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WHAM BAM, Thank You Fort Greene

Last June, less than a year after I signed my first Brooklyn lease (for what neighbors said was a renovated crack house), Harvey Lichtenstein quit his job as a director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to lead the BAM Local Development Corporation.  The LDC, a private group established to gather support and funds for neighborhood development projects, had been dormant for years; Lichtenstein is using it to gather up tax breaks, development grants, and condemned buildings to plan and build a cultural district around BAM.  In the process, he is making Fort Greene something of a hothouse for gentrification.  Residents both established and arriving are hoping he and his collaborators will use their power for the greater good.

While the LDC’s members bask in projections that their “cultural, Artistic and musical Mecca…will emerge as the Lincoln Center of Brooklyn,” those claims raise the specter of Robert Moses, whose construction of Lincoln Center infamously displaced thousands of Upper West Siders.  Because the LDC’s privately-initiated, publicly-backed plans involve vacant properties and empty lots in the area, they are unlikely to be complicated by eviction.  The organization is throwing its weight behind a market trend already in motion, an influx of Manhattan-fleeing property-seekers, including artists, and the resultant real estate boom.

Fort Greene is part of a spreading, whitening area of Manhattan influence around it; Park Slope’s long-building renaissance is continuing; Prospect Heights is sprouting expensive bars; Carroll Gardens has developed a restaurant row; and Bedford-Stuyvesant’s renovators have begun offering brownstone house tours.  “Gentrification is happening in Fort Greene already, even though we haven’t done anything yet,” Bruce Ratner, chairman of BAM’s board and a member of the LDC’s board, told the Times recently.  Ratner, who also developed the Atlantic Center, and controls much of the property in the cultural district, concluded that, “What causes gentrification [is] economic good times.”  That’s only half right.  Echoing and elaborating on Ratner’s comment, Vivian Becker, Director of the local Pratt Area Community Council said, “I don’t think they are causing the gentrification—that’s Wall Street—but I think they may feel like it has already happened, and nothing they do will further change the composition of the neighborhood.  On that point I would disagree—they have a lot of influence.  And they have an opportunity to do great things.”

If the Manhattan housing market keeps expanding, and the LDC’s district building plans continue on track, the market value for properties in the rest of the area will keep moving up quickly.  What can the LDC do to slow the displacement of area residents?  Lichtenstein has discussed putting up designated artists’ housing.  That sacrifice of profits for developers wouldn’t necessarily retain locals, but it might slow gentrification’s revolving door.  Once a market begins to heat up, arrivistes can be priced out as quickly as their more established neighbors: Rent at that South Slope crack house jumped by a third this winter.  I headed further down, to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a name.  Since I arrived, two buildings on my block have been renovated and let to other young white tenants.

Though Lichtenstein is socially nimble, and danced onstage at his retirement party, it’s something of a leap to imagine the 70- year-old power broker in a leotard.  He left a five-year dance career shortly before taking over at BAM in 1967.  Back then, the Academy had so little cash and so little going on that it rented its upstairs space out for marital arts classes.  Lichtenstein woke things up with ambitious fundraising and a new set of programs, including the Next Wave Festival, which now anchors the Academy in an institutionalized avant-garde of old “new music” and other contradictions.  His shuttle buses from Manhattan brought in enough money to expand the Academy, but the rest of the neighborhood languished with high housing abandonment and vacancy rates.  BAM’s main theater still abuts several vacant lots today, as it did when Lichtenstein arrived.

Lichtenstein says the vacant property always bothered him, and now the LDC is coaxing in new builders and tenants for it.  The Mark Morris Dance Company has begun construction of a new headquarters, and the Alliance of Resident Theatres has moved nineteen small companies into a nearby office building.  The Brooklyn Library is considering setting up a visual and performing arts branch, and a new high school for the performing arts opens soon.  The LDC has also raised 25 million dollars in city funds for its own projects, which include restoring the Strand Theater and renovating a building—preferably one donated by the city-for-arts administration.  There are also plans for the construction of what’s being called a mixed-use arts building, and ambitious discussions of other projects, including artists’ housing.  The designer on staff is Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, best known in the U.S. as the author of Delirious New York, but in Europe as an urban planner who likes to put together whole communities—his work includes Lille’s “EuraLille” business district in France, and Amsterdam’s less transparently named “IJ-Plein” residential quarter, in his native Netherlands.

Lichtenstein has been using the schmoozing capabilities that served BAM so well to keep in touch with local politicians and interest groups.  Although September meetings with what LDC president Jeanne Lutfy describes as “key stakeholder groups in the community—arts, business, and community organizations” came months after the LDC’s first run of publicity and offered only the most basic information—just a map of the district and provisional plans for renovations and buildings—lots of folks came.  The real invitation was a chance to meet the new neighbors.  Lutfy says feedback was good, and local leaders do not dispute that, though many seem worried about being at the mercy of such powerful playmates.

Some key community groups still haven’t made contact with the LDC, like the Rockwell Community Garden, which sits just across Rockwell Place from the Mark Morris construction site.  Despite the LDC’s mentions of green space, the garden does not appear on their map of the area.  Renata Kammemer, whose name and number hang prominently on a plaque there, is concerned.  When I asked her what was happening, she said, “I wish I knew.  We would like to know if we should go on with plans for the garden.”

One group of businesses, the Bogolan Merchants Association, which had presided over part of Fulton Street’s recent renaissance as an African and African-American district, used the opportunity to express its opinions, and demand a piece of the subsidy pie.  Those negotiations culminated with what Bogolan Chairman Jonathan Adewumi describes as an agreement that “If BAM is given a building for arts administration, the Bogolan Merchants will receive the first floor.”  The LDC may not consider it as settled—their current materials include this provisional clause: “In addition, the Bogolan Merchants Association potentially may open an office and visitor’s center there.”

Mr. Adewumi, when asked for an opinion on designated low or middle income or artists’ housing in the area, came down, with some conflict, on the side of a more prosperous community.  “As a business, you want to be in front of someone who has the disposable income to afford a 1,500 dollar a month apartment.”  Adewumi, who designs African-style formal clothing, agrees that he’s losing his African-American target market, but says his store and the Bogolan area are destinations, just the way an arts-centered Fort Greene will be—he has customers from as far away as Seattle.  He commutes himself, from further into Brooklyn, as does the woman who runs the health food store down the block.  Asked whether the new migrants will be good customers, she says no, “They’re not really health food people.  They just come in for Echinacea when they get sick.”

I know several health food-eating working artists in Fort Greene, all of whom have moved there within the last few years.  Manhattan’s current real-estate boom has outsized and outlasted its ‘80s counterpart, sending artists climbing all over one another crossing the East River.  In Williamsburg and DUMBO, one stop away from the East Village and the Lower East Side, respectively, galleries have appeared on many blocks well before food stores.  The space, light, and bargain-seeking artists have been arriving for a while—the Brooklyn Arts Council reportedly received twice as many grant applications in 1999 than in 1998, near seven hundred total.  Closer to Fort Greene, the Gowanus Arts Exchange’s two rehearsal spaces were fully booked before the Alliance of Resident Theatres moved into the neighborhood.

When the produce stores and laundromats do arrive in industrialized zones, and the coffee shops and boutiques open up in previously low-income areas, artists, like the previous residents they helped displace, may soon be priced out.  Williamsburg’s boutiques have recently spawned a mall.  DUMBO has a new boutique business district going from zero to sixty, and its own ambitious European architect, Jean Nouvel, brought in by the local developer-king, David Walentas.  Back when I lived there (without a lease), DUMBO also had a full-size mattress leaning against the corner of Jay and Water Streets with “Walentas = Gentrification” written on it.  As nominally liberal and socially aware as we may be, the young artistic crowds are catalysts for development.  We arrive, build walls, put in bathroom fixtures, buy food at a new shop and clothing from a local designer, and then move on, leaving the neighborhood changed beyond recognition.

That anyone who moves to a new neighborhood to find more affordable housing is at once a colonizer and a victim is a confusing proposition.  Some recent first-person stories of gentrification experience have seemed unsurprisingly disoriented by it.  Writing in the New York Times Magazine this past September, Diane Cardwell noted that “the neighborhood you choose plays a disproportionate role in the persona you project.”  With that in mind, Cardwell opted for SoHo, and then held out as long as she could before heading to Carroll Gardens.  There she follows the development of Smith Street one boutique and restaurant at a time, without really connecting the changes to her presence as an ideal customer.  By the time the area “no longer qualifies for urban homesteading,” she is gone, to somewhere that seems, from her carefully vague description, to be either Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

In an August piece in Business Week, Joan Oleck describes returning to Park Slope, where she spent her early childhood.  All is idyllic until her rent almost doubles, when she asks for help from her family to buy a place in neighboring Prospect Heights.  Oleck’s take on her experience and the phenomenon it’s a part of is a lucid relief to read—she sees her dual role as displacer and displaced, and realizes that, alas, “gentrification is made of the American dream of home ownership.” She analyzes trends, and examines the work being done by groups like Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue Committee to keep neighborhoods stable and economically diverse.  Oleck also engages in a little heart-warming self-flagellation—she closes by considering whether she should write a check to the Fifth Avenue Committee, even though she has just been priced out of the group’s jurisdiction.

Madeline Perez, who works as an organizer at the Fifth Avenue Committee, has come under fire for consorting with people like Ms. Oleck.  “The Post ran this editorial bashing our Displacement Free Zone program, saying we’re the same white yuppies that are the gentrifiers.  It was a hard blow for us, but community residents responded saying that the DFZ is community-led and diverse.” Perez has been running The Displacement Free Zone for about a year, fighting exorbitant rent hikes in Brooklyn’s ubiquitous up to five unit row houses, which have no legal rent protection.  “We generate letters from the clergy, to get at the landlord’s moral conscience.  We mobilize people to the landlord’s home, to make some noise.  We start mediation, to let the landlords know who their tenants are,” Perez says.

The Pratt Area Community Council is Fort Greene’s equivalent to the Fifth Avenue Committee, offering tenant landlord mediation and housing-related assistance to residents of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Wallabout, near the Navy Yard, without the emphasis on protest, or “outing” profiteering landlords, or on gentrification and displacement, which have been less prevalent in its territory, particularly Bed Stuy.  Instead, PACC has begun to manage commercial space as well as residential, and has set up an Employment and Entrepreneurship Resource Center.  When I asked PACC’s Seble Tareke how they balanced development goals with gentrification resistance, she said, “It’s difficult.  People have mixed views on it.  We try to preserve low income housing while improving things.” And PACC does control hundreds of low and mixed-income rental units, which is one way to make sure they are there.

This work is important, but it is also, as one critic observed, something of a “rearguard action.” In order to catch gentrification earlier, one scholar at the National Housing Institute recommends setting up developments with limits on the profit that can be made in apartment resale.  San Francisco activists are at work on inclusionary housing, which keeps 10 or 20 percent of each development low income.  Madeline Perez, at the Fifth Avenue Committee’s Displacement Free Zone, is planning a conference to “tackle some of the policies that create gentrification.  Maybe we can propose a tax break for small building owners who keep their rents low, or extend rent regulation to smaller buildings, at the very least for senior citizens.”

The first time I called for Vivian Becker, Director of the PACC, she was out at lunch with Harvey Lichtenstein.  When we spoke later, she said the LDC “has the potential—I’m cautiously optimistic.  We can work with them.” There seems to be no stopping this process, and no reason to stop the LDC from offering the neighborhood some prosperity.  “I don’t see any conflict in creating the cultural district.  There’s a lot of vacant land, which means people don’t want to walk there, especially at night.” Becker hopes that, with negotiation, Lichtenstein may develop programs that will help her cause.  The PACC has predictably recommended that the LDC follow through on its offer to help stabilize the composition of the neighborhood (albeit at a higher income level) with designated artists’ housing.  “I have encouraged them to make housing available to lower income residents and local artists,” says Becker.  “I’m not sure what will happen, but I do know that PACC will be very actively involved in trying to influence the direction this goes in, because there will be housing, and what kind of housing is crucial.”

Will they set up the artists’ housing?  Jeanne Lufty can’t confirm that they will.  “Housing is going to be an important component here.  We’re doing an economic feasibility study.  Can we subsidize, and make a portion of it artist housing?” Moving from “we” to a more hypothetical “you,” she continued, “If you can, how exactly do you finance it?”  There is no doubt that she, like other members of the LDC, has good intentions, but the outcome isn’t clear yet: “Artists and arts groups are being forced out of Manhattan.  There’s the possibility that we can give them a solution, a long-term solution, and we will, so that we don’t have a SoHo situation in a few years.  If we have control of the property, and our mission is to create an arts district, we’ll try to do it right.  The goal is to find affordable and desirable space.  It’s not a situation where we are going to set up these artists and then when the market changes…” She trailed off.  Lutfy and the LDC don’t know, or perhaps can’t say, what shape their plans will take.

I wouldn’t hazard a guess where the Fort Greene migrants I know will be in a few years—or, if one of them is in artists’ housing, where the others will go—if prices continue to apace.  Down in what I’ve cut christened SoSoSlo (South of South Slope), my own mom and pop landlord and lady say they know that renovated apartments across the street are going for nearly twice my rent.  We talked it over this morning as they waited for their Daily News delivery, Ismeal in his shorts and Helen in her robe—“Those people from New York want to drive the prices up and up and up.”  All I can do is disguise my Manhattan history, bake them cookies, and pray.  They say I’m “like family.”  Can we add that as a rider to next year’s lease?


Sophie Fels


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 00-JAN 01

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