"Freddy's Backroom" by Andy Friedman & The Other Failures, with music video by Freddy's manager Donald O'Finn.
Between January 2nd and 3rd, 2010, nationally syndicated conservative columnist George Will, whose work at the time appeared in more than 450 newspapers, issued a column alternately titled “A Blight Grows in Brooklyn” (Merced Sun-Star) and “Avaricious Developers and Governments Twist the Meaning of 'Blight'” (Washington Post). The piece called for the Court of Appeals to reconsider Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s challenge of eminent domain, which had been dismissed in both federal court and state court, and likened Atlantic Yards’ “battle of Prospect Heights” to the Revolutionary War's Battle of Brooklyn. The piece drew national attention to what Will called an “especially egregious example of today's eminent domain racket,” altogether “absurd… embarrassing… nonsense… [and] government theft.”
Will's column was re-blogged at 7:58AM on January 2nd by Norman Oder's Atlantic Yards Report with minor corrections (for example, Will incorrectly located the project in “central Prospect Heights,” when it's more accurately sited in “northwest Prospect Heights”). After quoting a section about Daniel Goldstein's condo, Oder linked to a DDDB official response arguing against claims that the condo's proximity to the officially blighted adjacent rail yard meant it would somehow catch the blight itself, as if it were the common cold. An hour later at 9:03AM, Steve Soblick, writing for the blog No Land Grab, block-quoted about 80% of the Merced Sun-Star's version, which was itself quoted in a post on the site Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. Less than 20 minutes later after his first post, No Land Grab's Soblick re-blogged excerpts of the Atlantic Yards Report's commentary.
By this time, in less than an hour and a half, a pre-digested version of Will's initial piece existed, connected, in multiple places online. The Revolutionary War framework had been removed, with selected quotes instead focusing on three key points: the legitimacy of ESDC blight claims on Daniel Goldstein's property, as amplified with additions by Norman Oder; the association of and implicit pressure on state Senator Bill Perkins, who had promised new legislation and public hearings into the Court of Appeals decision, again introduced into the discussion by Oder; and similarly disappointed quotations from George Will's 2004 column entitled “Despotism in New London,” about the contested site that would be argued over in the Supreme Court Kelo case, ultimately legalizing the use eminent domain to seize land for stadium construction. Not only did these Atlantic Yards-focused blogs incorporate a syndicated newspaper column into their discussion, they recapitulated it to fit their predominant narrative of exposure and accountability for misrepresentation—and not just accountability of the government (Senator Perkins, for example), but also sympathetic press commentators like George Will. The column was featured in that week's New York Magazine "Approval Matrix" near the extreme end of ‘brilliant’ and halfway to ‘highbrow.’
[Charles Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Ratner and brother of then-Nets majority owner Bruce Ratner, sent a rebuttal to George Will in the form of a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, which was published by the newspaper on January 12th. Ratner tauted claims of job creation and affordable housing, and he taunted Goldstein and DDDB, saying, "A group of holdouts announced early on that they were opposed to the development and pledged to sue often. They kept their word—but lost every battle.” His letter was picked up by No Land Grab, who calls Ratner a bully, criticized on Atlantic Yards Report and mentioned in the Village Voice.]
One week after George Will's column, on the afternoon of Sunday, January 10th, 2010, Freddy's Bar and Backroom at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights, located within the Atlantic Yards footprint, where it had been open for over 70 years, celebrated the piece with an event called “Toast to George Will and Barclays Bank Boycott Launch.” In 2005 The Brooklynite called Freddy’s Bar “one of the borough's most vital cultural hubs,” and in 2006 Esquire named it one of their best bars in America. Time Out NY once wrote of Freddy's, “This is the perfect neighborhood bar,” and during the period of Atlantic Yards opposition, the New York Observer called Freddy's “a ground zero of opposition.” As Bruno Latour writes in Reassembling the Social:"This local site has been made to be a place by some other locus through the now silent mediation of drawings, specifications, wood, concrete, steel, varnish, and paint; through the work of many workers and artisans who have now deserted the scene because they let objects carry their action in absentia; through the agency of alumni whose generous deeds might be rewarded by some bronze plaque. Locals are localized. Places are placed" (196). Freddy’s positive press coverage, intertwined with a variety of other mediations, legitimized the bar as a prominent 'local' institution, as memorialized in the song “Freddy’s Backroom” by Andy Friedman & The Other Failures. The song begins with an exultation of the bar’s many neighborly virtues and quirks, before shifting into a poetic vision of the bar’s location post-Atlantic Yards: "Freddy's is going to be a parking garage. Yup, someday something will be in the space that occupies the bubbling fish tank. Maybe a tail pipe or a row of fluorescent lights, a Styrofoam cup or a pair of keys hanging from a Dickies belt loop, some fast food trash, or maybe a stair case or a bright yellow Mazda coupe… Sometimes there's no positive inner meaning." A music video was posted to Youtube in January 2009. It was directed by the bar's owner Donald O'Finn and is composed in part of the sort of found footage video collages O'Finn created to show on old TVs in his bar. In fact, from 2001 to 2008, Village Voice awarded Freddy's “Best Video Art in a Bar.”
On the morning of January 11th, 2010 Donald O'Finn, Freddy’s manager, and Steve de Sève, a bar patron and founder of the Atlantic Yards protest group “Fightin’ Freddy's,” appeared on Fox News during a morning Fox and Friends segment entitled “Private Property—NOT.” The upswing of Atlantic Yards discourse into mainstream pseudo-libertarian conservatism is intertwined with actions taking place at Freddy’s Bar. In terms of audience, the Fox and Friends appearance would be the most widely-viewed Freddy's related event involving the Fightin’ Freddy's, who had previously helped install “Chains of Justice” to the bar so patrons could handcuff themselves to defy eviction. The chains were installed a month earlier, as announced by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, described by Atlantic Yards Report, described by No Land Grab, described and photographed by the New York Post, photographed by Tracy Collins and filmed by Found in Brooklyn's Lisanne. A week later, the Fighin' Freddy's constructed on the sidewalk a nine-foot guillotine made of beer cans and decapitated an effigy to eminent domain. Bizarre, theatrical events such as these prepared the Freddy's Bar narrative for mainstream news soundbites by conjuring historical icons of civil disobedience and revolution. In December 2009 Atlantic Yards Report featured a quote from de Sève predicting, ”Sometime soon in the next weeks and months, a battle of epic proportion will be fought. Around here, it's known as the bars vs. banks smackdown.” A posting on the group’s Google site before the sidewalk guillotining announced: “The Backroom at Freddy’s Bar was the birthplace of this particular rebellion for fair treatment, the front room is where we brought out the hardware to back it up… We invite you to this video-, audio- and photo-genic event…. and if you can't make it, cheers to you, too.”
As Latour says, “face-to-face interactions should be taken, on the contrary, as the terminus point of a great number of agencies swarming toward them” (196). Conceptually and politically, by emphasizing some sanctity of property rights, the Fightin’ Freddy’s rhetoric shifted Atlantic Yards opposition in line with the burgeoning American Tea Party movement, which newfound ally George Will has called “the most welcome political development since the Goldwater insurgency in 1964.” At least in part, the Fightin’ Freddy's tactics help explain the adoption of their story into mainstream Republican narrative, where overreaching big government destroys small businesses, while glossing over more contradictory aspects of Freddy's obstructionism to “job-creators.” In a matter of days, the bridge from Freddy's Bar to televised national right-leaning coverage was provided by national right-leaning print coverage by George Will. (Not all opponents of Atlantic Yards appoved . One thread on the message board Brooklynian discussing the Freddy's toast featured some of the most captivating prose I've come across on the subject: "I find it noxious that you gormless stooges have aligned yourselves with idiot conservatives like Will," wrote forum member Mountebanke. "They run any nebulous garbage up the flagpole, and you dopes salute obediently… You've aligned yourself with the rage-filled calibans.")
The Fox segment opens with a clip of Freddy’s patrons handcuffed to the “Chains of Justice,” clinking their beer glasses in cheers, while an announcer introduces, “These diehards willing to go to jail to save a bar called Freddy's.” A second commentator says simply, “Mmm, beer.” Fifteen seconds later, as the video transitions to a sit-down, in-studio interview, the interviewer again mentions the patrons are “handcuffing themselves to the bar.” A minute later, he asks O'Finn directly, “Did you guys handcuff yourselves already?” A theme is certainly emerging: in essence, the publicity stunt has worked. The bar's manager sits on the Fox and Friends couch, his name superimposed on the screen in gaudy title with the words “PROTECTING YOUR PROPERTY” right above it. Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court Judge turned Fox News Channel analyst, is sitting with the group, and he brings up the successful self-handcuffing of a state senator in Newark outside a construction site, chained in a pose Napolitano likens to Jesus on the cross. “Guess what,” Napolitano says. “That thing he was blocking was never built. I'm not suggesting you should break the law, but I'm suggesting that sometimes the human element is what—is what causes a just result.” De Sève even encourages any British viewers to withdraw their money from Barclays Bank “to defend property rights.” As the segment is closing, he gets in the second-to-last word, saying, “Anybody friend us at ‘eminentdomainrevolt’ on YouTube and come stand with us.”
Less than four months later Freddy’s owner sold the property to Ratner and the bar closed. Saturday May 1, 2010 was Freddy’s final night. A photo posted to Flickr by Tracy Collins shows a taped-up sign entitled “FREDATHON: 'What are they gonna do – evict us?'” listing 26 bands scheduled to perform at the going away party. Norman Oder provided a brief recap on Atlantic Yards Report, calling attention to the “top chants of the night,” which included “Fuck the Nets, we want the funk” and “We all live at Sixth Avenue and Dean,” to the tune of The Beatles' “Yellow Submarine.” Oder linked to videos uploaded to YouTube by user “redhookrockys” that confirm this. In a second post underscoring the bar’s importance, Oder wrote, “For many people, Freddy's has been that 'third place,' the not-work, not-home space where you meet your friends or simply where you are known.”
The next day, Eric McClure of No Land Grab collected reports of the bar's closing in a blog post entitled “Freddy's RIP,” which began with a short eulogy originally posted to Flickr by David Pexton: “Today is a sad day… It is sad because Freddy's is closing. It's closing because greedy, glutinous rich people think they know what's best for this neighborhood & are erecting some god awful monstrosity that is going to turn this Neighborhood in to a Manhattan-esque commercial nightmare.” Then McClure linked to the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner, which also featured Tracy Collins' photos and solicited comments from attendees, some of whom were upset at the composition of the night's attendees. One commenter named babs wrote, “I was there the night before and totally disgusted at the number of people who'd never been there before and didn't know why they were there then, excpet [sic] that someone had told them it was 'cool.' In the words of one long-time bartender who came out on the street at one point during the evening (because it had spilled out onto Dean St by that time), 'Where were you last year? And the year before that? And before that?'” To which another commenter, bfarwell, responded: “Oh come ON, babs. If they wanted it to be regulars-only, they should have made it a private party. I myself (who have been there only twice before, though I bike past it all the time) thought about showing up as a gesture of solidarity. Thank goodness I didn't; I would hate to have destroyed brooklyn or whatever.” That brief comment-section dialogue is an interesting micro-mirroring of the territorialism and contentious notions of ownership that have marked the fight over Atlantic Yards in general. Perhaps Freddy's mediated identity as that “perfect neighborhood bar” draws from the constant selecting and boundary-drawing that followed it through its last night, demonstrating what Latour calls the “constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31).
McClure also linked to a story by NYDrinker, which featured its own original YouTube footage of the evening, as did Brooklyn Vegan and a few other sites. NYDrinker, an anonymous Tumblr, was less bitterly downtrodden, likening the last night to the wishing-well of a friend leaving for a long trip and concluding that, “In the end, an angry sit in didn’t happen and the recently installed chains of justice remain unused. Turns out partying is just more fun, and seems like a more fitting way to say goodbye.” Two weeks before the bar closed the New York Observer published a statement by O'Finn explaining his plan to avoid an ultimate confrontation to block condemnation. “Freddy’s Bar is not closing, it’s moving,” the statement begins, announcing discussions to relocate a few blocks away. He describes the closing weekend as a victory party, claiming to have “dealt fatal blows to Ratner's organization.” He says, “The Chains of Justice have served their purpose to raise awareness of corruption, and they will move with us, forever installed on that bar as a symbol of a united community and that community's power for affecting change… Freddy's is not an address, it is an idea.”
Only interviews with O'Finn and de Sève could reveal their intentions installing the “Chains of Justice”—and how the constant presence of chains in the bar altered their perceptions of the space and caused them to act differently—though it seems the chains’ symbolic role shifted in tandem alongside fading prospects of maintaining the bar so as to always represent the reassuring proposition, whether that meant unassailable property rights or the steely chain-like bonds of a community. As Latour writes in Reassembling the Social, “Every time an expression is used to justify one’s action, they not only format the social but also provide a second order description of how the social worlds should be formatted… Those expressions allow people to rank themselves as well as the objects in dispute” (232). The chains’ possibly transitioning role seems essential to understanding the entangled roles of Freddy's Bar and its patrons in the Atlantic Yards narrative, and, due to the non-human role of both Freddy’s and the handcuffs, it points to the usefulness of actor-network theory in considering the complete social assembly.
Though Freddy’s Bar ultimately lost its original location, its story sheds light on a number of Atlantic Yards media actors—bloggers and commenters, photographs, newspaper columnists and their transformed work across different outlets, television hosts and channels, employees and patrons, musicians, the material space of the bar, effigies, chains, and so on—assembled radically differently than they had been just three years prior. In pursuit of a fair actor-network account, we could then trace in reverse the millions of mediations since Ratner’s initial announcement, fill in the gaps from Wired New York to Atlantic Yards Report. Latour says, “When faced with an object, attend first to the associations out of which it’s made and only later look at how it has renewed the repertoire of social ties” (233). Even concerning Freddy’s Bar this task is far from over: interviews and a studied investigation of the bar’s materiality, compiled using myriad YouTube footage, would bring new actors into play.
Tracy Collins on Freddy's Bar
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Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005.
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