SMH:Is The Brooklyn Nets Project Corrupt?

by R. Asmerom

Every good story needs a well rendered setting.  For the narrative charting his rise, the one Jay-Z’s been burnishing since his 1996 debut, this is Brooklyn. He may have  deserted it for Manhattan, a place more suited to his appetite for luxury and glamour, but the frequency with which he continues to invoke the culture, lessons and aesthetics of the borough, portray a man unwilling to relinquish his status as its chief emissary.

So it made sense that when real estate tycoon and then-majority owner of the New Jersey Nets Bruce Ratner was drumming up support for Atlantic Yards, a $4.9 billion development project (to include the Barclay’s sports center) in the heart of Brooklyn, he had a sit-down with Mr. Carter.

The opportunity to not only be part of bringing professional sports back to

Brooklyn, but also cement his place in its textbook history, proved too tantalizing an offer to turn down.  With an estimated stake of 1-1.5%, Jay-Z does not enjoy decision-making power, but the bragging rights are unparalleled, especially when Lebron James may potentially enter the equation.

On March 11, 2010 Atlantic Yards held its groundbreaking ceremony.  Along with a fist pump, Jay-Z brought his comments to a close by saying “We did it again Brooklyn, shout out to B.I.G.”  For many residents, however, his power move is anything but pro-Brooklyn. To make room for Barclay’s Center, the arena that would be home to the Nets, as well as the other commercial and residential space, Brooklynites have already been displaced.

“The number one concern about the project is that it is a corrupt, undemocratic project,” said Daniel Goldstein, the founder and former spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Goldstein spoke to The Atlanta Post the week before he reached an agreement with Bruce Ratner’s development company, Forest City Ratner, to sell his condominium (seized under eminent domain) and step down as spokesman for the anti-Atlantic Yards group.  “It is the largest project in the history of Brooklyn that never underwent a single vote by a single elected official,” he said, referring to the fact that the majority of the 49 officeholders representing Brooklyn oppose the project.

READ MORE AFTER THE JUMP

Since Ratner purchased the New Jersey Nets in 2004, he’s been trying to move the team to Brooklyn, an effort many regard as nothing more than a plot to acquire prime real estate.

After years of litigation Ratner was successful in securing land rights to a large area near downtown when New York state rallied to his cause.  Citing the project’s public benefit, the state not only exercised eminent domain on Ratner’s behalf, allowing him to purchase the rail yards occupying a portion of the site at below-market price, but also kicked in millions of dollars in subsidies.  “It’s not about basketball,” said Goldstein. “It’s not about affordable housing. It’s not about removing the so-called blight. It’s not about any of that. It’s Forest City Ratner gaining 22 acres in the heart of Brooklyn.”

The controversy surrounding the use of eminent domain not only stems from the fact that it nullified public participation, but that it was approved by the State Supreme Court on the grounds that the area was “blighted,” which as anyone familiar with the locale knows, is far from the truth.

With the help of a consulting firm and the support of then-Governor George  Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Ratner was able to circumvent public approval, turn a deaf ear to outraged private property owners and obtain the coveted swath of land.
“Forest City Ratner is perhaps the most powerful developer in New York State,” said Goldstein. “It is the largest publicly traded development company in the country, and we have a mayor who is now on his third term, whose hallmark way of doing development in the city is through mega projects.”

One of the few Brooklyn politicians to endorse the project, John L. Sampson, the state senate majority conference leader on Atlantic Yards, stakes his support on job creation. “While the wrangling continues about how many jobs, how much tax revenue, and how many affordable homes that the project will generate, it is fair to say that the project has the potential to generate thousands of badly needed new jobs in Brooklyn where unemployment now stands in the double digit range.”

“There is very little research to substantiate the public investment in the stadium as an economic development tool,” said Dr. Stacey Sutton, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University and a Brooklyn native herself.  “They don’t typically generate the jobs for the residents that they claim in the beginning, so they’re typically not good investments for public dollars.”

Even if there is a net benefit to be realized, Sutton is convinced that the "Protesting Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards Project "stadium is best situated elsewhere in the borough.  “We’re not trying to stymie development,” she said. “We’re trying to place it smartly, and if I had a say early on, I would have supported developing it somewhere [like] Coney Island.” Goldman adds that studies have supported this popular argument. “The city and state, on 3 different occasions over the past 30 or 40 years, had done studies of where to put an arena in Brooklyn and each study resulted in with those [analysts] saying that the best place is Coney Island.”

Aside from the controversial use of eminent domain and the process by which the project was greenlit, concerns range from increased congestion to the dilution of the borough’s unique aesthetic and dynamism. “Brooklyn has a very specific flavor,” said Bed-Stuy native Craig Samuels, owner of restaurants Peaches in Bed-Stuy and The Smoke Joint in Fort Greene, a direct neighbor of Atlantic Yards. “People come to Brooklyn for that. They want a place where they can decompress, where they know their neighbor, where they could walk down the sidewalk and feel as though they’re in a small town.”

As a business owner in the neighborhood, Samuels should be an example of the kind of person the projects’ supporters are claiming to help; however, he’s yet to be convinced by the rhetoric around the stimulus for the local economy. “Do I want to see Brooklyn progress? Absolutely,” said Samuels. “Would this be the best method for progress? I’m not so sure.”

Which begs the question, Does Brooklyn need this?  The Atlantic Yards site is  located in Prospect Heights, a community adorned by historical architecture, thriving small businesses and surrounded by vibrant (read: not blighted) neighborhoods.

While much of his global fan base wouldn’t know this, as a Bed-Stuy native raised less than two miles away from the development, it’s safe to say that Jay-Z is aware of the dynamics of these neighborhoods.  “Rappers are in many ways journalists and ambassadors of hip-hop,” said cultural critic and columnist Tolu Olorunda.  “So what people around the world know of Brooklyn is what Jay-Z has said about it, what Talib Kweli and Mos Def said about it, what Biggie was saying about it.”

Jay-Z has made a business of spreading hypnotic tales of his youth in Brooklyn.  Set in Marcy Projects, the survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian story has been etched into the minds of fans worldwide. The association of Brooklyn with a downtrodden area is so strong that when Jay-Z says he wants to invest in a development project in Brooklyn, it many will see it as philanthropy, as opposed to just a business deal.

For the man whose built a following with his nuanced, introspective and intelligent lyrics, it would be fascinating to know how Jay-Z would rap about this if he was on the outside looking in. Would he justify the injustice? Would he reconcile the idea of business interests and community preservation? Would he lament the transformation of his hometown or boast about the Manhattanization of his former hood?

Many of his fans would say there are two sides to Jay-Z.   The one who considers himself to evoke “the soul of Mumia” and the one who talks endlessly about his gilded status.  The one who signs on to produce “Fela”, the Broadway production chronicling the life of Nigeria’s premier musical prodigy, and the one who raps  “I’m like excuse me Ms. Fufu, but when I met your ass you was dead broke and naked, …”.   In the end, the more popular and enduring image is the one guided by hip-hop’s consumerist culture.

“His hip-hop identity is as a business,” said Dr. Lester Spence, professor of political science and Africana studies at

"Al Sharpton"

Another Black leader, Al Sharpton, also endoreses the project and spoke at the groundbreaking

Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book, “Stare in the Darkness: Rap, Hip-hop, and Black Politics.”  “There’s this strong theme in rap music of MCs being hustlers, even the drug focus is on drug dealing as a business. So there are certain values that accrue to that which both contradict but also reaffirm the values of what we think of as modern day hip-hop.”

Spence describes the approach of many rappers as one synonymous with neo-liberal principles. “We take as common sense that market principles are the best principles not just for the pursuit of business in the free market but for organizing how cities work, how states work and how we’re supposed to work as individuals,” he said. “That’s where that term ‘[I’m not a businessman,] I am a business, man’ comes from,” Spence said referring to an oft-quoted Jay-Z lyric.

When it comes to Jay-Z, Spence says, his mix of entrepreneurial self-concern and Brooklyn fealty should be understood as the simple extension of his business, nothing personal.   “What MCs end up using place for is to generate interest in themselves as a brand and to generate revenue for their own project,” he said. “To this extent, Jay-Z is not being contradictory when he invests in Brooklyn, even contrary to the wishes of Brooklynites, [nor] when he raps about Brooklyn and he lives in Manhattan.”

"Mikhail Prokhorov"

Mikhail Prokhorov

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was certainly unconcerned with geographic borders when it came to buying the Nets on May 12th of this year. He’s now the majority owner of the team and 45% owner of Barclays Center, making the project even more real for residents who hoped that it would have faltered on the heels of Ratner’s fiscal challenges. But with talk of Jay-Z’s friend, superstar basketball player Lebron James, possibly signing with the Nets, the hype continues to build and Jay-Z stands the chance of making his involvement more critical to the project.

“If they could wind this down and get Lebron James next next year, Jay-Z would be credited with that single handed decision and that would boost his portfolio in unimaginable ways,” said Olorunda. “As much as I think he deserves to be called out for [his support of the Atlantic Yards project] because it’s a writings on the wall kind of betrayal, I also understand that most people in his position wouldn’t turn that down because he’s just not doing it purely out of conviction. This is a strategic decision on his part.”

No matter how astute the decision may be, Spence hypothesizes that if Jay-Z is ever called to task by the opposition, he’d have a retort primed for the dais. “He would give you a story about how this project would aid Brooklyn and how it is the best idea for Brooklynites and those who don’t understand it are hating on him,” he said. “So then you’re left with both sides trying to fight for what Brooklyn should be about and you got one side with money power and respect and you got the other side with [protestors]. Which side wins out?”

Jay-Z or Bruce Ratner couldn’t be reached for comment.

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