on Brooklyn.”

They’ve gotten civic kudos; the Social Justice Fund, for example, launched a low-interest loan program aimed at “Brooklyn’s BIPOC business owners.” Their Twitter bio asserts #BackBlackBK. It’s much more than previous owners of the team and arena company have done.

No progress without profit

Then again, to quote a central lesson of Matt Sullivan’s recent book on the 2019-20 Nets, Can’t Knock the Hustle, there’s no progress without profit. That $5 million is dwarfed by the arena’s annual property tax exemption, north of $56 million, plus Tsai’s new revenue streams like a $30 million (!) annual sponsorship deal for the Nets’ jersey patch, from Webull, an online brokerage. (Webull really belongs.)

Moreover, the Barclays Center was supposed to be part of a transformational project called Atlantic Yards (and renamed Pacific Park) — involving jobs, job training and affordable housing — but has fallen far short of such promises, leaving former supporters embittered. The “affordable” housing disproportionately serves the middle-class.

10-year, $50 million pledge for social justice initiatives and community investments made by the owners of the Brooklyn Nets is dwarfed by the arena’s annual property tax exemption, north of $56 million.

The publication CityLab, in a spoon-fed exclusive preview of the installation, unwisely suggested that the signage might “sound like a pointed rebuke” to those who protested the arena — as if the emergence of the plaza as home to protests could trump the ugly history of government enabling what I’ve called a “private-public partnership.”

For example, only by drawing an irregular map to link the arena site to high-unemployment tracts in Black-dominated Bedford-Stuyvesant — which I dubbed the “Bed-Stuy Boomerang” — could the arena’s original builders raise a low-interest loan from immigrant investors. Such projects, as the scholar Amanda Boston argues, “have enabled investors to use distressed areas disproportionately inhabited by poor and working-class Black communities to qualify for funding, while redistributing benefits upward to wealthy developers.”

Ironically, that plaza is an accident, an intended-to-be-temporary substitute for the giant “Miss Brooklyn” tower once planned to loom over the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic. Now the plaza crucially serves arena operations, and unbuilt bulk is likely to be shifted to a site across Flatbush, enabling a much larger tower than previously approved.

Gauzy retrospective on protests

“We’re here to celebrate the history and the culture of Brooklyn,” Clara Wu Tsai said at the Oct. 23 “block party” opening ceremony. “And we’re also here to commemorate the activism and the bravery of all the people that were here, underlying all the social movements that really took root over the last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.”

As the Social Justice Commitment Statement said, “In partnership with law enforcement, we will encourage the Plaza … to continue to serve as a place for peaceful gatherings and for all constituents to listen to each other.”

But the arena company didn’t embrace the protests but rather belatedly accommodated them, days later swapping out discordant, pre-programmed ads (think Geico and JetBlue) in the oculus for a gnomic Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The time is always right to do what is right.” As one protest organizer put it, the plaza was “totally appropriated.”

The Tsais’ gauzy retrospective ignores the not-always-peaceful encounters. Gothamist’s Jake Offenhartz summarized the first brutal night of George Floyd protests at Barclays: “In both the level of rage from demonstrators and total lack of restraint from NYPD, last night’s protest was unlike anything I’ve seen in NYC.”

Thousands of protesters poured from Barclays Center into the streets and marched through Brooklyn on March 29, 2021.

Philanthropy, or business?

Wu Tsai welcomed guests “on behalf of Joe and myself and Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets and the [WNBA’s] New York Liberty.” The backdrop advertised not just the Social Justice Fund but the Nets and the Liberty. The swag: A Nets-themed bag and face mask.

So it’s impossible to disentangle the Social Justice Fund’s efforts from the profit-seeking sports entertainment corporations run by the same people.

Indeed, while the invitation to “Belong: The Block Party” identified the location as the “Barclays Center Plaza,” the press release for the Brooklyn Nets’ opening week encouraged fans “to arrive early” to “SeatGeek Plaza.”

The promotional rendering of “You belong here” supplied to CityLab misleadingly omitted background branding, in contrast with the logo-heavy reality.

Under Tsai, the arena company’s pushed to monetize ever-more-available canvas, including new digital signage above the entrance doors, new digital signage on the arena’s flank for the team store and even a wall outside the arena’s secondary entrance, on residential Dean Street.

And rather than sacrifice revenue-producing arena real estate for the art installation, his company instead got permission to add the neon message to the transit hub from Empire State Development, the state authority that oversees/enables the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project. ESD can override the city’s signage regulations.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which must approve projects within 200 feet of its property, said the agreement does not allow advertising entrance, nor would MTA approve advertising use if pursued. Except, as the photos suggest, it’s hard to disentangle a commercial message.

State government has bent over backwards to accommodate what was billed as the return of professional sports to Brooklyn. The Tsais own neither the arena nor the plaza; a fig leaf of state ownership enables tax breaks and tax-exempt financing.

Burnishing a reputation

Art, said Wu Tsai, “really speaks to our shared identity and our shared pride and really to our belonging.”

It also burnishes the Tsais’ reputation. They’ve made significant gifts (tax-deductible, of course) to educational institutions, to criminal justice reform, and for COVID relief. Then again, Joe Tsai’s fortune comes from his role as co-founder of China’s online behemoth Alibaba.

That’s left him in queasy lockstep with authoritarian China. In October 2019, after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey retweeted a message in support of Hong Kong, the backlash to the NBA from China was swift, prompting Tsai to play middleman for the league. In a Facebook open letter, Tsai claimed that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.”

Joe Tsai didn’t speak at the Oct. 23 ceremony. If he had, perhaps that would’ve opened him up to charges of hypocrisy: Does the “You belong” consensus apply to those who back Hong Kong autonomy, or Uighur dignity?

A space for “shared identity”?

Artist Strachan’s work, Wu Tsai said at the ceremony, “is really at the core of what Joe and I really want this space to be, which is a space for belonging and a space for shared identity and commitment.”

That space, however, is constrained by the arena’s operational needs. When organizers last May planned a protest on the anniversary of Floyd’s killing, they were shunted across the street, as a Brooklyn Nets playoff game took precedence at the plaza.

One day after the ceremony, in fact, the plaza was a scene of temporary “chaos” (to quote one TV report), when raucous anti-vaccine/mandate protesters claiming to “stand with” unvaccinated Nets superstar Kyrie Irving harassed arena-goers and even tried to breach the building.

Since then, the plaza serves the arena’s operational needs: It’s been regularly cordoned off by metal fencing, creating a checkpoint for ticket holders and leaving a relatively small space for regular Brooklynites to pass through or to enter the transit hub.

While a relatively small crowd of protesters was able to gather in that space to protest the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict on Nov. 19, the night of a Nets game, most of the plaza — as a sign said — was limited to ticket holders. So who, exactly, belongs more?

Backing from two pols

No protest leaders spoke at the Oct. 23 ceremony, or have saluted the art installation. Nor have any of the elected officials who got arrested at the Barclays protests. Rather, two prominent but very mainstream Black politicians spoke, though — at least according to my review of contemporary news coverage and social media — they did not go to the plaza after the Floyd killing.

Rep. Yvette Clarke, whose district encompasses the arena, hailed it: “We’ll come for the great entertainment offered but also in defense of freedom and our ongoing demand for change and justice.”

She even proclaimed, “The Barclays Center has truly become the mecca of Brooklyn.” That provoked no audible response from the crowd, perhaps because many attendees — based on applause — were there to see friends and family perform, with the bonus of free food (from vendors supported by the Social Justice Fund).

Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, a Harlem state Senator elevated for balance by accidental Gov. Kathy Hochul, a white woman from Buffalo, stated, “This space was therapy for so many of us who just couldn’t understand what happened to George Floyd … They are putting their money where their mouth is.”

Or, perhaps, spending strategically.

The executive director of the Social Justice Fund is Gregg Bishop, former commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, who brings his own political connections.

The artist and his interpretations

Strachan spoke briefly. “When you hear words like ‘you belong here’ and ‘we belong here,’” he said, “unfortunately, we live in a world where these statements are necessary. And for me, whenever I make words like this, the goal is for us at some point in the future, to not have to say these words to each other.”

No George Floyd protest leaders spoke at the Oct. 23 ceremony, or have saluted the art installation. Nor have any of the elected officials who got arrested at the Barclays protests.

Once the signage was illuminated, Strachan said, “Hopefully this space continues to be a place of conversation, a space of contemplation … And hopefully, in the long run, we live in a world where we all feel like we belong.”

Yet this space also serves commerce, and Strachan — at least based on previous comments regarding similar installations — recognizes potential contradictions.

At Compound, a modestly-scaled Long Beach, CA exhibition space, “You belong here” was “ a seemingly friendly gesture kind of couched in an array of really tough questions,” Strachan told the New York Times. “Like, who’s the you? How are we defining ‘here’? And who gets to belong?”

At an arts festival in New Orleans, a giant “You belong here” sign mounted on a barge “reads like something that’s very straightforward,” Strachan told the Times-Picayune, “but ends up being very complex.”

In Brooklyn, the messages were not treated as questions. The work, according to the Social Justice Fund, “will serve as an affirmation of belonging as well as a call to unity in the heart of Brooklyn.”

Since then, I’ve returned to the plaza several times, and periodically asked people working at/for the arena about the signage. They expressed bafflement, though one, his eyes lighting up, suggested, “They’re probably telling the people that go in to spend their money.”

At the Barclays Center’s SeatGeek Plaza, that’s not an unreasonable conclusion. After all, even the first promotional photo on the Social Justice Fund’s website could serve as an arena advertisement.

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