BAM Goes the Neighborhood

While Atlantic Yards grabs the headlines, an art attack quietly transforms downtown Brooklyn

Depending on who you ask, the BAM LDC's district means very different things. For Cumbo, it's a way to provide exposure to artists of African descent. For Borough President Marty Markowitz, an ardent supporter of the plan, it's a chance to make Brooklyn a respected cultural capital. For Bruce Ratner, who leases part of the East Site and sits on BAM's board of directors, it could help rehabilitate his image as a power-hungry landgrabber. For the LDC, it's an opportunity to raise the prestige of the BAM brand as a hip alternative to Lincoln Center and to promote its image as an institution with real ties to the community.

Not everyone buys into the LDC's vision. Some see it as legacy building for Lichtenstein. Others gripe about stiff ticket prices and programming that caters to an elite Manhattan crowd. "It's like a private club, BAM," says the administrator of a local arts group for young people who wishes to remain anonymous. "There would be no need for [nonprofits like ours] if BAM had taken note that there were children in Fort Greene. These are children that have no clue what goes on in those buildings over there."

Reverend Clinton Miller, president of the opposition group Concerned Citizens Committee (or CCC) says, "We don't want to see pure top-down development, as with the Yards. . . . Regarding the cultural district, we want a triangular relationship between community, government, and developers."

Cultural redistricting: A work by Dread Scott at MOCADA
photo: Frank Oudeman
Cultural redistricting: A work by Dread Scott at MOCADA

Jeanne Lutfy, president of the BAM LDC, defends the plan, saying, "We're facilitating new growth and development in the underutilized parcels of land; it's about the arts, about longevity and stability, so that they can focus on what they do and do it well." Her explanation evokes a message used by Robert Moses to seize property via eminent domain to develop for the "greater good"—or, at least, the greater good of people with cars and money. "Who doesn't want parks?" he asked. Half a century later, the question could be, "Who doesn't want culture?"

Of course, there's a crucial difference between power brokers like Moses and Ratner, and the BAM LDC: The latter is not grabbing land by eminent domain but building largely on parking lots. Instead of clearing a poor residential neighborhood in the name of urban renewal—a method infamously used by Moses to establish Lincoln Center in Manhattan's then seedy Upper West Side—the BAM plan promises many good things to Fort Greene's residents. "We didn't want to close any streets, make any zoning changes, or change the fabric of the existing community," says Lutfy. She describes new art spaces, as well as affordable housing for artists and locals; gussied-up public space for art, performance, markets, and events; and lots of jobs.

80 Arts, a red-brick eight-story structure, bursts out of the asphalt like a fist through a pane of glass. Despite neoclassical flourishes, the structure radiates a slightly misplaced modernity, even in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Located on the corner of Hanson Place and South Portland Street, and housing a variety of arts nonprofits, it is the crown jewel of the BAM LDC's plan. "This was an idea that Harvey had while he was slaving away at BAM, putting it on the map," says LDC president Lutfy. "Wouldn't it be nice if there could be this wonderful context around the building?"

Lutfy describes the proposed cultural district as a vibrant, "24-7" environment anchored by world-class monuments to the arts. Judging by an early computer-generated mock-up, the Gehry/Hardy-designed Theater for a New Audience building resembles a square shot glass tipped over on its side. Offset by the regal Williamsburgh Savings Bank, the tallest building in Brooklyn—soon to be transformed into luxury condominiums—and the beaux arts BAM building, TFANA resembles something discrete and alien, a launchpad for a lunar colony, perhaps.

Mindy Fullilove, a Columbia University professor who has studied the long-term consequences of urban renewal for African Americans, compares the process to fixing an old suit. Several generations ago, she says, "If you burned a hole in your suit, you'd bring it to the tailor for invisible reweaving, and then your suit was perfect again. People that care about the neighborhood are doing invisible reweaving, not gouging it." BAM's buildings are pretty dramatically out of scale with the existing neighborhood. And residents like Reverend Miller are disappointed that promises of affordable housing are fading into the future.

But without the LDC, could institutions like MOCADA make it in an arts-funding-starved world? Across the street from 80 Arts is Brooklyn councilmember Letitia James's office, ground zero in the battle over Brooklyn. "I totally support MOCADA," she says. "It's the only one of its kind. And the African American community doesn't have enough organizations that reflect the rich history of this country." James credits her office with putting pressure on the LDC to diversify 80 Arts to include more African American– and women-run nonprofits. "Now [the building] reflects the diversity of Downtown Brooklyn." Of the larger BAM plan she says, "It could be beautiful, but you seriously have to ask yourself why."

Reverend Miller says that "MOCADA is a fair representation of our community." But having work that depicts the African diaspora is of limited value, he points out. "The diaspora won't be able to live there."

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