Counterpoint: Jay-Z Saved Brooklyn
According to Jay-Z’s own mythology, at some point in the ’90s he used an apartment at 560 State Street in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood as a stash spot for his drug-peddling paraphernalia. Last week, the rapper played eight back-to-back shows two and a half blocks away at the new Barclays Center arena, which will also host the Brooklyn Nets basketball team he owns less than 1 percent stake in. The concerts were billed as a celebration of Brooklyn, with Jay symbolizing the resurrected pride and pomp of the borough. But that’s just promotional fluff: Jay’s role in the Barclays Center debacle is a crass case of selling-out the borough’s soul for a stash of cash.
The objections with the Barclays Center have been well reported on: The stadium was finagled into existence against local opposition by using an eminent domain claim; the project hasn’t yet come through on the promise to create local jobs; the introduction of waves of concert and basketball game goers will add to the traffic congestion in the area. (To those who have claimed the influx of extra bodies wasn’t too bad during opening week: Enjoy the fateful day with 19,000 Juggalos spray piss and Faygo on your sidewalks.) The Barclays Center is also easy to mock, not least for its look. After quickly reneging on claims that super-architect Frank Gehry would be designing the arena, its final form could be kindly characterized as a gigantic rust bucket. It might be the first structure in New York City that will look better once it has been coated with a patina of pigeon poop. But the Barclays Center is here and it’s not going away. Day to day, the borough will adapt just like it always does. That’s the cycle of change in New York. Less easy to come to terms with is Jay-Z’s role in the project.
As some amalgam of Jay-Z the hustler-turned-rapper from the Marcy Houses projects and Jay-Z the corporate business man, he has embraced a role as the figurehead for the stadium. Seeing images of him performing there last week brings to mind the closing scenes of a corny sports movie: The local boy who overcame adversity to snatch victory right at the whistle. Except Jay-Z’s rise isn’t about overcoming adversity so much as having sold a lot of drugs (including crack) to a lot of people who lived in his neighborhood and then taking that money and forming a music career based around rapping about having sold lots of drugs to those same people. At least that’s how Jay-Z has defined his rise in his own songs. On the second night of his string of shows, he gloated about his position, telling the crowd, “Today is a beautiful day and a dream realized. . . . I’m living proof that dreams come true.” But it leaves an image that smarts: No matter the tiny scale of Jay’s actual stake in the Barclays Center, the dream he talks about is one that proves that selling a crap load of drugs (and presumably decimating families in the process) can pay off.
Posing for the cameras during opening week, Jay-Z came across like he’d fulfilled the path that The Wire‘s fictional Stringer Bell character lusted after, becoming something of a legitimate businessman. But as his detractors have been eager to point out, Jay hasn’t so much been welcomed into the business realm of Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov, the real financial forces behind the venture, as allowed himself to become a promotional puppet to help push their own financial goals. For his part, Jay seems content to play along with the facade, telling the crowd how, “I’m a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing, and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets.” It’s probably a lot snappier to say that than admitting you own less than one-fifteenth of one-percent of something.
Despite presenting the Barclays Center as something to benefit Brooklyn, Jay-Z’s posturing as the face of the project is a strictly selfish stance. The Center hasn’t produced any sort of career options for kids in the area (let alone the Marcy Projects), unless you count being given the chance to take fast-food orders as creating opportunities for the better of the community. The scale of the stadium is too large to do anything to aid and foster the borough’s music scene. Long-time local businesses are also faced with a prohibitive rent hike next time their leases come up. For the Barclays Center to become a valued part of the community (and a part of Brooklyn’s appeal) it has to integrate into the community. How about offering high-school kids in the borough an expedited chance to become part of the Nets’ marketing team? Instead, the stadium’s scale and corporate glow casts it as a reminder that Jay-Z may like to endlessly brag about his ties to Brooklyn, but these days he’s more interested in how pimpin’ out the allure of the borough can increase his bottom line.
Rappers, of course, don’t have any obligation or commitment to give back, no matter how rich they become. But Jay-Z’s role in the Barclays Center isn’t as just a rapper. He has become the public face of a stadium that large numbers of long-time residents in the borough didn’t want; he’s been content to smile for the cameras wearing Brooklyn-branded clothing while behind the scenes his wealthier cohorts rake in cash from his former community. So for now, Jay-Z can perform a few shows and bandy around slogans proclaiming Brooklyn’s pride. But when the memory of the shows fades, what will be left? Jay-Z’s unwitting gift to his borough of birth: A big ol’ heap of rust dumped between Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.