Life in the Footprint


At times there’s a terrible solitude in the footprint.

On a day of hammering heat last summer, Daniel Goldstein got stuck in his building’s elevator, and he realized that he could actually die there. The emergency phone didn’t work, while the alarm sounded only inside the eight-story structure—which has been empty of all occupants except Goldstein since February 2005. Developer Bruce Ratner bought out the other 30 condos at prices so high it made the cover of the Daily News under a one-word head: “Bonanza.” What had once been an ornate storage warehouse rehabbed into loft-like condos was now a teardown, part of the site where Ratner intends to build his Nets arena. The elevator sits somewhere near the center of that proposed basketball court. Goldstein finally managed to pry its doors open and crawl out after three hours’ effort.

Back when Ratner originally announced his 22-acre Atlantic Yards project—the NBA arena plus 16 skyscrapers—he said that only one of the blocks he’d be taking had apartment buildings, home to a mere 100 residents. That was December 10, 2003. A week later, community activist Patti Hagan began taking a door-to-door census. She found 463 residents who either rented or owned, plus 400 people in a homeless shelter, and many small businesses, employing a total of 225 people.

In February 2004, those inhabiting the footprint’s two condo buildings and one co-op met to create what ultimately became Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. They would fight the outrageous loss of their homes! Then the developer’s company, Forest City Ratner (FCR), began waving money and picking people off. Hagan, who lives in Prospect Heights two blocks from the footprint, knew residents in all three buildings and says the payouts differed, with the biggest windfall going to the lucky newcomers in the “Bonanza” building on Pacific Street.

That was fully occupied by May 2003 at the price of about $600,000 per three-bedroom pad. A year later, FCR offered owners roughly twice what they had paid per square foot, and everyone but Goldstein took the deal. Down at the Spalding Building on Sixth Avenue—21 condos in the sturdy factory that used to chunk out baseballs and spaldeens—all households but two took a deal in the middle of 2004 and were out by the end of that year. The last two holdouts sold this spring. Over at the co-op on Dean Street—where internationally known artist Louise Bourgeois once used the whole ground floor as a studio—many owners had simply sublet to tenants. But they finalized a buyout in 2005.

Everyone who took these deals had to sign a gag order. They would withdraw from any group opposing the project, display no banner, sign no petition, attend no rally. If asked, they would testify at hearings in favor of Atlantic Yards. If approached by the media, they would say they’d been treated “fairly, honorably, and decently.” Says Goldstein, who now works full-time on Develop Don’t Destroy: “Besides buying property, they were trying to buy the silence of people they probably thought had the means to fight them.”

Maybe the condo owners in particular had the most money and clout, but they were also the newest and least attached to the ‘hood. Today, apart from the homeless shelter, 118 residents remain in the footprint. They are less moneyed, but rooted, and on the whole crankier.

Joseph Pastore is one of the “mayors” of Dean Street, a Brooklynese character out of Damon Runyon. He’s 62 and retired, pays about $400 in rent, and used to work with the “yutes.” He’s lived on the block since 1967. He listened to the deal FCR offers tenants: moving expenses, a “comparable apartment,” with any difference in rent paid by FCR. For three years.

Activists Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant
photo: Nicholas Burnham

Pastore says they offered him more than three years. “But there’s a loophole. After that, I’m out the door. Then what? I go jump off the roof?” Meanwhile FCR’s maintenance people had been by to inspect his building. “They’re checking for ‘susbestos’ and lead in the paint!” cries Pastore. “If he’s trying to use that to take down the building, he might as well take the whole city down. Put this in your paper. I’m not against the arena. I’m against what he’s doing to me. Why should I suffer? It’s my tax money that he’s using. Put that down. I worked all my life to get thrown out of my apartment? With my own tax money?”

On December 11, 2003, David Sheets went down to Freddy’s after work to read the Times, like he always does, and there was Herbert Muschamp’s review of the Frank Gehry design for Atlantic Yards, complete with map. Sheets remembers that night at Freddy’s, a saloon that functions like the neighborhood living room: “We were all sitting there, like—what is this? That’s my house!” Indeed, most locals reported that they found out from the paper or TV that they were about to be forced from their homes.

Sheets lives in an 1878 row house, technically designated an SRO, though the pleasant boxy rooms don’t fit the cliché. His bedroom opens onto a small wild garden. He misses hearing the violin maker in the co-op, whose music wafted over the ‘hood when he tested his instruments. Sheets works as a paralegal, makes about $30,000 a year, and the thought of leaving here fills him with a palpable anxiety. FCR now owns the building.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”