Frank Gehry's model of Atlantic Yards, exhibited in Forest City Ratner's Dec. 10, 2003 press conference, as filmed by NY1.
In late July 2003 The Newark Star-Ledger first reported that YankeesNets, the Steinbrenner family-controlled ownership group behind the professional sports teams the New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils, had entered into negotiations to sell their basketball team. There were two bidders: Cleveland-based Forest City Ratner, who wanted to move the team to Brooklyn, and a group led by New Jersey-based real estate developer Charles Kushner and former Goldman Sachs CEO turned U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, who wanted to move the team to Newark, New Jersey.
The New York Times reporter Charles V. Bagli began covering the YankeeNet negotiations in the Sports section on August 8, 2003. His first piece, entitled "SPORTS BUSINESS; YankeeNets Unravels, And Teams May Move," doesn't use the name "Atlantic Yards," but introduces Ratner's "startling… large-scale real estate project" as a possible new site for the Nets. From the outset, Gehry was tauter as lead architect. Bagli cites discussions with YankeeNet's Lewis Katz, who tells him the "project could jolt the downtown neighborhood." Other Bagli stories published throughout August featured claims by "an executive" that Ratner will receive a "huge subsidy" from New York City officials. But perhaps most significantly, that first article incorrectly stated that the project would be sited in “Downtown Brooklyn,” inaugurating what would become a lasting misconception of Atlantic Yards, reaffirmed in a number of pieces by the New York Times, which mischaracterized the truly residential nature of its site.
Non-professional commentary appeared online at this point primarily through message boards (*of the two most prolific blogs, No Land Grab's archives go back to January 2004 and Atlantic Yards Report's begin in March 2006). Wired New York, an online forum established in November 2001, featured a thread entitled “Brooklyn Nets,” where members followed developments carefully, reposting newspaper articles in their entirety and speculating on the likelihood of Ratner's plan. One commenter suggested Ratner “bring in Sean 'Puffy' Combs,” the hip hop artist, oddly presaging Ratner's ultimate 1%-stake-owning, primarily symbolic partner Sean “Jay-Z” Carter. Just the next day, that same user expressed skepticism over the willingness for Nets star players Jason Kidd and Byron Scott to commute from their “big surburban [sic] McMansions” to Brooklyn. Both players would go on to endorse the project, though they would also both leave the team years before the Barclays Center would open. Through the fall of 2003 commenters debated the comparable merits of Newark and Brooklyn, introducing tangents like estimations of the fan's wealth (”Newark is the largest City in the Wealthiest State in the Nation”) and transportation options (”Folks taking subways to Atlantic ave don't have the money to pay $2,000 for Season tickets”).
On December 10, 2003, Bruce Ratner held a press conference at Borough Hall in Brooklyn to present models of Gehry's plans. The architect addressed the media, as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz and the rapper Jay-Z, all of whom heaped praise and pledged support. Ratner said, "We are going to be successful at this. We are going to get the Nets to Brooklyn, if it's the last thing that I do." The Time Warner Cable's 24-hour New York news channel, NY1, covered the press conference and provided statements from the 10 or 20 demonstrators outside. Patti Kagan told NY1, “The community is already vital. And guess who revitalized it — all of the folks who have been living there for 20 and 30 years. It’s a very vibrant community. The way to destroy it is to bring in something like this, a monstrous project with all these skyscrapers — the Manhattanization’ of Brooklyn." Newly elected City Council member Letitia James, who represented the Brooklyn district where Atlantic Yards would be built, also spoke critically, cementing her role early on as one of the projects most steadfast opponents. "I do not like the fact that they're going to condemn an entire city block or a potion thereof and displace a number of businesses and individuals who live there," James said. "The fact is that stadiums have not shown to bring economic vitality to a community."
The next day, The New York Times published two stories on Ratner's plan: Charles V. Bagli's “A Grand Plan in Brooklyn For the Nets' Arena Complex” and Herbert Muschamp's “Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden.” On the surface, Bagli’s is a straightforward ‘news’ account, but there are a few notable peculiarities. For example, he mentioned “about two dozen residents” congregated outside the conference in opposition just before immediately describing a claim by Brooklyn Borough president, Marty Markowitz, that the project would reduce him to tears. At every turn, Bagli was ready to spin possible hurdles positively. For example, he dismissed financial criticisms by writing, “Even some sports economists who have been critical of stadium and arena projects elsewhere are intrigued by Mr. Ratner's plans.” The article perpetuates the incorrect "Downtown Brooklyn" descriptor.
Muschamp, the Times' architecture critic, was effusive over the prospect of buildings by Frank Gehry, who he called a genius. “A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn,” Muschamp began, in the first paragraph alone praising “excellent public transportation” and “a terrific skyline, with six acres of new parkland” for Ratner's “well-equipped urban paradise.” He called Atlantic Yards the next Rockafeller Center, and he was excited about the opportunity for planners to “rethink how communities want to live.” Across the piece, Muschamp glowed, concluding: “The richness and generosity of the outdoor spaces he envisions are the urban equivalent of the fanciest flower arrangement a city could give to itself.” It was a fantasy. Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin were fired after their designs were approved by ESDC but before Ratner ever broke ground. Precisely none of the original, comparatively more open space-friendly plans would come to fruition. Immediately, on two fronts, The New York Times calibrated its vast readership to accept an image of Atlantic Yards as a financially secure, roundly beneficial pinnacle of urbanism. They asked no questions, raised no concerns, and they failed to mention their company's financial ties to the developer.
The same day, an uncredited story in Jersey City, NJ's The Jersey Journal, entitled “New York Makes Headlines; Jersey's Deal Is Best,” found Ratner's prospects unlikely: “It makes no sense for the Nets to go to an ownership that lacks approvals for the Brooklyn project and has yet to acquire the land needed for a major development.” The extent to which eminent domain would ultimately be applied to dubiously “blighted” functioning businesses, homeless shelters and $600,000 condos was, at the time, unfathomable. “The New Jersey bid is a no-brainer,” the piece continued, “but in the land of big money, logic is not always the final arbiter.”
The story of Ratner's plan was picked up uncritically by a number of websites catering to the various populist 'hooks' of Atlantic Yards and the promised Brooklyn Nets. ESPN.com featured an interview by Darren Rovell with NBA commissioner David Stern, who didn't seem particularly concerned either way, saying “I think [an NBA team] can be in any place that has a sizeable [sic] population, and Brooklyn has a sizeable [sic] population.” MTV and Contact Music's websites covered Jay-Z's involvement, though his minimal financial commitment wasn't clear: “Jay would not reveal how big of an investment he's making in Ratner's group. 'I'm not going to tell you that,' he laughed when asked,” wrote MTV's Joseph Patel.
Besides Bagli's aside in The New York Times and the NY1 piece, the only coverage of any disapproval among residents came, astoundingly, from across the Atlantic Ocean in a piece by the Italian architecture magazine Domus, which quoted Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition as saying, “It’s too big, it’s too obtrusive, and it’s in the wrong place.” The connected centers of the Atlantic Yards actor-network at this time were oligoptica in the truest actor-network sense, inscribing limited representations of Ratner’s project in terms of new urbanist architecture and entrepreneurialism. But they point to a colossal disconnect between the aforementioned media actors and the people, places and things that would be most directly affected by such a development. The media organizations covering the initial press conference reiterated Ratner's claims, transformed primarily through the various lenses of their niche focus (celebrity architect, celebrity musician, celebrity athletes, celebrity developer). In the immediate wake of Ratner’s announcement, a critical press simply did not exist, a void to which we might attribute, at least in part, with demanding and creating the ensuing advent of new opposition actor-networks.
Tracy Collins on first learning about Atlantic Yards
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