Spaceship Brooklyn

I know you think I’m a city boy. Before her family moved to New Haven, where she met my father, my mother spent her childhood in a congested section of the Bronx. Even late in life, she felt uncomfortable around “too many trees.”

So perhaps there is something of that in my blood. But I was raised a bike-able distance from cows in the verdant suburb of West Hartford, Connecticut. I love farmland, mountains, the beach—all of which are available, on a tastefully small scale, in my home state.

It’s true that I can’t live without cities, however. And to some degree, that sets me apart.

Do you know people who haven’t looked at a city through their windshield—never mind set foot on pavement and breathed city air—in years? One hears:

“I don’t want my kids going to college in the middle of a city.”
“He [Richard Selden, her son] lives like a bum in a tenement. That’s what he likes.”
“Oh, sure, it’s a nice neighborhood, if you go with an armed guard.”
“I used to go downtown, but I really have no reason to anymore.”

The city is still a place where people work, though downtown is no longer the be-all and end-all of white-collar employment. Other reasons to go downtown: the train and bus stations (sometimes with a shudder), the department stores (which anchor suburban malls while fighting a losing battle with big-box stores, boutiques, and by-mail—including their own online merchandising), the movie theatres (few remain downtown), the best restaurants (not any more), the places of worship (moved in many cases to greener pastures), the clubs (dwindling), the receptions and galas (now often at “more convenient” venues), and the parades and festivals (“I wouldn’t go to that if you paid me.”).

That leaves (see my post “From the Land of Pleasant Living”) courthouses and government offices, hospitals and doctors’ offices, colleges and universities and community schools of the arts, convention centers, libraries (notably large public libraries and specialized private ones), and places of entertainment, broadly defined: sports stadiums, amphitheaters and auditoriums, live theaters, places to drink and hear music and dance, observation decks, casinos, strip clubs, (genteel pause) museums and art galleries, aquariums and zoos, botanical gardens, parks, and—when there are relatively clean bodies of water downtown—beaches and docks for swimming, fishing, boating, and boat rides.

City and state investments in big-league sports generally dwarf those in culture and the arts, the rationale being that their audience is racially and socioeconomically diverse, a city’s teams are key to its identity and morale, stadiums can kick-start economic development, and naming rights and taxes on tickets, concessions, and parking spots are sources of revenue. Sports franchises are employers and pay taxes, the companies that service them are employers and pay taxes, and the spectators spend an average of X dollars outside the stadium when they attend a game (all this goes into calculations of the “multiplier”).

Decisions about public investment in sports stadiums—not to mention the Olympics, the World Cup, etc.—are way out of my league. Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, cost a cool billion (make your plans now: Islanders vs. Devils, September 26; Disney On Ice Presents Frozen, November 11-16; Justin Timberlake, December 14). The total estimated cost of the Atlantic Yards project is $4.9 billion, including more than $300 million in public subsidies. The dozen towers in Phase Two won’t be completed until 2035 at the earliest, but I lived about three blocks away in the Koch years and, lemme tell ya, the neighborhood has changed, big time.

A reminder: Even when a project aims to appeal to the sports-loving masses, things don’t always work out as expected, if at all (cf. the Grand Prix of Baltimore).

Economic impact studies are used to justify public investment in a range of tourism-related projects, including those with a high-culture slant, such as the renovation and expansion of museums, theatres, symphony halls, and opera houses. Just across from Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been a prime venue for the international avant-garde since the 1960s, inspiring the creation of a Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District that has come into its own (with significant public funding) over the last decade.

Is there an overlap between the audience for Quantum (October 2-4 at BAM)—“Six dancers perform an ode to subatomic randomness from Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin and German visual artist Julius von Bismarck, developed while in residency at the particle physics lab CERN.”—and the audience for the Nets or, for that matter, Trousersnake?

Okay, that was a loaded question. Without endorsing megaprojects or a top-down process, and recognizing the validity of the community’s strident, prolonged, and continuing objections, I’m crediting Bruce Ratner, Mikhail Prokhorov, Jay-Z, Mike Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz, various Empire State Development officials, and SHoP Architects with getting a huge new piece of infrastructure built. As a venue for cultural events, as well as for NBA and NHL games, Barclays Center will better serve the neighborhood and the borough. It is a Spaceship Earth—sheathed in a lattice of rusted steel (supposedly in dialogue with the brownstones nearby)—for that corner of downtown Brooklyn.

But there’s a difference between urban cultural districts and theme parks, right? We’ll get into the weeds on that next week.

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