Life in the Footprint

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

According to the editorial writer above, thousands of working-class New Yorkers will get "affordable" housing in Atlantic Yards. Actually, there will be a total of 2,250 units divided into five income tiers and allocated through a lottery system. Some low-income people will get in—about 225 households making $21,270 to $28,360 a year. But "affordable" is fungible. Those in the top "below-market" tier must make at least $99,261.

Victoria discussed Atlantic Yards with her husband before he died. "He said, what can we do? We can't fight it."

As for herself, "What do you think? I want to go out at this age? Where? I don't know nobody. Here I know everybody." She'd written a letter to Mayor Bloomberg. "No answer." So she's glad people are fighting but thinks Ratner will win. "They got people bigger than us."

“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

Six buildings in the footprint still have renters. The one next to Victoria's is identical, though in much better shape. Maria Gonzalez has been living there for 34 years. We sat on facing plastic-covered couches in the second room of her immaculate railroad flat. She has two daughters in apartments upstairs, other family in both this building and Victoria's, and that's what matters to her. If she moves, she wants her kids with her. "An apartment for my children and my children's children." Her landlord doesn't want to sell to Ratner, but Maria seems resigned to losing her home. She has already worked out a worst-case scenario in her mind, a plan to put her things in storage if the building's condemned. But mostly, she says, she doesn't like to think about it.

It isn't just that there are fewer bodies wandering around," says David Sheets. "I knew these people. It was like living in a small town. Now I come home at night and more than half the buildings are dark."

Still, Freddy's is having one of its best years ever, according to manager Donald O'Finn. Once a speakeasy for the salesmen, their clients, and the brass from the Spalding Factory down the street, it's now an ur–Brooklyn dive and neighborhood center for all things anti-Ratner. As the banner hanging outside proclaims it: "Supersize Brooklyn? Fuhgedaboudit!"

Ratner now owns the building, but Freddy's has about five years left on its lease, and O'Finn promises, "We won't go easily."

Used books line the front windows, below the shark hung from the ceiling. "We're community oriented," O'Finn explains. "It's a lending library." The Elvis heads, the funky paintings, the photos of folks giving the world the finger—that's bar decor. Then there's Lurch, the literary magazine put out by a few regulars—issues displayed proudly near the Men's. In the adjoining back room, once a lunchroom for workers from the nearby News plant (now Newswalk), bands play and the unshameable read from their high school diaries on Cringe Night.

But Atlantic Yards, and the bar's impending demise, make for a background hum that never goes away. Several months ago, O'Finn decided to stop serving Brooklyn Lager because brewery owner Steve Hindy supports Ratner. O'Finn called in the media to document a ceremonial changing of the barrels, from Brooklyn Brewery to Labatt. He poured the last of the offending lager down the drain.

Johnny "Seatcovers" Severino had lived in the building above Freddy's back room for 50 years—the last tenant, and he had rent control. He'd once run an automobile upholstery business at the Flatbush end of the block, where he picked up his moniker. Then he tended bar at Freddy's for 34 years. Seatcovers was another "mayor" of Dean Street, 77 years old, retired, a fixture with an unwavering routine. Every day around noon he stopped in at Freddy's for a nip before heading across Dean to the bodega. The week of last Thanksgiving, he was run down by a bicycle while making that trip. He died later in the hospital. "This whole chunk of neighborhood was his universe," recalled his friend Sheets. Seatcovers was finding it difficult to cope with the uncertainty Atlantic Yards had introduced into his life. "He was scared to death."

"There's no place in Ratner's bright new world for old people or old buildings or old history," says Patti Hagan. "Anything that has character. Just wipe it out in one bang and put up something truly monstrous that dwarfs everybody. We've got a real community here. You don't get a community in a 62-story skyscraper. You don't even get a neighborhood. You just get a doorman."

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