The Brooklyn celebrity war has been joined. Bruce Ratner, the would-be bringer of the Nets to Brooklyn and builder of Manhattan-style apartment towers on Atlantic Avenue, got the jump in 2003, when he hauled up Jay-Z to make an awkward speech the day Ratner unveiled his project. Yesterday, it was the opposition’s turn, as the group Develop Don’t Destroy rallied at Grand Army Plaza behind the likes of Steve Buscemi and Rosie Perez, plus the star attraction, the Clapton of kid-rock, Dan Zanes, whose name merited its own extra-large type size on the promo posters.
All of which sounds silly — should someone’s opinion about urban development count more just because he once saved the earth from a big rock? — except that as the ur-nebbishy Ratner (pictured) knew in sending his hip-hop investor before the cameras, when you’re engaged in a media battle, glitz matters. If nothing else, the Park Sloperati command a bigger audience, whether it’s local music hero Toshi Reagon plugging the rally from the Prospect Park bandshell last week, or Jonathan Lethem getting a soapbox at Slate for his open letter to project architect Frank Gehry — himself hired by Ratner in part for his own glitz value.
Perhaps as a result, despite a baking sun, Sunday’s rally was the biggest anti-Ratner gathering yet: Heatstroked organizers put the crowd at 4,000, but a thousand or so is a more realistic figure, even accounting for those who may have stopped by and then quickly fled for cooler climes. Rectangles of blessed shade were cast by posters with slogans like “They’re Too Damn Tall” or emblazoned with blowups of ACORN commandant Bertha Lewis’ famed smoochies with Ratner and Mike Bloomberg.
Interviews with the attendees who crowded into the thin slice of shade at the entrance to Prospect Park revealed that while there was the usual disagreement about just what was wrong with the project — some worried the planned Nets arena was the dumb part, others that the condo towers would lead to traffic congestion and school overcrowding, still others that favorite local spots like Freddy’s bar would fall to Ratner’s wrecking ball — “too damn tall” was the one thing everyone could agree on. “Totally oblivious to the contextual nature of the neighborhood,” concluded Marion Goldberg, a Lincoln Place resident who served as project director for the Atlantic Terminal site in the ’70s. “We need something that combines the neighborhoods, not divides them,” declared her fellow Sloper Marty Goldin, himself a real-estate developer.
Much of the crowd seemed to come from adjacent Park Slope — one woman admitted, “If I didn’t live across the street, I probably wouldn’t have come on such a hot day” — but most saw this as a borough battle, not a neighborhood one. “I haven’t really thought of that,” replied protestor James Bernard when asked how his current abode on Prospect Park West would be affected if the Ratner towers were built a mile to the north. “I’m thinking of Brooklyn as a whole. This is not a Not In My Back Yard kind of thing.”
As for Zanes, he attempted to lead the crowd in a singalong of “We Shall Not Be Moved” (they weren’t), but ended up upstaged by the likes of congressional candidate Chris Owens, who belted out an a cappella anti-Ratner spiritual, not to mention Buscemi’s reading of a poem that began “Roses are red/I like William Shatner/But I am opposed/to the Atlantic Yards project.” The star of stars for this day, though, might have been Rosie Perez, whose words were few but pointed. Declaring herself “a person born and bred in Brooklyn, born and bred without a lot of bread,” she called out Ratner and his allies for trying to buy off neighborhood opponents by promising them access to jobs and housing. “This plan insults the poor, and we deserve better,” said Perez to cheers. “Stop insulting the people of Brooklyn, and do the right thing.”