Life in the Footprint

Voices of the fading community in the shadow of the Atlantic Yards

At times there's a terrible solitude in the footprint.

On a day of hammering heat last summer, Daniel Goldstein got stuck in his building's elevator, and he realized that he could actually die there. The emergency phone didn't work, while the alarm sounded only inside the eight-story structure—which has been empty of all occupants except Goldstein since February 2005. Developer Bruce Ratner bought out the other 30 condos at prices so high it made the cover of the Daily News under a one-word head: "Bonanza." What had once been an ornate storage warehouse rehabbed into loft-like condos was now a teardown, part of the site where Ratner intends to build his Nets arena. The elevator sits somewhere near the center of that proposed basketball court. Goldstein finally managed to pry its doors open and crawl out after three hours' effort.

Back when Ratner originally announced his 22-acre Atlantic Yards project—the NBA arena plus 16 skyscrapers—he said that only one of the blocks he'd be taking had apartment buildings, home to a mere 100 residents. That was December 10, 2003. A week later, community activist Patti Hagan began taking a door-to-door census. She found 463 residents who either rented or owned, plus 400 people in a homeless shelter, and many small businesses, employing a total of 225 people.

“What do you think? I want to go out at this age?”: Victoria Harmon in her Ratner-owned railroad flat
photo: Nicholas Burnham
“What do you think? I want to go out at this age?”: Victoria Harmon in her Ratner-owned railroad flat

In February 2004, those inhabiting the footprint's two condo buildings and one co-op met to create what ultimately became Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. They would fight the outrageous loss of their homes! Then the developer's company, Forest City Ratner (FCR), began waving money and picking people off. Hagan, who lives in Prospect Heights two blocks from the footprint, knew residents in all three buildings and says the payouts differed, with the biggest windfall going to the lucky newcomers in the "Bonanza" building on Pacific Street.

That was fully occupied by May 2003 at the price of about $600,000 per three-bedroom pad. A year later, FCR offered owners roughly twice what they had paid per square foot, and everyone but Goldstein took the deal. Down at the Spalding Building on Sixth Avenue—21 condos in the sturdy factory that used to chunk out baseballs and spaldeens—all households but two took a deal in the middle of 2004 and were out by the end of that year. The last two holdouts sold this spring. Over at the co-op on Dean Street—where internationally known artist Louise Bourgeois once used the whole ground floor as a studio—many owners had simply sublet to tenants. But they finalized a buyout in 2005.

Everyone who took these deals had to sign a gag order. They would withdraw from any group opposing the project, display no banner, sign no petition, attend no rally. If asked, they would testify at hearings in favor of Atlantic Yards. If approached by the media, they would say they'd been treated "fairly, honorably, and decently." Says Goldstein, who now works full-time on Develop Don't Destroy: "Besides buying property, they were trying to buy the silence of people they probably thought had the means to fight them."

Maybe the condo owners in particular had the most money and clout, but they were also the newest and least attached to the 'hood. Today, apart from the homeless shelter, 118 residents remain in the footprint. They are less moneyed, but rooted, and on the whole crankier.

Joseph Pastore is one of the "mayors" of Dean Street, a Brooklynese character out of Damon Runyon. He's 62 and retired, pays about $400 in rent, and used to work with the "yutes." He's lived on the block since 1967. He listened to the deal FCR offers tenants: moving expenses, a "comparable apartment," with any difference in rent paid by FCR. For three years.

Activists Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant
photo: Nicholas Burnham

Pastore says they offered him more than three years. "But there's a loophole. After that, I'm out the door. Then what? I go jump off the roof?" Meanwhile FCR's maintenance people had been by to inspect his building. "They're checking for 'susbestos' and lead in the paint!" cries Pastore. "If he's trying to use that to take down the building, he might as well take the whole city down. Put this in your paper. I'm not against the arena. I'm against what he's doing to me. Why should I suffer? It's my tax money that he's using. Put that down. I worked all my life to get thrown out of my apartment? With my own tax money?"

On December 11, 2003, David Sheets went down to Freddy's after work to read the Times, like he always does, and there was Herbert Muschamp's review of the Frank Gehry design for Atlantic Yards, complete with map. Sheets remembers that night at Freddy's, a saloon that functions like the neighborhood living room: "We were all sitting there, like—what is this? That's my house!" Indeed, most locals reported that they found out from the paper or TV that they were about to be forced from their homes.

Sheets lives in an 1878 row house, technically designated an SRO, though the pleasant boxy rooms don't fit the cliché. His bedroom opens onto a small wild garden. He misses hearing the violin maker in the co-op, whose music wafted over the 'hood when he tested his instruments. Sheets works as a paralegal, makes about $30,000 a year, and the thought of leaving here fills him with a palpable anxiety. FCR now owns the building.

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