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By Eric Tsetsi
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.
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?
And locals have a few ideas too. For instance, Trayce Gardner, a community resident and founder of the nonprofit startup Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center, has proposed the creation of a learning center that would produce feature films while providing employment training for low-income residents of Fort Greene.
The bottom line is whether the BAM LDC can see the potential existing in the neighborhood's social, racial, and economic mix. If so, will they make the effort necessary to find policy practices to develop this potential? If they do, Fort Greene could indeed be in for quite a radical experiment.
The BAM LDC's third and final Planning Workshop is scheduled for June 6, at 7 p.m., at Long Island University, 1 University Plaza, in the Health Sciences Humanities Building, near the intersection of Flatbush and DeKalb avenues.