Thursday, February 19, 2009

THE RATNER BAILOUT

IS RATNER’S BAILOUT BE NEXT? HAVE WE LEARNED ANYTHING AT ALL?

Maybe, and maybe not.

We are about to guarantee the questionable value of paper that banks created loosely based on the value of real mortgages that they bought from local lenders. It was a mathematical house of cards in which the joker was the “derivative”. They thought to secure the value of that paper by slicing and dicing the risk, but the risk was still there. It was just spread all over the world in very small bits.

You and I are not securing the mortgages themselves, only paper that was issued against the anticipated value of that paper – such as derivatives -- on the market. It was financial flim flam. Now imagine Ratner and try to picture him in his current financial situation. Doesn’t he seem a likely fellow to have a cruder version of a bailout in mind? Or Mr. Stein with his hole of uncertain completion? Or the Toll Brothers for that matter, if any or all of these guys don’t get to do what they wanted to do which was speculate on the worth of our community at our risk.

Ratner sought to shovel the lion’s share of the risk onto the public by having them underwrite, as well as directly pay for, most of the Atlantic Yards. He is a natural for a bailout as he may even try to claim the loss of his project will harm the economy of Brooklyn. No doubt he is considering a plea for a bailout for FCRC as his plan sinks into the coming real estate recession. It will be a hard case to make to Governor Paterson, but nothing seems beyond the pale for Bruce Ratner to try.

But we need to think about our role this issue of public versus private finance on a very local and a very grand scale. We are now asked to get the credit markets going again by backing dubious paper that should never have been allowed as an investment product. It was a sham because it was building a diving board of speculation on a flimsy base of another layer of speculation. It is what gamblers do when they sink further into debt. They gamble more and get deeper in debt-- and WE, not Wall Street, are in mega-debt to such warm allies as the People’s Republic of China with this bailout.

Worse still, this sort of speculation defeated the entire concept of the responsible lender taking reasoned risks to support the long-term future of a community like Brooklyn. Who owns your mortgage? Do you have any idea? Do they give a damn about Brooklyn? Do they know where it is? Do they care, or do they only care about the paper they backed based on its projected worth?

Whether Ratner tries this unlikely gambit or not, he will probably find it unconvincing now that the free marketeers of George Pataki are out of Albany. On the other hand, Mayor Bloomberg and the state of New Jersey are seeking bids from private entities to develop off shore wind power. Did we learn NOTHING from the Enron energy fraud debacle? Are we learning nothing from the current banking crisis? Do we learn nothing from the government subsidized windfall profits of the oil industry?

T. Boone Pickens has a good idea about a broad, general energy initiative, but he made his bucks in the OIL business, and he has been up to his neck in that odiferous goo all his life. Mr. Pickens is one of the people who got us here. Here, by the way, is not an oil shortage. That is the small end of the problem. It is an environmental crisis. Mr. Pickins hasn’t owned up to his part in that any more than he has seen fit to recant funding the Swift Boat disgrace in the 2004 election. Do you really want men and women with his sense of honor and the common good deciding the fate of your children on this planet?

What we need is a national power authority that subcontracts, if necessary, research and development to the private sector as well as universities and public research institutions. We do not need people trying to patent the wind. CONED offered to let me pay extra so I could have some of my energy generated by wind last month. They want to own the wind and sell it to me at a rate above fossil fuels? Are these people truly nuts or do they take their cue from Karl Rove?

The private sector has two failings. Its interests are entirely directed inward toward the advancement of the corporation and its shareholders. Nobody needs that in energy, health, education, infrastructure, pensions, or for my money, mortgages which often shape the financial character of the community. Secondly, American private industry is chained to the slavery of the short-term gain. That is fine if you need to crank up the balance sheets for times a year for greedy investors. It does nothing productive whatever for the common good.

Call that socialism if you like, because it is. But remember, any society that has a public road is a socialist society including Texas. All socialism means is that the community realizes that there are certain things that are better handled collectively for the long-term interests of all rather than parsed out to narrow individual short-term gains.

The evidence is sitting there from the Savings and Loan Mess that we are still trying to recoup to Chrysler, to Enron, to third world state of American health care, to the pathetic drooling, stumbling, indolent state of American public education. The majority of the country can barely read, and a substantial portion of the population that claims to be literate cannot analyze what they are reading. Perhaps that is why we are about to give away the store again to the same collection of pin-striped thieves by privatizing energy AGAIN and holding our future hostage to nitwits and bandits in the process.

Bruce Ratner is not likely to get a bail out, nor should the greedy slug that is the American energy industry as oil becomes as obsolete as whale oil once was.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

ARE WE NOW A NATION OF KILLERS?

Now we are not only a nation of torturers who openly advocate the practice in war, we are again a nation of killers whether we are shocking and awing people en masse, or we are executing them to demonstrate that we are either superior to, or as dehumanized as, those we would eliminate. I am at a loss to understand what this solves or whom this pleases. Prisons have been demonstrated to be excessively costly and pointless as a social corrective. With privatization, they have become lucrative local sources of tax income even when they are obsolete, brutal, or past their usefulness. As a private prison is subject to little or no public scrutiny, we are telling their operators that anything goes as long as they stay in the black.

Capital punishment costs more than life imprisonment, and it is profoundly divisive. When we kill someone in this process by mistake, it is, or should be, a heinous blight on the nation. Even as some of our leaders have tried to pull away from the dangers of this practice, the courts, influenced by the Republican right, have recently exacerbated the problem by deciding that the risk of causing suffering in the condemned is in the public interest. Such a decision may possibly cause an inmate to die in agony, but it will most definitely insure that we as a nation slide deeper into our acceptance of torture as an acceptable social device. The inmate will at least have the release of death. We are left with the knowledge of what we have become.

As the last eight years have shown us, becoming more brutal will not increase our national or international strength. It just inures us to more of the suffering we create and further reduces us among other cultures around the world. We are no longer trustworthy members of the civilized world. Worse still we have begun to lose important parts of the fabric or our republic.

Over the past seven years we have watched the steady erosion of the right of free expression partly as a function of the administration’s threat against habeas corpus. Those who object to the national agenda feel a growing threat to their right this administration’s self-destructive weaknesses and follies. They have cause for alarm because in the absence of the right to a speedy, open trial, people can be effectively disappeared into the federal system.

This Administration uses fear as both threat and persuasion because it can think of nothing constructive to replace it. Threats, bribery, propaganda, graft, intimidation, and harassment have become their tools. At the same time, the pursuit of happiness is open to an ever smaller group of people as real wages decline and the economy is devastated by inept and corrupt administration practices.

The United States continues to decline as an economic power in part because there is no longer any incentive for the average person to work hard if his wages decline in value and he/she is working to ship his employment abroad to cheaper labor under abusive conditions. Citizens realize that no matter how hard they work, government policy insures that their buying power will continue to be reduced. The problem is not taxation, but rather a policy that openly discourages organized labor while at the same time encourages the centralization of wealth.

That is not to say that either of these political or economic conditions need be as they are. We must be careful that the whoever takes over the White House and thus the Judiciary, does not sneer at the Constitution as an inconvenience to his/her will as does Mr. Bush. Much of our economic woes could be ameliorated with a national push to improve the environment around the world by the use of recycling and new energy sources other than those that are carbon based. As important would be compelling corporate manufacturers to pay to clean up the environmental damage they create including the cost of recycling and/or disposing of packaging as well as their products.

The labor of ordinary citizens goes to enrich a select group of corporations and wealthy individuals, who, it is increasingly clear, have no commitment to the fate of our nation. They simply pick up and leave the ruinous conditions and the tyranny they create. They trade in other currencies as the dollar declines in value, and they are provided with unique investment instruments such as hedge funds in which only they are allowed to participate.
The current Undersecretary of the Treasury openly endorses this state of affairs.

It is no wonder then that we are a nation divided by deep mistrust, cultural animosity, and greed. The pursuit of happiness has been subverted along with our liberty, and now we are the agents of a policy that denies the significance of life itself.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

BROOKLYN PLANS ITS GRAND CANAL

I think it is significant that as major issues concerning development are being decided in Carroll Gardens and Gowanus, Mr. Deblasio has gone on a campaign against plastic plates in schools. Plastic is a genuine hazard, but it has been in use in schools without any proven fatalities for some time. Development is in the process of trying to change the character of the whole area now.

Those of us who live near the inlet are rightfully concerned about the Toll Project, which seems just plain nuts as a residence until the waterway can be seriously detoxified. That will not be an easy task as I gather it is full of carcinogenic toxins like heavy metals. Business as usual has every possibility of creating a major, long lasting health hazard, not to mention a profound environmental threat.

When you add in that the sewer and storm system is already under visible stress each time it rains, the developer may build safe housing for residents. At the same time the rest of us will start wrestling with substances that are forced into the water table, our basements, and simply into the street. That does not take into account the corrosive effect of such stuff on the footings of buildings that are 160 years old.

Building near the Gowanus Inlet can be great, but it needs serious government regulation, oversight, and a concrete program to control the environmental toxicity that is already there. For that to be the case, we need a serious government. That hope is at least a year away in Washington and perhaps nearly that long in Albany.

The charade of public oversight in the Atlantic Yards project shows that at present government will sanction and even pay for construction that is potentially devastating without any serious thought to infrastructure, the environment, or human beings. In the case of any plans for the Gowanus Inlet, it always seems that these concerns are afterthoughts. That is not a great idea with a river of toxic waste that is only nominally under control at present.

Through all that, many here love the inlet and it does have great potential. The first priority for change around the Inlet should always be the well-being of those who are here. Prudent choices should be made with environmental conditions governing architecture and engineering, not the reverse.

Each of the proposals to date privatizes and obscures the inlet from the public to make the waterway an exclusionary property; thus in theory raising its value. That idea is at best comic when you stand near the inlet at low tide as of now. Yachting on the Inlet seems a most unlikely amusement.

The warehouses and businesses in the area have no use for the inlet and it could be made into a viable space. Scale, however, and public access should prevail in any determination of what to build there so that the waterway does not continue its long tradition as a reeking, poisonous industrial trench.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

THE RATNER LEGACY AT THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM

One serious casualty of the Republican agenda is public art. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fete that is now planned for Bruce Ratner at the Brooklyn Museum. It is impossible for the museum, and should be for us, to ignore the steady decline of public funding for the arts. More importantly as the funds went down, an ever greater level of political coercion has gone up so that a kind of public orthodoxy pressures for ‘family values” in art. This from a party that day after day faces yet another indictment for corruption like the departing Secretary of HUD.

When you link that with religiously driven sexual hysteria, the landscape of our culture becomes ever more distorted. That is finally perverted beyond recognition by the subtle infusion of free market propaganda, which is promoted by free marketeers who do not believe in a free market. Nowhere is that more evident than with Bruce Ratner who has regularly sought to use the public treasure for his private gain. He sought and still seeks tax abatements no one else in NYC could hope to get. Now he has apparently bought himself a place as a cultural icon at the Brooklyn Museum. But, you may ask, what else are they to do? They need the money.

Yes they do, but there comes a time when an institution abandons the public good to such an extent that its downfall is not necessarily a loss. For more than a generation we have watched the NEA and NEH become the spokesmen for Republican ideas. As such they have moved further and further away from the real experiences of Americans. When you add in that their real buying power is so reduced as to be inconsequential, they have become the equivalent of Soviet puppet ministries of culture. At that point, I have long wondered if it might not be better to let them die.

The same may well apply to the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Ratner has created nothing in Brooklyn that is not antithetical to the aims of art. He understands only blunt rectangles and lumpy distortions of them. His color sense involves fashioning new structures to mimic the grime of the ones they replace. Nothing he has built here – even though ALL of it was on the public cuff – has proven to be profitable as most of his large tenants are city or state agencies. No one else wants these spaces. Worse still, Mr. Ratner has arrogantly sidestepped every single form of public review and community involvement since the Atlantic Yards project was announced in August of 2003.

For the Brooklyn Museum to honor him is at best grotesque. It is obvious that Brooklyn needs and deserves a great international museum of fine arts. Does it, however, need a badly run one that, as a public institution, shows no interest in the public good. Every single person who works in the Museum does so at the public expense. Every single calorie of heat that fills the building is the product of public expenditure. Every single exhibit is the result of public investment in the public good.

I do not support the idea that the Museum should define its role by public consensus. Their function is to be cultural leaders, not a mirror of Brooklyn’s lowest common denominator. By the same token, however, as a public institution they have an obligation to do more than follow the money. Mr. Ratner’s effect on this borough thus far has been a minor disaster. I would not object if President Bush gave him a medal of freedom, which would be in keeping with the administration’s policy of honoring the inept. I do not see why the Brooklyn Museum should exhibit the same shortsighted enthusiasm for a man who is a tasteless opportunist and a profiteer.

I have donated money to the Museum off and on for some time. I fear that is at an end under its current policies. No doubt they will hardly care, but if a large part of Brooklyn turns its back on these policies, a new leadership may show more sense of common purpose.

Monday, March 17, 2008

GREED AS A PUBLIC VIRTUE

The following article by Michael White appeared on the Huffington Post today. It was posted by Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. The tenor of it is reasonable, if severe, on the Bush driven dole to make the wealthy wealthier. That program has been supported by Mayor Bloomberg and manipulated by developers such as Bruce Ratner. Mr. White ably captures the history of what Mr. Ratner did to get where he is and why with the Atlantic Yards. It is worth your time to read just for the sake of clarity.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-d-d-white/more-money-for-the-very-r_b_91970.html

If you happen to be watching the John Adams series on HBO, the contrast is remarkable between the founders of the American Revolution and those currently in charge of the nation and its treasure. Both times set a high priority on property, but the men who met at Philadelphia saw the right to own and use property as a way to enhance the natural freedom of all. The current Bush followers, on the other hand, believe they should enjoy special freedoms which would grant them the special right to seize property.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

THE FED INSURES BS

Yesterday Chase Morgan bailed out Bear Stearns by buying mortgage bonds insured by the Fed after a run of investors on Bear Stearns. Bear Stearns is a very aggressive investment bank that has built a huge fortune on tenuous speculation like these very same mortgage bonds.

When Toll Brothers try to do something here in Brooklyn, they borrow the money somewhere, which means that they are depending on the same banking system that is currently in genuine and very dangerous crisis. The last run on a bank of this sort was in 1929, and if a domino effect takes control over investors, many of these aggressive far-flung banking operations will be without cash.

A bank without cash is a dead entity. It cannot tread water because it has nothing for depositors much less investors. If a bank is holding a massive amount of worthless paper, like mortgage bonds, they are moving toward the coroner’s slab.

The important thing here is that Chase bailed out Bear Stearns by buying mortgage paper from them backed by the Fed, so while it may look as though BS got shored up, it is really the case that the financial whizzes in and out of government have perpetuated the same stupid system.

Banks should not be investors, and certainly not insurers. They should be conservators of their depositor’s assets. When bankers take a flyer with the public’s money as they did with mortgage paper, the loss is born by their clients who never had a say in the matter. Like many pension funds now, these entities are permitted to gamble with other people’s money. Those people, as in the case of Enron, have to absorb the losses when stupid decisions are made.

Banks are the lifeline of developers, builders, contractors and such so even if the price of real estate holds in NYC as it will relative to the rest of the country; we will take some painful temporary losses. If the idiot banking practices of the last 30 years really come home to roost, that may turn into something that is the modern equivalent of the Depression. If that happens, we will all be very unhappy no matter where you have deposited your assets.

Sorry to be grim, but this administration is not going to address the need to re-regulate banks and put some sort of controls on the sale of mortgages as speculative investments. So we should get ready for a rough ride, though of all the cities in the US, NYC is the most likely to come out in one piece. Most of the value of real property has some genuine base here because there are fewer places to live than people want. That is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Of course, if global warming floods us, the value of property will tend to decline rather sharply. What's more you can be sure that no one currently in the White House has any idea what global warming is, nor do they want to be told.

Monday, March 10, 2008

BAILOUT TAXES FOR NYC BANKS?

New Yorkers, and Brooklynites in particular should note that the administration is now finally getting ready to take the economic downturn seriously. In a real estate market like Brooklyn, which is relatively strong, that could hold the promise of renewed stability in housing prices. That in my view is where we want to be given that most of the price escalation of the last two or three years was simply built on air given the slipshod government policy on banking regulation.

New Yorkers could salvage this situation by instituting a citywide bailout tax on all real estate transactions done on credit. A borough like Brooklyn then would be free from the vagaries of the free marketeers, and the borough’s primary asset, privately owned housing, would be protected. That in turn would slow the downturn in other credit driven segments of the economy at least locally.

Bankers should not be speculators, nor should they be insurers. They should focus on the careful retention of asset worth, a lesson Americans thought they had learned from the Great Depression. Since the time of Reagan, however, bankers have been more and more deregulated into businesses for which their institutions are unsuited and inclined to folly. Thus private mortgages were created on unsupportable risks like interest only loans and ungoverned variable rates.

Worse still is the sale of mortgages to investment funds. The half-baked notion was that spreading the risk around reduced its volatility. That is exactly like assuming you can insure the value of your chicken ranch by betting on hundreds of horse races. It is the idiocy that always overtakes business, when business becomes so enthusiastic that it forgets about economics.

Americans no longer read very much, so they do not like the word regulation and we are not likely to see insurance, investment, and banking divided again any time soon. What do we do about the mess created by their coming together?

Can Paul Krugman be wrong? Very rarely in my experience, but in Monday’s editorial in the NY Times, he comes relatively close to it by a sin of omission. He argues that the current housing crisis with all its attendant financial fallout may be arrested by yet another interest cut from the Fed. Given the problems of personal debt, currency devaluation and unemployment, that may help the markets but it will do nothing for the American citizen. He adds though that shoring up the bond market is a good way to cool the economy while keeping capital in play. I would agree but that does not fix the bank problem.

He seems right in his analysis but like all the economists of our time, he has no instrument in mind to protect the actual victims of irresponsible banking. They are we, the public who use these institutions under the assumption that somewhere, somehow they are held in check from total instability by something.

If we cannot regulate banks, we should institute a bailout tax. Thus any bank or lending institution should be taxed according to the risk of the loans they make. The revenue should go into a fund like the FDIC. The banks create the risk for themselves, but as we are seeing – and saw with the Savings and Loans debacle of the Reagan administration – they cannot absorb their own losses when their judgment is arrogant, stupid, or simply bad. In fact, with the exception of a few closings among the most egregious offenders, the banking industry never pays for its errors at all. We do.

Let the corporation that owns the bank assume the lion’s share of the risk they allow banks to create. Given the housing market as it stands now, that would also work well with developers. Any developer getting any sort of government subsidy would have to pay a risk tax so that cost over runs, delays, and tax abatements would be balanced out in the public’s interest by this fund into which the developer pays.

Franklin was right that nothing focuses a man’s mind like the knowledge that he will be hanged in a fortnight. It would be a great boon to our community if bankers knew that each time they sold mortgages as a high-risk security to investors, they would have to pay through the nose to do so.

Steven Hart

Thursday, March 06, 2008

BUILDING DESOLATION IN BROOKLYN

The history of New York City is an architectural crapshoot. Sometimes that
has worked out to create really strong communities like the urban
neighborhoods in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. Sometimes it has produced
the splendid isolation of the towers above 2nd and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan
where people are units living in units. Then there are the disasters like
Penn Station which is simply a no man's land of transitory passage. It is a
monument to cheap ugliness and the concept that the industrial look can be
somehow tarted up to seem human when it cannot. I would say the same of
Lincoln Center, though the style is less like a Dairy Queen and more like an
Assyrian royal tomb.

Americans sneer at art because they are childish and naïve about esthetics.
They refuse to see that what you look at each day forms your view of the
world as much as the interaction you have with people. Is the desolation of
the Atlantic Yards empty space worse than what has already been erected to
replace it? No, because the former has the promise of possibility, whereas
the latter is an inescapable blight upon the spirit. The builder, Ratner,
will now live in a 19th century townhouse on 62nd St. in Manhattan far from
the hideous abuse he has heaped upon Brooklyn. The distance is esthetic,
not in feet and miles. He has openly despised 'brownstone Booklyn' only to
place himself in exactly that esthetic space.

What Americans really don't like about esthetics is that they require a
collective sense of compatibility to make good public spaces. Unlike Ratner
and his aged architect, who impose their ideas by imperial fiat, effective
architecture requires cooperation. First that means a social contract for
the common good, a notion that modern free marketeers regard retrograde if
no simply a myth, but it is none the less essential to a functioning
society. The second is that public spaces, when planned and managed well
are worth the public's investment, but they may restrict rugged
individualism.

Eminent domain is not an inherently bad idea. It is not a tool of slum
clearance. It is what makes possible such needed creations as the Brooklyn
Bridge. What is bad is when it is used to override the social contract as a
tool of imperial enforcement. The Gowanus Expressway was not wrong because
of where it is and what it does. It is wrong because it was built with no
thought to what it would do to those who must live with it. There is no
greater good served by eminent domain if the common good is undermined.
The fundamental error of the last 30 years which is the assumption that what is profitable
for anyone is a benefit somehow at some point to everyone. It isn't.

That is not a lesson easily taught in the city of New York where those with
the money have always done what they liked with impunity. However, there
was no general literacy through much of that, no real middle class, and
certainly no internet. So the times have been a changin' and this list is a
reflection of that.

The outcome is uncertain. Penn Station may be remodeled and kept as it is.
The stupid ideas of today can always be bested by the stupid ideas of
tomorrow. Across the street from me there is a new building that is
essentially inoffensive but also essentially another study in bland and
cheap, tarted up with shoddy materials and a measure of bad taste. The
builder used various shades of grey to complement the base color of concrete
thus creating the vivid feel of a Stalinist suburb. The apartments are
composed of tiny rooms piled up on assorted levels so that you are forever
climbing stairs for a towel and then back down to reach the shower. They
want the moon for these things and they will fail to get that.

Ratner's fall, if it comes, could leave us with a wasteland of fast food
joints and big box stores in a hodgepodge. In some ways that might be
preferable though because it could be dismantled piece meal just as it would
be built. What would serve us all would be structures of modest height that
blend with the surrounding brick but that also have some genuine character
and design. Brooklyn does not need concrete monoliths or an imported sports
team that will go instantly into debt on the public cuff. It sounds pretty
easy when you put it that way.

The difference lies almost solely and entirely on our willingness to embrace
a new social contract where the meaning of prosperity is redefined in two
subtle but important ways. First, bigger means nothing as it is not
necessarily better in any substantive practical or financial sense. It is
just more money thrown around all at once and the real costs are that much
further deferred. Second, short term financial gains are enticing but they
are anathema to communities and all long term interests like people, who are
and will be the consumers of the future.

The hysteria that is now growing out of the failure of the banking industry
to make prudent choices about mortgages, is excessive. If we have another
long and deep recession, sloppy banking will not be the root cause, it will
be the result of bad thinking or simply the lack of it, for 30 years in all
phases of the economy. That has been facilitated by utterly stupid
government policy. The party is over, and what a relief in some ways. The
gaudy excesses of the 80s and the 90s can be stripped away. Then we can get
together calmly and build something worth keeping.

Steve Hart

Sunday, March 02, 2008

THE IRRELEVANT DEMOCRAT

The Brooklyn Papers inform us that Ed Towns and other Democratic superdelegates of that party are going to vote for Hillary Clinton’s nomination despite the fact that the district voted for Obama. We all have our thoughts about the promise and capabilities of the Democratic nominees for president. However there is a profound danger in making the vote of the people irrelevant.

Yes, it is a party primary and parties are created to function in their own interest. It is not an election, but our national sense of unity has been shattered over the last seven years. It is also a fool’s errand to think that, “anyone but Bush” will be better. A new president won’t necessarily change things that much because the president will face a wall of opposition from the Republicans in Congress while dealing with the festering wounds created by the Bush Administration. Most obvious is the fact that the economy has been profoundly mismanaged since the Reagan Administration and the bill has now come due.

There is a lot of corruption, neglect and incompetence that will have to be faced and rethought. The real symbol of our nation now is the City of New Orleans. That ruined and abused community represents much of what the Republican Party has done to many aspects of our nation here at home and abroad. Patience, reason and prudence will have to return to the national agenda, but none of that will replace our sense of hope.

There is one thing missing from the current political agenda and it has been disappearing since the days of Nixon and is nearly absent due to the current President Bush. We have all but lost our trust in each other and in government, and with that, hope that democracy can work. No party, no ideology, no burst of prosperity, nor any short-term fix can repair that damage.

Americans have lost hope that their system of government is theirs. They sustain it with the fortunes, their effort and their lives. They participate as voters, and yet, after the election of 2000, it became clear that elections can be shanghaied to accommodate the agendas of a small minority. The Republicans -- bolstered by the marriage of two groups of thugs, the Religious Right and the Neocons -- relished that power. With the White House in hand, that tiny coalition took over Congress and now it is nearly as inert as the latter days of the Politburo.

If the Democratic Party is going to adopt the cynical Republican tactics and force the views of their leadership on the electorate, Americans will more and more turn away from government as Europeans do. It will simply be a corrupt obstruction for our citizens – much like organized crime – to live with and get around. Cynicism may be facile and childish, but often it is the only option when those in power encourage it.

The problem is not Mrs. Clinton, nor is Mr. Obama the solution. The problem is that we have become a nation of top down politics with no balance to ensure that the will of the people is somehow at least felt in the operations of government. The two party system as it stands now is making voters irrelevant.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

IS BIGGER BETTER FOR BROOKLYN?

Daniel Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for economic development, is leaving Bloomberg’s side, a c-section in the municipal consciousness that may at least give us a breather from grand, industrial strength schemes for social engineering. He has retrospectively repudiated Ratner’s methods for skirting the public approval process for the Atlantic Yards (AY). It seems a nice, if sadly belated, parting gift to the City. Bloomberg, like President Bush, is losing momentum for his “Uberplans.” Soon Brooklyn may also be free of the dubious representation of David Yassky, although the idea of him as City Comptroller is an alarming one given his affinity for fat cat deals including AY. We will soon be back to the Borough President and his one-liners as public policy. So perhaps Brooklyn can catch its political breath and really sort out the AY question.

With all else that is wrong with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, perhaps the worst error is one of esthetics. To date Mr. Ratner has managed to give us the Atlantic Center with its slab iteration of Ebbets Field. He admits it is hideous and has gone about fixing that by plastering its slab sides with assorted garish electric signs reminiscent of a gaudy square in Tokyo. The mall that now fronts the Center is drab, lifeless, and worse still, isolated amid a sea of hostile, dangerous traffic.

The look and feel of a place matter just as much in a building as they do in the presentation of food. We eat with our eyes and that is how we respond to our environment. Former Mayor Giuliani may have more flaws than the nation yet realizes, but he was right in thinking that order begets order. By the same token, environmental sensitivity (which is often a matter of scale) begets a more caring reaction from inhabitants and visitors alike. Trash begets trash. Bad food creates a bad palate. Bland, faceless architecture makes for indifference and a feeling of intimidation.

Some human activities, like the growing of food and architecture, only succeed where a single artisan creates the product because he or she can be sensitive to what suits the time and place. We live in Brownstone Brooklyn because these houses have the individuality of the artisan’s hand. They may superficially look uniform, but in fact each house is its own solution to standing in the row of its fellows. An industrial model in architecture aims for cheap uniformity, Mr. Ratner’s forte.

Some things are not suited to the industrial model that is as much a matter of scale as it is the method of production. Bigger and more efficient is not always better. The industrial model is as likely to be noxious as it is cost effective. Industrial food, for example, may be cheap and efficient for the producer, but it may well make you fat and full of strange additives as well as supplying nutrients. The industrial model serves investors who are rarely likely to have to live with the results first-hand.

We have to ask ourselves, as Americans, if bigger is always better. Some things like making cars need large organizations to complete the task efficiently. That, however, is no guarantee of success. Once Detroit was the model for auto making. They could make cars probably, if they did not have to first support the ponderous corporate structure that impedes them. Other things, like food, are not improved when the aim is to flood a mass market with cheap, easily produced, rigidly uniform goods. What you get is lot of unhealthy processed food. On top of that you add the cost of an enormous mega-organization of fat cats like Archer Daniels Midlands. They have to be fed, preened, and nurtured while they genetically manipulate our food intake and mass produce food-based chemicals that make us fat.

We do that to ourselves, you say? Well yes, we do, but then again, like architecture, how much choice do most people have as to what they have to abide? In general, none is given to them. They look down their block as I do on Warren Street. I watched a developer put up a building in my former parking lot that bears no relation to the rest of the structures on the block. The resulting warren of condos has a lumpy quasi- deco-60s-Bauhaus look composed of concrete slab, sections of fake grey brick-face, interrupted by plate-glass, and a myriad of aluminum bits and pieces. Yum.

The façade was designed to be cheap and get around zoning restrictions by employing set backs and building right up to the edge of the pavement. Everyone on the block agrees that it is, “not as bad as it could be, ” which is not much of a ringing endorsement. So goes life in a city where money does the loudest talking. Nonetheless the building’s design – both inside and out – may prove a financial disaster in the new housing market. The price of these dwellings is outrageous under the assumption that if you build it in New York, the suckers will come, or will they? Some trends go bust. Remember Corbusier, ‘architect for the twentieth century’?

John Brunner published his dystopian novel, The Sheep Look Up in 1972. In it the city of New York has been so overbuilt and polluted that the health of the public at all levels has been negatively affected. The rich live in heavily armed and guarded aeries from which they helicopter out to safer climes while the rest of the citizens form a kind of ovine rabble that is only vaguely aware of their own doom. They are the sheep.

Nowadays we don’t submit to this sort of bullying so much as we zone out when it comes to our attention. We plug our iPods into our heads or slap our cell phones to our ears. Codgers turn up their CD players. We troop off like horses with blinders to serve in the corridors of power. We hope that -- by staying numb to the natural world around us, and what we are doing to it -- we will not get hurt. Instead, we have noisy, inane phone conversations in the street. We bellow in public places about what we are eating for lunch even as we gnaw it, but not with the other person at our table. When we do look up, irony abounds.

The City of New York is now engaged in redoing the architecture of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts so that it will remind people that performance involves humans. Lincoln Center was designed in the hayday of the American Empire, 1959, as an, “icon of culture, class and excellence,” or so says Netours.com in a gristly bit of purple prose. Architecturally though, they are right. Lincoln Center was a concrete series of monoliths that only a Mussolini could love. It was a monument designed for those who used the arts to match the magnitude of the place with their own colossal egoism. The human presence of the artist was incidental.

Glass walls will now replace some of the stone and concrete. The public will begin to see that Lincoln Center is not a vault for the property of the few, so much as a home for the living arts that are for all to share even as they walk by the Center. Artists – especially performing artists – are people, not monuments to their backers or cogs in some grand design of industrial uniformity. They need venues of a scale that a human can occupy, fill, and make shine. So do dwellings and businesses.

After careful study, I can find no building that Mr. Ratner has built that invites humans to make themselves present other than as invisible employees or harried consumers. Much of the plan of Atlantic Yards involves building forbidding, walled enclaves as once was true of the north end of the World Trade Center. This was the home of the financial industry’s back office. It was a bastion of self-assigned importance. You could visit for a price, but ordinary citizens were not meant to linger there. What is more, who would have wanted to do so? It was like sitting in the middle of a vertical eight-lane highway. We now propose to replace it with the same sort of erectile mistake in terms of scale. That brings us to post-modern, industrial, high-tech architecture, or, Frank Gehry.

Mr. Gehry’s architectural firm is being sued by no less a technical institute than MIT because their design for a building on their campus does not work. It is not entirely a matter of esthetics though that is a factor. The building leaks and is structurally flawed. That is not the first time Mr. Gehry’s vanity has exceeded his ability and judgment. A building of his in Los Angeles had to be ‘reskinned’ because the original material created so much heat and glare that it was a public hazard. His work is by his own admission extremely complicated and thus his firm has a hard time communicating with engineers and those doing the construction. He regards that as architectural business as usual, but then it is not his firm’s money that goes for the redesign, repair, and refurbishment.

The building at MIT, which Gehry says emulates the behavior of drunken robots, seems to be of modest height and scope so the problems are solvable for a few million dollars. Miss Brooklyn, the drunken centerpiece of the Atlantic Yards, will be a gigantic, misshapen high-rise. So getting the kinks out of her wrinkled exterior -- much less her complex interior -- may be many times as costly.

That is, of course, if she ever emerges from Mr. Ratner’s dubious financial structure. He and Mr. Gehry, however, will not get the bill, nor will FCRC. The people of NYC will get that, and pass a good chunk of it on to the state. Why do I doubt that these gentlemen can build AY right or even very well? Frankly, it’s too big for them to handle, and they have started to admit it.

Having sidestepped the public review process, Mr. Ratner now admits the new Gehry-designed Nets Arena will cause a glut of traffic at Atlantic and Flatbush. Grim news when you consider that the intersection is already impossible to pass through safely by car much less on foot. Way back in 2003, long before there was anything other than an arena in question, that was the initial objection posed by the people of downtown Brooklyn.

That problem was explained away by two mystifying diversions. The first fix was adding a dozen or so buildings that would make it all better in some vague way. Why? Because it would all be bigger (including the outrageous, ungoverned cost) and thus work better for some unexplained reason. The second fix was that the Ratner/Markowitz promised better routed and more frequent subway service to the Atlantic Avenue station. Fans, it was assumed, would prefer the subway at midnight to driving home in their own cars. The MTA has since explained that any such expansion of service is completely impossible.

We need development, housing, jobs and new industry in Brooklyn, but not at an untold cost that may far exceed the benefits. Gehry and Ratner are not the men to do this job. It is too big for them, and they both have a history that shows just that. Ratner lacks taste and Gehry, practical ability. What we need is to make these things work within the character of the Brooklyn we already have. Then the endeavor will benefit the people who already live here as well as create a new economic, social and cultural horizon for the borough. AY, as now planned, will not do that, and it isn’t meant to. It is a revenue stream for a developer and his investors. We are expected to submit to being herded and, at the right time, fleeced.

Given the current state of the economy, there is no reason to go on with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan. It is an ugly, dystopic, burdensome, half-baked, astronomically expensive fiasco in the making. We do need development, and it should be on a human scale that has something to do with Brooklyn, a city of light and air compared to Manhattan. The first step should be to get Mr. Ratner and FCRC out of the equation along with their megalomaniac, inept architect. Sometimes you don’t need bigger. Sometimes you just need enough. I think it is increasingly clear that Brooklyn has had enough of these two guys.



http://viewsfromthebridge.blogspot.com


-- "If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will
be." Thomas Jefferson