New York, New York

Motherless Stadium

There’s a good chance the New Jersey Nets soon will be playing ball in Brooklyn. There’s also a good chance a lot of local residents will lose their houses to make way for Frank Gehry’s dome.

Joe Pastore is waiting for me in front of his building on Dean Street.

‘It’s cold,’ he tells me. ‘That’s why they come out with the news right now. If this were the summer, people would come out and see this neighborhood, and they’d get really angry. You know, they came out with this just before the holidays, and my holiday was very sad, because I found out somebody was going to take my house. I’ve lived here since 1967. I didn’t enjoy the holidays at all.’

We walk eastward on Dean. There are good-looking red brick buildings between Flatbush and Sixth Avenue, nothing like the old architecture by the park, but they are clean and inviting places that people have fixed up. We walk past tranquil rows of parked cars. Ivy League stickers adorn some back windows. One has the peeling remnants of a national flag I can’t identify. Some of Joe’s neighbors are walking their Labradors. A kid yells another’s Spanish name across the block, and then goes running after him. I’ve always liked the feel of a Sunday afternoon like this. If it weren’t for the pleading protest signs at every other window, no one would suspect that all this could be gone very soon.

Joe’s neighborhood sits squarely on targeted acreage for a new stadium to house the recently purchased New Jersey Nets, who look to move to Brooklyn sometime around 2008. Developer Bruce Ratner, who built Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center and the Atlantic Center Mall, made the winning $300 million bid for the basketball team, and if he has his way, the Brooklyn Knets or the Bwookwn HwotDoowahgs or whatever they’ll be called will play in a glass and titanium Frank Gehry-designed stadium. The proposed site includes much of Joe’s neighborhood, an area that is not exactly Downtown Brooklyn, but the northern beginnings of residential Park Slope and the western boundaries of Prospect Heights.

We stop in front of Freddy’s bar on Sixth Avenue, which Freddy no longer owns. Joe tells me that Freddy was a police sergeant. Around the corner is the 78th Precinct building, and cops and the old neighborhood people used to come here. ‘But it’s now for the young people. This neighborhood is like the new Greenwich Village,’ he shouts as he waves around. Joe’s voice is somewhat gruff, but also careful and meditated. He’s sizing me up as he talks. Joe reminds me of a cop. He’s even wearing a black fur-lined hat, the kind you’d see a patrolman wear in the winter. On the hat is a 9-11 pin, front and center. People often think of Brooklyn with a sense of myth, a dream (or for some, nightmare) of blue-collar toughness and wits. Much of that old Brooklyn has been diluted away, replaced by other variations of strife or, in some cases, the luxurious pretense of it.

‘These places were factories,’ Joe points out. ‘The Daily News used to have over 1,500 people. The streets were very active with trucks and tons of paper on trailers. They brought those trucks in the morning and at night when people were inside, so they worked out with the people in the community. The Daily News building, before it was the Daily News, it was a factory for making ice for iceboxes.’

The building that Joe calls the Daily News is now a 137-unit luxury condominium relabeled Newswalk. A studio here sold for $315,000, while a 2,500-square-foot terraced penthouse went for more than a million. To lend shiny hipness to the neighborhood, realtors hawked the area as NOFA, or, North of Flatbush. NOFA would be a compromise between Brooklyn’s booming Williamsburg and Park Slope, other hotbeds for gentrification and fusion restaurants. It offered raw industrial space within a stone’s throw of Prospect Park and the sushi joints and organic markets on Seventh Avenue. Although the moniker never caught on, stroller-pushing, iPod-strapping types did begin to colonize the blocks just south of the Long Island Rail Road train yard.

‘Ratner’s not taking the Daily News because another wealthy developer owns it. You know, I’ve never seen the building look so good. So you see, if they can do this to the Daily News, they can do this to the other buildings without tearing them down.’

‘You have to care about what goes on around your neighborhood,’ he instructs. ‘It’s very important, but people forget that. I don’t know why people run on the treadmills. I get up and go see my neighborhood.’

Loft conversions and New Urbanism ideals, though, aren’t on every developer’s mind. For the most part, developers are good at tearing things down. Academics have qualified this force as creative destruction. This part of Prospect Heights is subjected to the same capitalist drive that has fueled the colossal and constant transformation of New York since its beginning. It takes very little imagination to operate a bulldozer, and the modern dictum to clear, grade, and replace is usually the first thought. Cities often cater to this mindset, as politicians accommodate what they view to be highly media-visible revitalization projects. Ratner has arguably made improvements to Downtown Brooklyn, but not without casualties, and more so, not without hefty support from the city’s purses—it’s estimated the city spent $300 million on tax breaks and infrastructure improvements for the MetroTech project. On that state-given land, Ratner built corporate complexes, each housing new tenants like J.P. Morgan Chase and Bear Sterns, who in turn received hefty tax subsidies to occupy them. The proposed plan for Ratner’s stadium not only will involve the city’s giving up land to Ratner that could be worth hundreds of million of dollars but could also include hundreds of millions more to expand streets and utilities and to help pay off bonds for the complex’s construction.

The stadium will be flanked on all sides by charmless, high-rise apartment buildings and office towers with Midtown aesthetics. Essentially, the area would resemble the remade Jersey City waterfront: slices of walled-in suburbia stacked sky high. The project would cover almost 21 acres spanning the blocks between Flatbush Avenue and Vanderbilt Avenue. Ten of those acres would come from the Long Island Rail Road railyard, and the other 11 look to come from property and homes seized by eminent domain, including Joe’s building at 473 Dean St. While city officials have used old census numbers to claim that only 100 residents will be displaced, neighborhood activists, such as the Prospect Height Coalition, whose members recently surveyed the affected blocks, put that number at more than 1,000. Meanwhile, Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, a featureless box just north of the site, will remain untouched.

East of Carlton Avenue are the old Pechter Bakery buildings. ‘When it was here, people used to have jobs with the bakery. They went to Jersey, just like the Daily News did. People wondering why they’re bringing the Nets, something that didn’t even do well in Jersey, to New York. Jersey sure didn’t want them.’ In his short story ‘Breakfast at Brelreck’s,’ Jonathan Lethem called the area ‘Brooklyn’s ripped-out heart or possibly lungs … the vital organs.’ The Atlantic Center Mall stands at the site of what could have been the new Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brooklyn loved their Dodgers, and when the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles, the city was heartbroken. Could the new Nets replace the Dodgers? Would real Brooklyn fans be able to pay for hundred-dollar tickets and six-dollar hotdogs?

We walk down Pacific Street, past the Spalding building on Sixth Avenue, where they used to make Spaldeens, the pink balls—essentially the bare core of a tennis ball—that were once sold in every corner store in the city. I only caught the tail end of the Spaldeen era in the ‘80s, playing Wall Ball at a schoolyard in Queens. Kids threw the balls as hard as they could at the wall, and if you missed your catch and failed to touch base (also the wall) in time, you’d have to stick your butt out to the world so everyone could have a turn pelting you with the Spaldeen. I have always associated the Spaldeen with pain.

Joe tells me about playing stickball in the streets with the Spaldeens. This was back when he was growing up in the orphanage at St. Vincent’s, down on Atlantic Avenue, near the detention building for the courthouses. Joe and his friends occupied themselves with whatever was cheap or free. They played stickball on the streets, played tag in the network of tunnels and fallout shelters that ran underneath the courthouses. They rented bikes in Prospect Park and rode around to check out the girls. They knew spectacular things happened on the streets. When they heard a loud boom coming from the North Slope, they ran down to look at the fiery passenger jet that had crashed into Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place. In 1960, two planes collided in midair, sending one into an abandoned airfield on Staten Island and the other into the heart of Park Slope. In all, 135 people died. Years later, Joe saw a failed bank robbery where two police officers were shot dead on Flatbush. Hordes of angry cops ran out from the nearby 78th Precinct. He watched as the cops unloaded their revolvers at the robbers on a jam-packed street.

Joe is still making sure he sees everything that happens in the area. Every morning he gets up at eight and goes out for a walk. People seem to recognize him, and every once in a while someone stops to say hi. ‘You have to care about what goes on around your neighborhood,’ he instructs. ‘It’s very important, but people forget that. I don’t know why people run on the treadmills. I get up and go see my neighborhood.’

When the World Trade Center came down, the streets were all jammed up. You couldn’t get nowhere. These streets can’t handle any more cars. People came out to Brooklyn to avoid the smoke and pollution. They moved here to breathe and if you build that thing, no one’s going to want to live here no more.

‘This area used to be a wholesale place. Look at how beautiful this place is. I used to shop at the corner with my friend. You look at Ratner’s mall, and you don’t see that many people in there. The meat market that used to be here was a lot more busy. People would come from all over the city to buy half a cow. I remember I used to go out with a girl on 19th Street and her mother used to come over here and buy half a cow. She’d make beef stew, steaks. Years ago, girls knew how to cook. Look at this: How could you say these buildings are no good?’

The Spalding building, a red brick, four-story factory, has been converted into co-ops. He slaps the building with his gloved hand. ‘It’s a beautiful, solid building,’ Joe continues. ‘This building should be a landmark. How can he tear this down? How could you say this building’s no good?’

Joe, I love this building, too. I think it’s beautiful. I love the Pechter Bakery buildings down the block even better, with the clean towering white walls and Greek Revival touches. They would make great places to live. I can see the soaring ceilings inside. But these buildings aren’t made of audacious metallic curves and pop architectural whiz-bangs. Ratner has dangled Frank Gehry over Brooklyn, and almost everyone’s mesmerized. I remember being dazzled by Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao when it was first built. And after Bilbao made its splash, every city wanted a Gehry of its own. The architect complied with the demand, producing made-to-order variations of his titanium-sheathed design. It became a symbol of arrival for cities into the new millennium, an easy investment that endowed an image of artful taste to insecure politicians and businessmen. Gehry buildings became the corporate builder’s equivalent of Lladró and Hummel figurines, but where those figurines lend an air of harmless luxury and preciousness, Gehry buildings are Trojan horses for more sinister intentions: By design, Gehry’s recent buildings declare war against everything that surrounds them. They are places that spurn any notion of history and any idea of people. They look, simply, like silver alien fortresses.

He points out the traffic to me. ‘When the World Trade Center came down, the streets were all jammed up. You couldn’t get nowhere. These streets can’t handle any more cars. People came out to Brooklyn to avoid the smoke and pollution. They moved here to breathe and if you build that thing, no one’s going to want to live here no more.’

We walk down Flatbush. I treat Joe to tea at a diner near Pintchik’s. On the wall, there’s a picture of Giuliani posing in the restaurant. Joe tells everyone that I’m doing a story on ‘the dome.’

A customer points to a crowd picture with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz on the wall. Markowitz is a major political booster for the stadium project. He has vowed to ‘do somersaults’ to land the Nets in Brooklyn.

‘I helped them take that picture,’ the customer tells me. ‘If I had known he’d do something like this, I’d never have taken that picture.’

‘People used to like Marty,’ says a man in an orange vest. ‘Then they see him standing with Ratner in the paper, and he’s telling his own people that they have no say in what’s being done. What the developer wants, Marty gives. They’re sneaky, but people aren’t stupid enough to not see that.’

Joe, finishing up a bite of his crumb cake, joins in. ‘We’re not against the stadium or the Nets. Just don’t build this in a thriving neighborhood and destroy people’s lives. It’s not a hospital or a school. There’s plenty of space on the waterfront. Build a trolley or shuttle if you have to. There’s space at the Navy Yard. Build where you don’t have to kick out so many people. There are widows and many people here who have no place to go. This neighborhood is their life.’

Joe sips his tea slowly from the blue Grecian-print paper cup. He has taken off his hat, and I’m surprised by how young he looks. He has a full head of gray hair, combed over neatly to one side. With his mustache, he resembles an Italian version of Jack Lemmon. After leaving the orphanage, Joe worked a series of odd jobs in the Garment District and on Wall Street. He then worked for a long time as a driver for the city, transporting juvenile delinquents to facilities all over the state.

‘I tell you this. When I was driving the kids, I told them this story, and it’s a true story, because I know the lady who this happened to.’

He takes another sip of tea.

‘There were once these two ladies who were best friends, and they went out to play bingo together every night. One night, one of the ladies couldn’t make it, so the other one went out alone. It turned out that she got beat up and robbed by a kid, who she recognized as her friend’s son. She went to her friend, and told her that it was her son, but the friend wouldn’t believe her. So the lady who got robbed gave the friend her clothes, and told her to go out alone, and so the friend did. It happened so that the friend got robbed, too, and when she looked at the boy who was punching her, she saw her son. She yelled out her son’s name, and the kid, seeing that it was his own mother, froze right there, and then ran off scared. That kid never touched or robbed another person again.

‘So that’s what I told the kids that I worked with. I told them that people’s mothers and fathers are out there. So don’t go out there and hurt nobody.

‘If Ratner’s mother lived on this block, would he bulldoze her home and kick her out? If Marty’s mother lived on this block, would he tell her to get the hell out, we’re building a dome?

‘Would he?’ Joe asks again. He takes a long breath, and we sit there in quiet contemplation, as if we could know the answer to that question.