By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The Fort Greene residents at the February 26 planning workshop for the proposed Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cultural District, presumably there to discuss the future of their neighborhood, were instead asked to divide themselves into four categories: the Public Realm, Arts & Culture, Housing, or Local Business. After a series of invitation-only meetings last year, this public forum's style may have been off-putting. Anyone might have taken it for one of BAM's interactive performance pieces.
Speaking into his wireless clip-on mic, John Alschuler, partner at the planning and management firm Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, used remote control to advance the PowerPoint presentation looming behind him, while advising the audience that the debate sure to come that night "was just the tension between different good things."
More than a year before the public input sessions began, the cultural district had already generated a good deal of press, centered on Harvey Lichtenstein, chairman of the BAM Local Development Corporation and former director of BAM, and architect Rem Koolhaas, who was hired along with fellow design stars Diller + Scofidio to plan the district. Building on a string of glamorous successes, notably the Next Wave festival, Lichtenstein left BAM in 1999 to run the BAM LDC and develop a "vibrant mixed-use cultural arts district."
The portions of the plan made public to date include the new home for the Mark Morris Dance Company and an arts library run by the Brooklyn Public Library. The LDC has kept most of its ideas under wraps, but announced goals include a boutique hotel, theaters, retail spaces, and housing, most of which will be on the site of four parking lots on Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street.
Early indications suggest that the BAM LDC is more than capable of succeeding. Among arts administrators, Lichtenstein is a minor legend. He told the Voice, "When I came to BAM in 1961, it was a dying institution with a budget of $600,000 or $700,000. It was doing a lot of community work, folk dancing classes, a big adult-education program. Today, it's become really an important cultural institution in the city, with a $25 million annual budget." He clearly has in mind a similar transformation for the neighborhood.
BAM LDC has received a remarkable $80 million in pledged city and state funding, with which it hopes to attract an additional $600 million of private investment. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani promised $65 million for the project in the 2000 budget. That year, calling the arts a "tremendous industry" for New York, he said, "If we invest $50 or $60 million, which sounds like a lot of money, right in BAM, we're going to make that back in the same way that we do when we invest in other businesses like the New York Stock Exchange."
Using culture for economic development is a common practice for city officials, businessmen, and the real estate industry. Even so, the conflation of real estate, development, and culture has made this project's primary goals hard to pin down. While the $80 million in combined pledged government funds is earmarked for culture, all of this money resides in the city's capital budget, which can only be used for construction. Alschuler explained to a confused audience: "This money can only be used to build culture, not housing, not parks. By culture, we mean buildings where culture happens and the infrastructure that supports culture."
To many critics of the plan, the LDC's cultural aims appear to be little more than window dressing for its less public-minded probable outcomes. David Vine, a member of the year-old Fort Greene Together (FGT), the LDC's most outspoken local opposition, points to a collusion of major real estate interests: "I think if you look at the BAM LDC board of directors, you can see where the interests lie, with Bruce Ratner being at the center of it." Bruce Ratner, the president and CEO of Forest City Ratner and a prominent member of the LDC's board, is a troubling figure. The proposed cultural district, bordered by DeKalb and Flatbush avenues, Hanson Place and South Oxford Street, is sited between the Metrotech Center and the Atlantic Center Mall, two complexes housing high-end office space and national chain stores, both owned by Forest City Ratner.
Edie Backer, another member of FGT, "who moved to the area for its vibrant young African American scene," said she was "not interested in seeing Fort Greene turned into Lincoln Center or the Upper East Side."
Another issue for the opposition is BAM's track record with the local community. Lichtenstein's vision of cultural innovation is evident in the artists with which BAM became well-known: Robert Wilson, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, and Peter Brook, mainstays of the contemporary Eurocentric avant-garde canon. The conflict, this "tension between different good things," is evident in the fact that Fort Greene is already well-known for its arts and culture.
The area has been home to black artists, particularly in music, from the young Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter, to Cecil Taylor, the late Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill, filmmaker Spike Lee, and poet Carl Hancock Rux. It is home to two or three popular reading and concert series, and a decade-old wave of young, black-owned businesses like Moshood, Ashanti Origins, and Keure N'Dye. While Williamsburg and DUMBO are Brooklyn neighborhoods known for visuals artists, Fort Greene has the oldest and most Afrocentric artist community. And, according to local artists, they have been lobbying BAM for participation in its programming and institutional recognition of the community since the mid 1980s.