Wealthy and well-connected developer Bruce Ratner wants to bulldoze an old neighborhood in Brooklyn and turn it into high-rise apartment buildings and a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets. Many locals — including the hipsters who live in Park Slope and the firemen who work at FDNY Squad No. 1 — don’t want this steel hulk, named Atlantic Yards, casting a shadow over their neighborhood and filling their streets with traffic.
Ratner is white, wealthy and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians. But his allies say they’re working for the less fortunate who need “change,” fighting against privileged whites who want “resegregation.”
“If this thing doesn’t come out in favor of Ratner,” said James Caldwell, a black man who runs Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, “it would be a conspiracy against blacks.”
One Ratner ally is ACORN. ACORN might have disappeared after last year’s embezzlement scandal (the brother of the organization’s founder pocketed almost $1 million in ACORN funds), but Ratner swooped in to bail the group out. He loaned ACORN $1.5 million at low interest rates.
ACORN’s New York director, Bertha Lewis, is a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of Ratner’s development. At a press conference announcing the project would proceed, Lewis, on stage, planted photo-op kisses on both Ratner and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Lewis has also framed it on racial terms: “The overwhelming folks who are opposed are white people and wealthier people and more secure people and people who just arrived. … We’re tired of being pushed out.”
It helps inspire Lewis, one imagines, that ACORN got that loan from Ratner and that Ratner gave her a hand in devising the low-income housing portions of his development. Ratner, it appears, has bought an ally — not just with cash, but with power; ACORN will now be shaping who lives where. “We’re developers now,” Lewis told New York Magazine.
Lewis is correct about the racial makeup of the anti-development activists. Freddy’s Bar on Dean Street is the mothership of the Atlantic Yards resistance. Excluding the barmaid, there’s no pigment in this joint when I visit on a Friday night.
There’s diversity, though. The men of FDNY Squad No. 1 huddle in the corner with their women and their Bud bottles. The ill-shaven, bespectacled 20- and 30-somethings spread the length of the bar with their tattered paperbacks and their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Retired fireman Tim Grogan opposes the Atlantic Yard development. “Twenty years ago,” Grogan tells me from first-hand experience, “when this neighborhood was [excrement], some people moved in. They were pioneers. Those pioneers, they’re being kicked out. They poured their blood, sweat and tears into this neighborhood.”
Grogan says it’s not the change that bothers him — it’s the suddenness and the methods. Ratner is leveraging his political connections to take over a neighborhood and profit. Eminent domain, and the threat of it, is a central tactic in Ratner’s battle.
Freddy’s is already a Ratner tenant. Bar manager Donald O’Finn brags: “This is the best [bleep]ing bar in the city.” He expects the place will close and be bulldozed when his current 15-year lease expires in two years.
Ratner is a Democrat who voted for Obama. Almost all his political contributions are to Democrats, including the most liberal ones, such as the late Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone.
He gave the maximum contribution to Obama in 2008. His partners are local Democratic politicians and ACORN. The closest thing to a Republican involved in this whole thing is Mayor Bloomberg, who used to be a Democrat and is now an independent after bolting the GOP.
To understand what’s happening on Atlantic Avenue, you need to shed Left-vs-Right and White-vs-Black modes of thinking, as well as simple anti-corporatism. Without eminent domain, Ratner would never be able to get all the land.
The real dividing line is people with access to government power — Ratner, ACORN and the politicians — against people without such access. You can guess who’s going to win.
Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner’s Lobbying Editor.