Who's Buried in Atlantic Yards?

A resistance movement drowning its sorrows during a pub quiz in Red Hook

Rocky Sullivan's Tap Room in Red Hook is a fitting joint to throw a wake for the Atlantic Yards resistance movement, and not just because it's an Irish pub. It stands in the shadow of a 350,000-square-foot Ikea being built near the Brooklyn waterfront. "It's supposed to be the busiest Ikea in the world," barkeep Rachel Fitzgerald said as she drew a pint glass. "We didn't even know it was going in when we signed the lease." With the Swedish yuppie-furniture retailer moving in and Fairway and Lowe's already settled, even Red Hook has gotten the urban-renewal blues. Soon, Fitzgerald said, the neighborhood would see more traffic, people, cars—more of everything.

She shrugged, cocked her head, and said, "It's inevitable, isn't it?"

Good thing the 50 people at the Atlantic Yards pub quiz in Fitzgerald's back room couldn't hear her gloomy tone. They were members of the grassroots syndicate Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), gathered for "a special night of knowledge about the Atlantic Yards project."

Atlantic Yards, of course, is the behemoth McBrooklyn planned atop the MTA's old Atlantic Avenue rail station and the 22 acres beyond it. It includes 336,000 square feet of Frank Gehry–designed office skyscrapers; 6,400 housing units, mostly inaccessible to low- and middle-wage Brooklynites; and a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets. The megalopolis is moving forward relentlessly, using eminent domain to expel current residents and sheer momentum to push past the legal challenges. It all comes courtesy of Forest City Ratner, the development firm whose honcho, Bruce Ratner, owns the lion's share of the Nets.

The plan's opponents have fought hard for four years, but the death rattles of the resistance are audible. A judge dismissed their environmentally based state lawsuit on January 12, and their federal case against the builder's use of eminent domain was tossed out last June. "We're appealing," said Terry Urban, the co-chairwoman of the Brooklyn Council of Neighborhoods, as she helped her teammates scrawl an answer on the pub-quiz sheet. But if the appeals go south on both cases, she added, "I think that's our last shot on that."

The atmosphere at quiz night, though, was hardly bleak. At the urging of the pub's regular quiz-master, Scott M.X. Turner, about a dozen teams turned out to raise funds for DDDB and test their knowledge of all things Ratner. No real estate was on the line—just CDs, shirts, bar drinks, and the dual satisfactions of trivia mastery and smug righteousness.

The contestants—anti-sprawl bloggers, neighborhood organizers, and a few Brooklyn newsies—came well-armed. "My head's been filled with this stuff for years," Urban said, "but I may have dumped a lot of it last Friday, after we lost the environmental lawsuit."

After Turner ascended the bar's stage in geeker glasses and a mismatched suit, the competition's first round hurtled forward. "True or false?" he asked. "Walter O'Malley wanted to build a stadium for the Dodgers on the site where the arena is planned."

"False!" Jim Vogel whispered excitedly to his teammates, leaning toward the center of their table. "It's a trick question—the stadium was supposed to go where the mall is, not where the arena is!"

Vogel, the co-founder of Brooklyn Vision, is fixated on the arena, which he calls a "blight generator." He said his research proves that big sports venues almost never go into densely residential areas—and when they do, as with Wrigley Field in Chicago, property values plummet and residents skedaddle. "They're insistent on that fuckin' arena," he muttered.

Turner played up that urban-sprawl angle—and his vaudevillian shtick—throughout the night. "How many additional vehicle trips a day," he asked, "would result if Atlantic Yards gets built?" He later told the crowd he'd accept any number between 9,000 and 23,000 for an answer. "But," he added, "I'll also take ‘a shitload.' " Cue laugh track.

The competitors showed early signs of getting punchy. When Turner asked, "How many towers does Bruce Ratner want to build?" one quiz-taker yelled back: "How do you define a tower?" Amid a thunder of amens and catcalls, Turner raised his middle finger to the crowd. "This is a tower right here," he said. "It's scale."

At the end of the night, a few volunteers stayed on to count the money left in DDDB's yellow buckets. The group and its allies still need to cover their legal fees, even though their membership rolls have included such high-earning luminaries as (the late) Heath Ledger, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, and Jonathan Safran Foer (none of whom showed up for quiz night). The anti-gentrification vanguard, it turns out, embraced a lot of landed gentry.

But with the appeals process winding down, Urban said, no amount of star power or cash would be enough to change the outcome.

"When I was a kid," she recalled, "my dad used to say things like, ‘The world is stacked against you.' And I'd say, ‘C'mon—gimme a break.' Now . . . " She trailed off. "Well, you know."

 
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