Life in the Footprint

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

Yet he doesn't fault Ratner, who is "just doing what developers do." Sheets directs his outrage at state and city government, who didn't just allow this to happen, he says, "they sought it out and fostered this to happen. They wore the biggest pom-poms. What developer in his right mind would walk away from Olympic-sized vats of gravy?"

Indeed, the most shocking aspect of this massive borough-altering project is that it will circumvent all the usual city processes: the three community boards with acreage in the footprint, the Department of City Planning, the City Council. None gets a say. Local councilwoman Letitia James has railed against Atlantic Yards to little avail. City zoning laws don't even apply. The agency in charge is the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), out of Albany, administered by Charles Gargano, who is not elected. Ratner, Gargano, and Governor George Pataki all went to law school together.

Two weeks ago ESDC released what Joe Pastore calls "the vironmental," all those findings about traffic and shadows and the impact—on everything from schools to sewage—of adding 6,860 new units of housing. Opponents get a 60-day comment period, but expect a chorus line of rubber stampers to push the project forward. Then a final environmental-impact study goes to Gargano's ESDC for approval and on to the Public Authorities Control Board, controlled by Pataki. Then everything Ratner hasn't been able to buy will be condemned under what another denizen of Dean Street calls "intimate domain." They can do this because ESDC has declared the footprint "blighted."

“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

Pastore defines eminent domain: "If you don't go, I'm gonna take it anyway."

Daniel Goldstein sometimes introduces himself at meetings as "the eminent domain plaintiff." He's the only person left in any footprint condo, but five homeowners remain as well. One has a home that's been in his family for a couple of generations, a legacy he can't stand to relinquish. He has listened to offers from Ratner's people and says they seem to take the view "that these people's houses don't look like much, so they'll be happy if we throw them a couple bucks and then move them out because their life is dismal anyway. That's the undertone." He may end up in court with Goldstein.

Opponents of the Yards take heart from last year's Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, Kelo v. New London, even though it found for the city, allowing New London to turn the plaintiffs' property over to a developer. You had to read the fine print, but there was language from the court stating that such plans could not be developer driven, had to go through city planning, had to go through legislative review. Goldstein thinks his case is strong.

Indeed the "blight" claim seems shaky. Footprint dwellers tend to roll their eyes. " Blight is not an aesthetic term," says David Sheets. "Blight means we don't generate enough tax revenue." But the powers that be are about to parse this nebulous term at a "blight finding."

The footprint is long and skinny, like a knife. And right in the middle there's a missing bite, like meat taken out of a sandwich. This spares the Newswalk building on Pacific, which is filled with high-end condos, and the brownstones right behind it on Dean. Sharon Sherman lives in one of those brownstones and had a point to make about "blight." She is about to become the not-so-thrilled neighbor to a basketball arena. "I mean," she said, "34th Street. Madison Square Garden. What do you see there?"

So what's the rub? A small number of property owners is holding out, potentially requiring the use of eminent domain if further negotiations are fruitless. And some community activists, including chichi Hollywood types, think their lives in upscale abodes that are, say, a mile or so away will be crimped somehow. And in full elitist sanctimony, they cry that the project will defile the character of Brooklyn. Daily News editorial, May 14, 2006

Victoria Harmon sits in her wheelchair at the back end of the railroad flat where she's lived since 1942. The caretaker came today, and laundry's hanging out the window on a line that stretches to a telephone pole, the way everyone used to do it. "I got a stroke," she explains. She is 87.

In this apartment, she raised two sons, and her husband, Russell, went through his final illness. Russell was handy and Victoria points out the improvements he made to what was originally a cold-water flat. That cupboard. Those cabinets. The poles over the bathtub where you hang the laundry when it's freezing outside.

Russell worked factory jobs, with his longest stint at American National Can. Victoria worked for 25 years in the cafeteria at P.S. 190, East New York. Her apartment is rent-controlled at about $180, her income less than $16,000 a year.

Ratner now owns her building, and a senior vice president, Andrew Zlotnick, "came to investigate," as she puts it. Victoria thought him very nice. "He came here to ask me if I'm happy." The building reeks of landlord neglect that obviously precedes Ratner's takeover. The stairway's spittoon brown, the walls daubed with white paint splotches over a hideous brown and beige. "Junk!" she cries.

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