It’s undoubtedly not how John Catsimatidis, the billionaire Gristede’s owner and rumored 2009 mayoral candidate, would have liked his bespectacled, slightly pudgy face get public recognition: aloft on a pole held by a Brooklyn pre-teen, beneath the words “SHAME ON YOU!!”
The occasion was a protest by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), the Brooklyn-based low-income group, over a much-delayed development project that Catsimatidis has in the works on Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene. According to a timeline provided by FUREE, two years ago the supermarket-czar-turned-developer evicted a string of stores, including an Associated supermarket, and announced plans for a mixed-income housing development. Two years later, there’s still only a hole in the ground, and promises of affordable housing have evaporated. Meanwhile, residents of the Farragut and Ingersoll-Whitman housing projects must trudge more than half a mile uphill to a Pathmark at the Atlantic Center mall to buy groceries.
“It’s your money – you have the right to do whatever you want to do with it,” said Lillian Hamilton, a FUREE organizer and neighborhood resident, while standing in front of a new Housing Authority community center that still hasn’t opened, she said, for lack of funds. “But this is not where you live. You have people who had nine days to move out of businesses they had for 20 years.”
Still talking to Catsimatidis in absentia, Hamilton added: “And then you walk around here and you talk about you want to become mayor? Do you think this will not come back to bite you in the behind?”
The Catsimatidis site, adjacent to a pair of high-rise condo towers going up on the corner of Flatbush Avenue, sits at the far eastern edge of the rezoning district put in place by the city in 2004 for downtown Brooklyn. Originally intended to spur commercial development in downtown, the new allowances for 40-story skyscrapers instead has caused a condo boom in the once-working-class shopping district, leading many merchants to have to shut their doors.
Today’s demonstration coincided with the release of a new study by the Pratt Center for Community Development on the impacts of the downtown Brooklyn rezoning. “What we mostly found is what members of FUREE already know: The unanticipated impacts of development have not been good for low- and moderate-income people,” said Brad Lander, the Pratt Center’s director. Among the report’s findings: 100 businesses have already been displaced, as many as projected by the city for the entire rezoning area. And because the new development has been residential and not commercial, there hasn’t even been a corresponding growth in jobs for local residents.
Meanwhile, at best fewer than 800 below-market-rate apartments are projected to be built downtown – including 217 apartments in the new Schermerhorn House being built by Common Ground under a prior development agreement that, unlike the recent rezoning, actually required affordable housing. Said Lander, “When you say to developers, ‘You have to build low-income housing,’ you know what? It turns out they do.”
“A long time ago folks didn’t even want to come to Fort Greene, am I right?” asked Kevin Powell, an essayist and community activist (and MTV “Real World” alum) to the assembled crowd. “They called Myrtle Avenue ‘Murder Avenue.’ But all of a sudden, because we’re close to Manhattan, folks want to bring money into the community. But we’re saying: Don’t displace us. We have a right to be here.”