BAM Goes the Neighborhood


Laurie Cumbo first stumbled into the BAM battle at a public meeting in October 2002, held to address the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s plans for a new “mixed-use cultural district” in Fort Greene, on the edge of Downtown Brooklyn. Cumbo had heard that BAM’s Local Development Corporation planned to lure various arts organizations into their proposed district with offers of subsidies. She was interested in what this venerable performing-arts institution might offer her fledgling museum, the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts (MOCADA).

The cultural district was originally envisioned as an area larger than Manhattan’s Lincoln Center that would cut a 10-by-three-block zigzag through Downtown Brooklyn and the heart of Fort Greene. BAM and the BAM LDC are formally separate entities, but the LDC is chaired by Harvey Lichtenstein, who was BAM’s executive director for 32 years before founding the LDC in 1998. In 2001, he secured a $50 million matching grant from ex-mayor Giuliani. But initial meetings between Lichtenstein and Bloomberg’s deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff, were held behind closed doors. According to community activist Patti Hagan, “[Residents] thought that the BAM LDC was just one of these government entities that was remaking Fort Greene without any input from the people who live there— basically white people coming in and saying to a black community, ‘We know what’s best for you.’ ”

Compared to Ratner’s controversial Atlantic Yards project, the BAM LDC plan seems like small potatoes. BAM has already made four relatively recent additions—the Mark Morris Dance Center, the Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, BAM Rose Cinemas, and BAMcafé—without triggering too much consternation. But some residents fear that yet more BAM might be the cultural analogue to Ratner’s stadium plan, the equivalent of clear-cutting an old-growth forest and planting monocultured rows in its place.

Over the next decade, on four sites covering about 10 city blocks, the BAM LDC wants to build several large developments that will, if realized, drastically alter the landscape of Fort Greene and abutting parts of Downtown Brooklyn. Ground has already been broken for the Theater for a New Audience, designed by architects Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy, on the so-called South Site. A new visual and performing-arts library is in the preliminary stages next door, complete with a Lincoln Center–style fountain. The North Site promises a mix of cultural outlets, public space and retail amenities, and 350 units of mixed-income housing. The East Site is obliquely described in LDC promotional literature as “being developed to house a cultural base of up to 60,000 square feet, as well as up to 150 units of housing.” On a fourth plot, the West Site, the BAM LDC is negotiating over the property with existing owners and entertaining the option of more housing.

Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, says in her 1995 book The Cultures of Cities that “cultural institutions have a long history of raising property values . . . and high art has become more like for-profit culture industries in many ways.” Although MOCADA is just one small part of a much larger strategy to develop Downtown Brooklyn, it signals a change in the perception of cultural institutions as engines of economic development. Most developers now recognize that concert halls, not just stadiums, bring in the money.

After decades of benign neglect, Downtown Brooklyn has suddenly become the focus of commercial and residential developments. The fact that these mega-projects—Ratner’s downtown commercial-platz Metrotech, Atlantic Yards, the LDC plan, and the recently unveiled plans for a 60-story hotel/condo tower on Flatbush—didn’t evolve autonomously over many years underscores a relatively new symbiotic relationship between the for- and non-profit sectors.

Fresh from NYU’s master’s program in visual-arts administration, Laurie Cumbo had dedicated her museum to contemporary artworks by people of African descent. In December 1999, MOCADA opened its doors in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 300 people showed up for the inaugural event, a big success for a little museum. After a grant from New York City’s department of cultural affairs, Cumbo struggled to raise more money. “The city gives exorbitant amounts of money to institutions like the Met,” she says. “Very little is left for smaller ones.” BAM provided not only financial support, but advice on how to construct MOCADA’s new headquarters.

Late in June 2004, the LDC announced its renovation of an abandoned medical testing facility at 80 Hanson Place, a few blocks southeast of the main BAM building, to provide office space for arts nonprofits. The LDC dubbed the building “80 Arts” and offered a reduced rent of $16 to $18 a square foot, several dollars less than comparable office space in the area, according to several current 80 Arts tenants. Cumbo applied and was offered 1,800 square feet of ground level space.

MOCADA officially reopened its doors in Fort Greene on May 18, 2006. Its mission: to raise the visibility of black artists for the express purpose of engaging, educating, and empowering the community. But herein lies a subtle irony. Faced with an uncertain future, MOCADA had to move from Bed-Stuy to Fort Greene—a wealthier, whiter neighborhood—in order to survive. Symbolically, MOCADA abandoned its constituents and merged with the titanic forces of urban development and with BAM, the apex of the well-to-do avant-garde. In Cumbo’s attempt to reach a larger audience, she is inadvertently contributing to the transformation of the neighborhood, which in turn is forcing out poorer, mostly black residents.

Depending on who you ask, the BAM LDC’s district means very different things. For Cumbo, it’s a way to provide exposure to artists of African descent. For Borough President Marty Markowitz, an ardent supporter of the plan, it’s a chance to make Brooklyn a respected cultural capital. For Bruce Ratner, who leases part of the East Site and sits on BAM’s board of directors, it could help rehabilitate his image as a power-hungry landgrabber. For the LDC, it’s an opportunity to raise the prestige of the BAM brand as a hip alternative to Lincoln Center and to promote its image as an institution with real ties to the community.

Not everyone buys into the LDC’s vision. Some see it as legacy building for Lichtenstein. Others gripe about stiff ticket prices and programming that caters to an elite Manhattan crowd. “It’s like a private club, BAM,” says the administrator of a local arts group for young people who wishes to remain anonymous. “There would be no need for [nonprofits like ours] if BAM had taken note that there were children in Fort Greene. These are children that have no clue what goes on in those buildings over there.”

Reverend Clinton Miller, president of the opposition group Concerned Citizens Committee (or CCC) says, “We don’t want to see pure top-down development, as with the Yards. . . . Regarding the cultural district, we want a triangular relationship between community, government, and developers.”

Jeanne Lutfy, president of the BAM LDC, defends the plan, saying, “We’re facilitating new growth and development in the underutilized parcels of land; it’s about the arts, about longevity and stability, so that they can focus on what they do and do it well.” Her explanation evokes a message used by Robert Moses to seize property via eminent domain to develop for the “greater good”—or, at least, the greater good of people with cars and money. “Who doesn’t want parks?” he asked. Half a century later, the question could be, “Who doesn’t want culture?”

Of course, there’s a crucial difference between power brokers like Moses and Ratner, and the BAM LDC: The latter is not grabbing land by eminent domain but building largely on parking lots. Instead of clearing a poor residential neighborhood in the name of urban renewal—a method infamously used by Moses to establish Lincoln Center in Manhattan’s then seedy Upper West Side—the BAM plan promises many good things to Fort Greene’s residents. “We didn’t want to close any streets, make any zoning changes, or change the fabric of the existing community,” says Lutfy. She describes new art spaces, as well as affordable housing for artists and locals; gussied-up public space for art, performance, markets, and events; and lots of jobs.

80 Arts, a red-brick eight-story structure, bursts out of the asphalt like a fist through a pane of glass. Despite neoclassical flourishes, the structure radiates a slightly misplaced modernity, even in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Located on the corner of Hanson Place and South Portland Street, and housing a variety of arts nonprofits, it is the crown jewel of the BAM LDC’s plan. “This was an idea that Harvey had while he was slaving away at BAM, putting it on the map,” says LDC president Lutfy. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be this wonderful context around the building?”

Lutfy describes the proposed cultural district as a vibrant, “24-7” environment anchored by world-class monuments to the arts. Judging by an early computer-generated mock-up, the Gehry/Hardy-designed Theater for a New Audience building resembles a square shot glass tipped over on its side. Offset by the regal Williamsburgh Savings Bank, the tallest building in Brooklyn—soon to be transformed into luxury condominiums—and the beaux arts BAM building, TFANA resembles something discrete and alien, a launchpad for a lunar colony, perhaps.

Mindy Fullilove, a Columbia University professor who has studied the long-term consequences of urban renewal for African Americans, compares the process to fixing an old suit. Several generations ago, she says, “If you burned a hole in your suit, you’d bring it to the tailor for invisible reweaving, and then your suit was perfect again. People that care about the neighborhood are doing invisible reweaving, not gouging it.” BAM’s buildings are pretty dramatically out of scale with the existing neighborhood. And residents like Reverend Miller are disappointed that promises of affordable housing are fading into the future.

But without the LDC, could institutions like MOCADA make it in an arts-funding-starved world? Across the street from 80 Arts is Brooklyn councilmember Letitia James’s office, ground zero in the battle over Brooklyn. “I totally support MOCADA,” she says. “It’s the only one of its kind. And the African American community doesn’t have enough organizations that reflect the rich history of this country.” James credits her office with putting pressure on the LDC to diversify 80 Arts to include more African American– and women-run nonprofits. “Now [the building] reflects the diversity of Downtown Brooklyn.” Of the larger BAM plan she says, “It could be beautiful, but you seriously have to ask yourself why.”

Reverend Miller says that “MOCADA is a fair representation of our community.” But having work that depicts the African diaspora is of limited value, he points out. “The diaspora won’t be able to live there.”