Aaron Gordon recounts the story of how one man fooled a city with the promise of professional basketball.
Kids playing stickball on the street. Arguing about last night’s game with your barber. Whatever it is, so many of us consider sports to be a fundamental aspect to a healthy community. Not only do we believe this, but it makes sense, too. Our surroundings, both physical and intangible, are part of who we are. Professional sports teams are part of our identity as well, so we conflate professional sports with other aspects of our community. But this is wrong, and smart businessmen have learned to exploit the error.
Local elites socially construct ideas such as community self-esteem and community collective conscience to help them reap large amounts of public dollars for their private stadiums.
That quote comes from the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, published in 2002, four years before the Atlantic Yards project was approved, and before the documentary Battle For Brooklyn was filmed. After attending a screening of the film and speaking with the directors, I now see the notion of professional sports as a community entity isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous.
Ultimately, Battle For Brooklyn is the crushing tale of a select few property owners who were compelled, coaxed, and ultimately kicked off their property by the state government to make way for Atlantic Yards, a multi-billion dollar development project highlighted by the Barclays Arena, where the future-Brooklyn Nets will move next year. It’s about the rampant abuse of eminent domain, which allows the government to poorly compensate property owners for their land, so long as a wealthy developer can offer flimsy promises of community improvement.
Below this crushingly well-crafted argument against eminent domain is a smaller, more subtle debate about what a community really is. Various scenes pit community activists against community activists, declaring through loudspeakers to be representing the same people. But behind every supporter of the project lays dollar signs supplied by Forrest City Ratner and Bruce Ratner himself, the developer behind the project. Behind every self-proclaimed “community leader” sits an underhanded bribe or wink of indiscernible importance. But without a doubt, the allure of community support is paramount to the project.
Perhaps there was a time when professional sports teams were a vital ingredient of a vibrant community. Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Borough President, certainly believes so. The first time he appears in the film, his eyes twinkle at the memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and like any good Brooklynite, he denounces the forces that led to their cruel removal, while simultaneously playing the same exploitative game to make Brooklyn professional again. Michael Galinsky, director of Battle For Brooklyn, told me about Markowitz’s motivations: “To Markowitz, [bringing professional sports to Brooklyn] was a very serious idea.”
If this was a serious idea to Markowitz, then Bruce Ratner was operating on a different plane. “I don’t think [Ratner] had any interest in basketball whatsoever,” Galinsky added. “In fact, he had a disinterest and he killed the team.” Malcolm Gladwell echoed this for Grantland:
Let’s be clear: What [Ratner] did has nothing whatsoever to do with basketball. Ratner didn’t buy the Nets as a stand-alone commercial enterprise in the hopes that ticket sales and television revenue would exceed players’ salaries and administration costs. Ratner was buying eminent domain insurance.
As Gladwell goes on to explain, the key to the development project was the basketball team. Ratner wanted public subsidies for the project, but the state needed a civic good in order to justify those subsidies. Since a sports team is supposedly a civic good, Ratner needed a team. So he bought the Nets.
If this project were about the community, then surely Ratner and Markowitz would at least consider the community’s feedback. “We care tremendously about the community,” said Ratner in 2010. Similarly, Markowitz said:
The Atlantic Yards project will go forward, but it must work for both Brooklyn and for the community surrounding the arena…constructive opposition is something I value and cherish because I honestly believe that—in the end—it makes for a better plan.
When Markowitz received constructive opposition in the form of a 35-4 community board vote denouncing the project, he responded by dismissing five of the most vocal opponents on the board. But Markowitz stayed true to at least one aspect of his vow as the project went forward regardless. The Nets will move into the Barclays Center in the fall of 2012.
When you watch Nets games next year, take note of center court. That’s where the protagonist of Battle For Brooklyn, Daniel Goldstein’s apartment used to be, where the state of New York mandated a graphic designer from Brooklyn surrender his property against his will in order to construct a city-center that would supposedly bring larger benefits to the community as a whole. Of the 15,000 jobs promised for the project, the most optimistic estimates of locally-generated jobs peaked at 151 (some estimates are as low as 11). For all the promises of the “Atlantic Yards Project,” which would involve low-income housing, park space, and glory for Brooklyn, only one structure is being built: the Barclays Arena.
Now that the arena is the only surviving aspect of the project, we are left to wonder how much a sports team is really worth to a community. Galinsky recalled his own pride in local sports when he told me about his youth:
I come from Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina is, and there’s a lot of UNC pride. It means a lot to people, it meant a lot to me growing up, but I think that’s more essentially a part of your community. It starts to become not [a part of your community] when it gets as big as it is now.
His wife and co-director Suki Hawley agrees that size and scope matter. She told me:
I think there were a lot of people—maybe not in the community but a little outside the community—who were really interested in a sports team coming to Brooklyn.
A school is clearly a part of a community. Entire towns revolve around the operations of a large university, for good or bad. Professional sports teams are, with very few exceptions, employers of relatively few people in the largest cities of the country. Teams operate under one goal: to profit. Pro teams relocate, change their names, and are bought and sold. In the age of billion-dollar TV contracts and stadium construction costs, this requires pulling audiences from multiple markets, not just one community. Today, sports teams are nations.
Despite all the claims to the contrary, Atlantic Yards was never about the existing community. It was about building something bigger on top of it. Now it’s just a sports team on top of demolished apartments and evicted businesses. Sports teams can’t create communities anymore, but they can destroy them.