BAM's Boom

Is It Good for Fort Greene?

The charter buses that BAM provides for Manhattan residents wishing to attend its performances without venturing into Brooklyn have been an enduring sore point with the community. BAM buses subscribers into a neighborhood in flux that has a mix of black, Latin, and white homeowners and a 31 percent poverty rate. A former Clinton Hill resident who has worked at BAM said, "People never felt that BAM was something for the neighborhood. It was more for Park Slope and Manhattan. Now, of course, they're trying because the neighborhood is changing."

More particularly, the low numbers of people of color in BAM's programming outside of its DanceAfrica series suggested to locals that its vision of the avant garde did not extend to artists of color. Though BAM has made its reputation bringing international performers to New York, only seven of the 71 performances that BAM highlights on its Web site featured nonwhite artists.

The LDC's case was not helped by the fact that the only publicly announced studio spaces in the cultural district were earmarked for Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp (who backed out last April), two white artists new to Brooklyn. In this context, LDC statements describing BAM as "all alone in the neighborhood" or as a "world-class institution that just happens to be in Brooklyn" have done little for its public relations.

But the greatest concern of the community is not that local artists will fail to find homes in the cultural district but that it may wipe out the neighborhood entirely. Assemblyman Roger Green has called the project a "displacement district." The eastern reaches of the BAM cultural district take in areas where once reasonable rents allowed the development of performance cafés, African fabric stores, and other businesses owned by African American and African entrepreneurs who live in the area. They are now threatened by price rises in commercial and residential real estate, such as the 60 percent rent increase demanded of Jonathan Ade-wumi, whose store, Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions, had to relocate to Myrtle Avenue with help from the Pratt Area Community Council. Most of the apartment rentals are in houses exempt from rent regulations, and prices are skyrocketing. Houses have been selling over $500,000.

Despite the best efforts of the consultants who ran the LDC input sessions devoted to housing, it was clear that the majority of the public speakers were less concerned with the units of housing to be developed by the LDC and more concerned with their ability to afford their present homes in the wake of the proposed cultural district. Whether intentional or not, the four discussion categories offered by the LDC in their two public meetings tended to elide the concerns of the attendees rather than engage them. In addition, the LDC's facilitators felt that many issues, such as rising rents, while reasonable, were not for the LDC to worry about.

Jeanne Lutfy, the LDC president, asserts that the neighborhood's gentrification would continue without the cultural district. This may be so, but many Fort Greene residents do in fact perceive the cultural district to be the primary cause of the rent increases. In a budget year where the cultural projects that find funding will be those that can demonstrate public support, perceptions may be critical.

In 1942, Piet Mondrian, one of Lichtenstein's avant-garde ancestors, wrote, "In the future . . . we will no longer need pictures and statues because we will be living in a fully realized art." To translate this radical vision into site planning, the LDC turned to the top of architecture's intellectual elite, Koolhaas and Diller + Scofidio. The hirings may have more to do with their prestige than with their less glamorous social engagement and academic experience exploring issues such as global and local capital flows, and consumerism. Still, one hopes that these teams might do something unexpected in their planning: Do empirical research and consult Fort Greene with an open agenda.

Although the architects have yet to make public presentations about the project, Alschuler and Lichtenstein have offered some relatively underwhelming tastes of what they have in mind. At the February session, Alschuler described part of the plan as "like a mall, but it's not a place where the Gap has a store; it's a place where art happens." He also described Koolhaas's proposed "Mixing Chamber" as "where art comes together with the public." Lichtenstein described the possibilities of a "vertical park, with trees growing along the side of a building, . . . even LED strips along the sidewalks." Inside the district, according to Alschuler, "the art is part of the parking meter, the light pole, the street." This concept was illustrated with a slide of a crosswalk painted to resemble a bar code.

Truly innovative planning would require engaging the economic and social fabric of Fort Greene. The LDC has in fact expressed their interest in using public and private money to subsidize desirable social arrangements. To wit, they have made public their financial support of the Brooklyn Library project as well as a "transitional operating fund," a pot of money designed to ease the transition of arts organizations moving to the district. Might the LDC be amenable to providing transitional funds to help Fort Greene's current residents survive the transition as well?

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