Saturday, December 15, 2007


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 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.

-- "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

Monday, November 12, 2007


The politics of fear have worked well for Forest City up to a point. Much has been made recently about the politics of fear nationally. Fear of FCRC is based in Ratner’s immensely clever capacity to martial the appearance of a solid financial base. That alone has made the Atlantic Yards Project (AY) seem inevitable to many, especially politicians who do not want to be on the losing side.

I don’t mind that Mr. Ratner is a clever developer and politically fast on his feet. This is New York City where you have to be an operator to get things done. What I do mind is that he has no sense of common purpose, much less of the common good. He wants to impose his ideas, and those of Frank Gehry, on the citizens of Brooklyn from above.

Ironically, Frank Gehry’s firm of architects is being sued by MIT for construction faults in a new 300 million dollar building. It is not his first dispute and he seems to take the suit in stride as a natural cost of doing business. Of course it is not his house that is leaking and falling apart. As Steve Goodman once said, “It ain’t hard to live with somebody else’s troubles.”

Gehry described the MIT building’s design as a group of drunken robots that have come together to celebrate. Miss Brooklyn -- the centerpiece of the AY which Gehry describes as a sort of bride image -- looks as if she leaned far too long on the open bar at her own wedding reception. Mr. Gehry shows a penchant for excess in his designs.

Whether AY will prove as excessive as most of us think, remains to be seen. The evidence seems clear that financially, culturally, socially, and practically the complex would create huge and permanently damaging burdens on Brooklyn and the State of New York. AY has been sensibly and forcefully opposed by those who subscribe to that view.

The politics of fear try hard to prevent that. They call for sudden ill-considered action or cringing acquiescence. That makes opponents look naïve and shortsighted. If not that, they are described as ‘nimby’ creatures of narrow self-interest. None of the opponents of AY have fallen for that. However, there is one part of the politics of fear we have fallen for in my view. We fight Ratner on his own turf. That is the problem with fear. It sets the rules of the game by being the source of the fear. But shared fear does not have to be that simple. Nor does it need to be that controlling.

Jonathan Alter’s biographical history of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office is called “The Defining Moment.” Mr. Alter is neither a historian, nor even much of a writer, but FDR’s words survive that effortlessly. The centerpiece of the book is FDR’s first inaugural where the words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” They are the theme of the first paragraph. Quoted in isolation, the sentence sounds sort of silly but FDR surrounded his thought with his clear determination to face the difficult truths of 1932 and the Depression and act accordingly. Only irrational fear, he said, could defeat that.

He made clear that Americans had real things to fear and those need to be separated from the ones that are based in hysteria or narrow self-interest. He asserted that reason and honesty would allow the nation to rise from the Depression.

Most importantly, FDR conveyed a sense of common purpose between the government and citizens in facing the future. He said so with the added commitment that he intended to speak the truth, no matter how painful, to the people he represented as president. That is the politics of hope. Democracy cannot function without hope. A government that is indifferent to the people’s will destroys hope even as it instills fear.

FDR was a politician, and he knew when to shave the truth as well as how to maneuver around his political enemies. He won some fights, and he lost some. He was a clever political operator but no one could deny that throughout his political life, he held the common good of the American people as his uppermost aim. He was not interested in ideology beyond its practical use, and he basically fought the Depression by trying anything and everything as much because it would instill hope as reap a specific reward.

Those of us who oppose Ratner’s AY cannot lose sight of the fact that we are struggling for the common good of the people of Brooklyn. The AY as currently planned will seriously undermine that. We should add that the nation faces an uncertain economic future as a whole. We do not oppose Ratner’s AY as reactionaries, or even as preservationists. Who in his right mind would want to preserve a hole in the ground? We are doing this to achieve a balance of order and reason to the process of Brooklyn’s development.

Brooklyn is changing and development is not inherently wrong or misguided. However, the needs of the existing community are at least as important as the new one that is being proposed. That may slow things down, but that can often be a good thing. If not, as one can see all over Manhattan, the existing community will simply be destroyed. The replacement is often a social agglomeration of financial self-interest with little coherence and no sense of common good.

That is why the aspirations of developers must be tempered along the Gowanus Inlet; the height and design of buildings in Carroll Gardens need to be harmonious with existing structures, and the Atlantic Yards Project needs to be brought under reasonable public control to preserve the common good. That way we can move forward through the politics of hope.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The New World Order Unfolds

There are two points we must face as the Bush administration slinks toward Bethlehem in an effort to be born again through their legacy. The first is that our senior Senator, Charles Shumer, was not equal to the question, “Do you support torture?” That is because he affirmed the nomination of Mr. Mukasey as Attorney General. Mr. Mukasey is unable to decide what is torture unless the President tells him it is or not. It is a curiously painful choice on his part given the behavior of the last AG under Bush. In other words, the senior Senator from NYS lacks the moral substance to go to war over basic human rights. If NYS is not up to that challenge in this republic, who is?

The second is that the President seems very comfortable with suspending constitutions. Pakistan is the latest example. The problem is not so much that he is untroubled by this behavior as that he has no lucid explanation for his own decisions. Why does that matter? If one constitution can be suspended, why not another? That is particularly worth considering when you realize that he rarely, if ever, has any logical explanation for his choices. You should ask yourself which constitution he might be willing to suspend next, and you should not ask yourself, “Why would he do that?” He does not require a justification. He only needs the impulse.

As for torture, what constitutes torture? Who knows? Who cares?

Sunday, September 16, 2007


The Atlantic Yards is a financial disaster poised to happen and not just because of FCRC’s frivolous fiscal practices, which have been well documented since the project was announced in 2003. The project has, and will have, no fiscal over-sight. FCRC has been able to embed themselves in Albany to such an extent that even those who are charged with guarding the public treasure are already looking the other way even before the project begins. That is how and why Ratner has leap-frogged his way through the entire public review process and emerged free to do whatever he pleases. It is already clear that the Atlantic Yards will produce a host of secondary problems and costs, like sewerage, that will come directly out of the public treasury and extend far beyond the limits of the project itself. The question is, can we pay for this enormous, uncontrolled and ill-conceived undertaking to build the equivalent of a mid-sized American city in the middle of downtown Brooklyn? There are three points that need to be addressed in looking at the financial future of paying the tab for the Atlantic Yards.

The first and most important one is that the dollar hit 1.39 against the Euro this week. They US balance of trade is so far gone into the imports column that with each penny of this increase, it will come painfully out of the hide of American businesses and consumers. That will in turn decrease the purchasing power of every American to buy the goods that we have outsourced in order to reduce labor costs. You will have to pay more for the essential goods and services you must buy. The Atlantic Yards will form a substantial surcharge for every New Yorker on top of the decline of their real wealth and the rise of the cost of living. Thus far there is no indication whatever that the Atlantic Yards will be anything but an additional and onerous burden on taxpayers. It is no longer a question of whether we want to pay for Atlantic Yards. It is now seriously doubtful that we even can and sustain a semblance of our standard of living. That is already clear from the crisis in the real estate industry.

The second point is that while the default rate on sub prime and interest only mortgages may be relatively low, it signals a fundamental softness in the economy. The price of anything is dictated finally not by scarcity but by a fundamental desire to buy it and the resources to meet the price point set for it. The NY Times has indicated that one benefit to the housing recession is that Americans will see their houses as homes rather than investment to build equity. That is a quaint way of saying that the bull market is over for the middle class if in fact they ever really had a crack at it. Real income has been stagnant in this country since the 1970s when the GOP went to war with the labor movement and apparently has won. The disparity between wealth and wage earners has climbed exponentially ever since.

The third factor is that government and personal debt at all levels of the economy are at an all time high. That debt has the precipitous effect of underscoring the softness in the real estate market. One of the reasons for the mortgage defaults is that ordinary people are up to their ears in other payments they have to make. Something had to give so they didn’t pay the mortgage. There cannot be a housing boom if the market is glutted with foreclosures, and it takes very little of that to cause new home construction to stall. It has done so in many parts of the country.

If personal debt is crucial, the national debt is at an all time high of nine trillion dollars and six trillion of that has been added since the election of 2000. Say what you like, but that debt has to be serviced and a huge portion of our taxes is going to doing just that. Since our tax system greatly favors the wealthy, the burden for that cost falls most heavily on the middle class. Therefore, a large portion of your tax bill goes to paying interest to creditor nations, the largest of which is the Chinese who are our chief competitors now given their vast source of cheap labor. We are in that sense borrowing our own money from the wages we shipped abroad.

The decline in the dollar and real worth, plus the growth in debt, mean you will have less to pay your bills, and you will get less and less return on your tax dollars. The Atlantic Yards is the sort of cost most small countries would not dream of assuming. Serious people should now see that it is not one New Yorkers can realistically afford either. What is more, no one should be deluded that the present administrations in Foley Square, Albany, or Washington are able to see these factors at work, much less have the perspicacity to fix them. They remain concerned with redistributing wealth upward.

This week Paul Krugman pointed out in The Times that the Administration in Washington is running out the clock on Iraq. That applies at all levels of government on a host of issues. The strategy is to hang tough and never admit anything regardless of the facts. We see that mentality at work as the model in many aspects of the economy such as the Atlantic Yards. The leadership we have at all levels knows full well that even the costs of beginning this venture are set to balloon out of control. That is made grossly worse by the fact that FCRC is mired in political cronyism in Albany and with our Senators and Representatives. Why anyone thinks Senator Clinton is fit to be president under the conditions she has helped to create nationally and locally is beyond me. In the matter of the Atlantic Yards, she and Senator Schumer have shown as much economic insight as President Bush, which is to say none.

The situation is not, however, in any sense hopeless. Here in NYC we have a stable real estate economy that may take a beating in the months to come, but it is still NYC and its essential value will weather the storm. What is missing is the will to resist the steamroller approach that has driven big money over the public interest for thirty years. Just as we must find and elect candidates who will look for a serious end to the war, we must find and elect those who truly understand that the business of government is not business. We do not want public agencies to be the enemies of business, but corporate interests are often in competition with those of the public. Government performs the essential function of regulating the market to protect the citizenry from its excesses and omissions.

We need people in office who understand that while prosperity is good, other concerns like stability and fairness are equally, if not more, important. That means real incomes have to rise for all Americans while at the same time health, education, infrastructure and the like must not be treated as for-profit, short term enterprises. They are too fundamentally important to society for that. Nothing is more likely to destabilize the economy of New York City and State as the Atlantic Yards Project. We are already in an economy that national policy has seriously destabilized. We will be paying for that for some time to come. We simply cannot afford the Atlantic Yards and every New Yorker should make it their business to bring that message home in whatever way they can as quickly and firmly as possible.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


The NEW YORK TIMES reports today that the world’s central banks are pumping 38 billion dollars worth of cash into the international markets to stem the fall off on the New York exchanges. Considering that we are dumping 50 billion dollars a month into a lost war in Iraq, that is less than a drop in an economic black hole.

Within two weeks of being installed as president by the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush had pulled the plug on the national debt by his tax policy to fatten the rich while at the same time depressing real wages, as they had been for some thirty years before, by no tax relief to the middle class. Our national debt will exceed NINE TRILLION dollars tomorrow. It will increase at the rate of 1.4 billion a day after that meaning that right now you, and every single other American, owe close to 30,000 dollars for Mr. Bush’s adolescent misjudgment.

Every dollar that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney shovel into the abyss of their misadventure in Iraq was borrowed from the Chinese, who are quite right to sneer at the administration’s suggestion that they ought to lower the value of their currency to raise the value of ours. We are the debtor nation. It is yet another fool’s errand upon which the Bush administration has sent itself. If, like the Chinese, you are the world’s lender nation, you do not float your currency to the natural level, you designate what that level is just as we did through out the 50s, 60s, and 70s before we were blinded by debt up to our hairlines.

Much of this could have easily been avoided by leaving income taxes as they were in 2000. That could have been bolstered by regulating banks and other lenders so that they had to properly secure credit cards, and other forms of debt that have since sky-rocketed. The opposite was done, and as we have learned – or should have learned – no freemarketeer will ever turn down a short-term gain in favor of the common good. That is natural enough, as freemarket buccaneers do not believe there is a common good other than those practices that line their own pockets.

As these credit excesses have become apparent through massive rising interest rates and resulting defaults, mortgage lenders have begun to collapse under the weight of their own blind stupidity. Americans should have known better since they are still paying for Reagan’s buffoonery in deregulating the savings and loans industry.

Below prime and interest only lenders are now finding that the pyramid of debt they built is more like a diving board. It has broken. Foreclosures do no one any good, as any student of 1933 will tell you. The same carpet of fake money that rolled out under the Bush Administration to the unwary and unwise, is rolling right back up again. The only justice in it all is that it is taking down the rich too with the shriveling of many hedge funds.

The economy may self-correct because it rests now, as it did not prior to 1980 on the wealth of the rest of the world. Where our own business and government leaders have no understanding of the common good, the world may well be able to do so. However the lingering mess of this debacle will be ours, and our children’s and their children’s mess for decades to come.

Even if the Constitution can be restored and lawful government re-established, it is the gross infection of this administration’s economic yahooism that will remain with us, bleed our energy, and make our recovery slow and painful. Nothing lasts forever, and perhaps the America of hope that existed after WWII has been slaughtered by incompetence and greed.

In the dark of the night, as Mr. Bush sleeps in the bed where Richard Nixon once tossed and sweated, I wonder if the magnitude of his utter failure as a president, a man and as a human being ever penetrates his massively inert and impenetrable ego. He hears the voice of God, he tells us, but does he understand the message. His miserable feckless life has been one long, continuing path of wretched cheats, lies, and failures punctuated by long periods of delusional intoxication. Unlike Gatsby, he is not his own worst enemy. When the history of his presidency fully unfolds, I have come to suspect that he will have been ours.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Bill de Blasio, one of our local Brooklyn City Councilmen, is the sort of politician on the Democratic side to whom we owe our present condition. He is neither sinister nor highly effective. He almost won the City Council presidency. He has diligently found his way to the middle of the road by supporting education, sanitation, employment, safety and in the words of his website, “Making Our Neighborhoods the Very Best.” There’s a brave catchphrase for a man who seems to be ginning up a bid for higher office. That’s politics these days, and more power too him, though I hope he gets a new spin-doctor.

Mr. de Blasio’s site moves on predictably to asking you to volunteer and hand over some cash. His record shows that apart from the City Council, he did something vague for the Department of Housing and Urban Development about channeling money to the City. As a member of his local school board, he supports smaller classes and “was part of an effort to reinvent John Jay High School.” What the effort was and whether it accomplished anything is not mentioned. He managed Senator Clinton’s campaign in 2000 for the US Senate, so he has made his own dubious contribution to our nation’s current war policy.

Recently his name has appeared on any number of local listserv’s as undertaking such major efforts as getting people to bring in their electronic junk as opposed to heaving it in the city landfills. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, who could possibly object? He also staunchly advocates that parks should be safe for small children. He has few opponents there.

Mr. de Blasio holds that buildings, in some cases, should not be too tall unless it would be better if they were. In that he stands shoulder to shoulder with David Yassky who has stated that the Ratner Atlantic Yards project should not be built, unless it is “done well.” In that spirit, Mr. de Blasio has gone after Scarano Architects for ‘unprofessional practices’ but he seems perfectly happy with Frank Gehry’s mega-plex dystopia. The latter apparently will create jobs whereas the former will not though he has not as yet provided the reasoning behind that assertion.

I have no brief for Scarano Architects. What bothers me is that Mr. de Blasio is a master at finding the political path of least resistance. In the one instance he is mightily worried about zoning codes. In the case of Mr. Ratner, wherever the flood of public treasure flows -- as well as the ensuing overflow to our already overtaxed sewer system -- seems fine with him.

We have had nearly seven years of such stuff from the Democratic Party in the face of Republican lawlessness, greed, and unreason at all levels of government. Can we afford to go on with it given the utter failure of the Democratic Party to take any serious action about anything even after winning the last congressional election? You may say, “What the hell does Harry Reid have to do with a local councilman?” Here’s the answer. Both gentlemen reflect the choices we have made as voters in choosing the nice harmless guy next door as opposed to someone with actual principles and ideas as well as the political grit to give them traction.

You may say, “What other choice did we have?” Here’s my answer to that. You probably had none from the usual sources. It’s time to seriously consider a third party as we have many times in the history of the United States. It is certainly time to stop throwing political support in the form of good money after bad -- or simply vacant -- leadership.

Steve Hart

Thursday, May 31, 2007


This is a story about how people tell the truth. The speakers did not deceive anyone so much as they accommodated their world-view. Each employs reason to shape facts so that the person articulating them shows – either tacitly or outright -- both wisdom and contrition for past errors. Only the last one is actually telling the truth as he sees it. That is what matters here.

President Bush is reported in today’s NY Times as now interested in AIDS in Africa as well as the war in Darfur. These are welcome revelations to him. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has at last found her voice in offering dissenting opinions on the abortion and the right of employees to sue for equal pay for equal work that the High Court this week denied them. Previously she preferred to preserve the court’s collegiality. Is it too little, too late? Did her silence delay these decisions or grease the way for them to be made?

Sam Brownback, Senator from my one-time home state of Kansas, offered an editorial on his opinions of evolution. In it he states that:

“The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe whole heartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two.”

The wedge between reason and faith is fact. Beyond that it is an intellectual necessity. Reason is a tool of seeing what is there. Faith is an emotional method of making it palatable. Brownback goes on to say that, “Man was not an accident and reflects an image and a likeness unique in the created order.”

What that uniqueness might be is almost a total mystery to me, but I would concur that man is not an accident. Humans are a mathematical result of various probabilities. An accident would imply that man was intended to be one thing, but became another.

Man as an accident may be a plausible explanation for many cynics regarding human character. However, to Mr. Brownback that idea is ultimately irrational because it would imply that God made a mistake. To Senator Brownback that is an error that defies the notion of God. To me the error begins with the assumption that conscious intention entered into the process of man’s evolution. It is an unnecessary and blurring complication. A result is simply a fact within the larger context on which it is predicated. Multiplication tables don’t work because they were intended to do so. They simply work.

Senator Clinton goes on saying she would have done things differently had she known what she knows now about the war in Iraq. She continues to straddle the issue of the war by financing it at every opportunity; a position that as we all knows is arguable. What is not defensible is her failure to outright to repudiate the disinformation, origins, aims, prosecution and results of War in Iraq. Perhaps she does not want to look like a fool or an opportunist or both, which she well might. I get the reasoning. But it does not jive with the facts and shows no sign whatever of contrition.

In the June 4 issue of The New Yorker, the author and political leader, Günter Grass, explains in detail his adolescent journey into the Hitler Youth, and his subsequent induction into the SS where he fought a buffoonish, nightmare, losing war against the oncoming Russians for about a week. He never once presents himself as anything but a willing dupe of the Third Reich.

He makes no excuses or apologies for his naiveté, ignorance, stupidity, and skittish sense of self-preservation. He makes clear that even as a teenager buried in Hitler propaganda, nothing gets him off the hook for not being more aware, decisive, and active in opposing the German state. He bumbles, stumbles and sneaks away from the onslaught of the Soviet Tanks (the famous T34s) that entered Berlin in the spring of 1945.

Grass rationalizes his history. He has to in order to form it into a narrative. We all do. He makes no bones that he kept his war secret for a large part of his life. What separates Grass from Bush, Ginsburg, Clinton, and Brownback is that he does not use reason to arrange the facts to his advantage. He was the dupe of criminals and admits it. He has the good grace to be ashamed of it as well. That is the meaning of contrition.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Many of us have spent the last forty years sending money to what was called the Democratic Party. Yesterday, Mr. Reid led his party to its final resting place in the arms of the Republican hegemony which seems to be approaching a monarchy. We are now all of one mind and arrived there at the precise moment that time limits fell from the discussion of funding the president's war of economic acquiaition in Iraq.

If you send money to the Democratic Party, you are now supporting the aims (however mysterious) of that war.

Steven Hart

Monday, February 26, 2007


Mr. Earl Louis seems to feel that the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Project is open to any sort of instant fix if the right people would ask Bruce Ratner nicely, Mr. Ratner being the lord of all he surveys. According to his column n the NY Daily News,

“The model of how to do this was laid out by freshman Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. After winning election last fall - even before he was sworn in - Jeffries began talking with Ratner and put an entirely new demand on the table: creation of 200 subsidized units that people would own, not rent.
Guess what? Ratner agreed. As a result, hundreds more people will own their own homes, in addition to the thousands who will rent apartments at the site.
All it took was a bit of nerve, sharp negotiating skills and a willingness to face the reality that change in Brooklyn is at hand.”
Whoever Mr. Louis is – given the large number of public roles he claims for himself – he is not much of a student of FCRC, Ratner, or the deal he is praising here. The idea that the housing configuration agreed upon for the Atlantic Yards is a contract, or that even that contract would benefit the area is folly. Ratner is building a hitech-slum which -- by the designer’s own proud admission -- will be the most densely populated space on earth. Take that, Hong Kong and Calcutta! What is more, there is no comprehensive plan in place to deal with the sewage it will add to the already overloaded storm drain system.
Mr. Louis and his paper have consistently painted Ratner’s AY Dystopia as good for Brooklyn, good for the people of Brooklyn and Good for the Universe with the same wide, mindless, sloppy brush. They consistently take the position that bigger is better as a matter of form which would suggest that there is no limit to the benefits of development. Never mind that the space is already likely to have trouble finding tenants other than state agencies as is now the case with the Atlantic Terminal. Development should encouraged absolutely and infinitely whatever the cost to the public. Mr. Louis’ column then is nonsense because he has failed utterly to see who will foot the bill for this behemoth, or more likely, he and his paper do not want to do so.
Mr. Louis goes on to say that the resistance to the AY Dystopia and the Barclays Dome is a small, fading band of resisters who have not heeded the words of those better and wiser than them. They would be DDDB and the people of Brooklyn who are not gulled into thinking they will ever stop paying for Ratner’s concrete monster. To Mr. Louis they are on a fool’s errand.
To be a fool, one must disregard the obvious facts in favor of a fantasy you prefer might happen but never will. In this case, that role is not so clearly assigned. Mr. Louis would like to believe that eminent domain in the instance of the AY Dystopia is the same thing as building Lincoln Center. If so, then Mr. Louis should be prepared for an endless public subsidy that is never likely to properly cover the costs of running Mr. Ratner’s Megamess. That is the case with Lincoln Center and has been for forty-some years. Do we need another white elephant? Especially one that, unlike Lincoln Center, is being designed to be inaccessible to most of the populace.
Mr. Louis believes that the housing that will go on sale at AY will be at a price affordable to the average New Yorker, even those who live within miles of the planned structures in Brooklyn. If so, he needs to take a look at the real estate listings for new housing construction in his OWN newspaper. While the rest of the country continues to experience a slump in housing prices, NYC goes right on churning upward with no end in sight. Perhaps Mr. Louis needs to start reading the Business section of the Times.
Perhaps Mr. Louis’ worst error is his belief that only a tiny group of hold outs want the Ratner project reigned in and made to operate within the standard regulations for NYC/NYS development. Only a few citizens want it to pay its own way at least in part, and to be less of an unspeakable blight upon the existing community.
Mr. Louis must be the last man in NYC to believe that anyone who goes anywhere near downtown Brooklyn thinks that the current glut of immobile traffic needs to be increased at Atlantic and Flatbush. In that belief, he would be entirely and utterly alone.
In fact, it would seem to me that one of the few remaining people willing to blindly subscribe to Mr. Ratner’s folly, is Mr. Louis.

Friday, February 23, 2007


The Bush Administration has decided not to enact regulation of hedge funds but rather to let them police themselves, according to the front page of today’s “NY Times.” While that may seem a remote issue to many Americans, the fate of their pension funds and investments are effected by the fate of these tools of the financially elite. The hedge involved does not serve the interests of the small investor much less those dependent on the financial markets for their stability. If hedge funds go down, they land on us in the middle and at the bottom.

Congress according to Barney Frank is apparently not planning to enact legislation any time soon to protect the public either. When you get your statement from your pension fund, you will not be able to winnow out the influence of hedge funds but it’s there in their heavy market participation. Their secretive nature shields them from the ‘reasonable man’ protections of fiduciary trust. This is not the old boys’ club stuff of the 80's, but a new way of circumscribing a portion of the economy for the prosperous who can afford nominal – and sometimes drastic – risks at the public’s expense. That is perhaps the most damning symptom of Bush economic policy, but it’s hard to detect at street level until things really fall apart.

It is in that sense like the problem of global warming. When it’s less serious, it is harder to see the effects so the public does not focus on it. On the other hand, when the damage starts, it’s very hard to correct and takes a very long time. That is precisely what is happening with Mr. Ratner’s ‘dystopia’ in the Atlantic Yards; a dystopia being a kind of anti-utopia where life is rendered inert and impossible. He has been able to create a secretive house of cards around the financing of the project while protecting his interests and those who go along with him. They are the ones he deems worthy of his financial inner sanctum. That includes members of the financial community as well as local politicians and community advocates thus far including local cultural institutions like the BP Library.

It is not that the Bush Administration has fostered the creation of FCRC’s dystopia, although the paternalistic way the AY Project has been troweled onto the community no doubt has their approval. They believe in top-down public policy. It is that presidents set the tone of behavior especially in business where politics and enterprise often feel they have one and the same interests because, through lobbying, they often do. Six years of Mr. Bush have been very good for big business and for the wealthy in general in special tax abatements and deregulation. Where oversight could not be eliminated, it has been under-funded out of existence.

Bruce Ratner has engineered an amazing example of both a lack of financial oversight and an extraordinary disconnection from the normal processes by which the public wealth, and even that of investors, are protected. I have in front of me a letter from Christine Quinn which essentially states just that and admits defeat in the face of the forces arrayed by Ratner against the City Council. None of the processes and reviews that the City would normally employ have been implemented in this instance. It seems impossible to imagine such a state of affairs if the entire apparatus of financial public oversight had not been dismantled or left to rot on the vine as a matter of national public policy.

Quinn does say that the Council is still pushing for a traffic study that will insure some flow of vehicles when the AY is built if it ever is. So, as you can see, the traffic problem is indeed like the problem of global warming. Both situations are bad now, but if left unscrutinized and unchecked, they will both become horrendous and nearly impossible to correct for decades. It hardly helps when local journalists cannot see beyond the moment. They simply point out that Ratner tends to lie from time to time.

This whiney approach fails utterly to envision the implications of what all that lying will lead to even as the project is being built, much less when it is completed. It is even worse when major dailies like the Times fail to report more than the marginal details of the situation as local feature stories. Surely a paper that employs an architecture critic can see that building a mid-sized city in the downtown of Brooklyn is going to affect the whole of NYC, and certainly Manhattan. Where is Paul Krugman when we need him? I guess he can’t do everything, and our local papers cannot keep up with the pace of the game.

What is more, within the last two days the need for the Freedom Tower has again been questioned as there is already a glut of office space in the area. Why then do we need this massively dense construction in Brooklyn which the designers themselves claim will be one of the most densely populated zones of human activity on earth? Its right across the East River. The builders are already imaging the Freedom Tower as stuffed with government offices. We have that now in the Atlantic Terminal. So we will pay taxes to to cover FCRC’s tax abatement and pay rent to Ratner so that he can erect buildings we do not need.

“Wait and see” is not a solution. “Looking away,” is less of one. “Shoot them all and let God work it out,” is not even a clear statement of intention, but that is where we are in terms of the future of Ratner’s AY dystopia.

Any student of probability can see that we are setting ourselves up for things to become exponentially and catastrophically worse. What else can investors and the public expect when we create secret, exclusionary investment zones for the rich; and at the same time give mega-developers a free pass to avoid minimal and fiduciary and municipal oversight.

Steven Hart


Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Pan's Labyrinth," a Review

If Lina Wertmuller's "Seven Beauties" is the best film ever made about Hitlerism, without question Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" is the greatest film ever made on the subject of fascism as a whole.

The publicity for this film misrepresents it as a fantasy, which it is, but hardly on the order of "The Secret Garden." Set in 1944 the film takes place during the Spanish Civil War. It addresses the subject in poignant and painful detail on both the fantastic and the extremely graphic levels. It is a great work of art.

If like myself, you find the whole oeuvre of western film in the last few years a dreary, and predictable grind of apolitical corporate slop, "Pan's Labyrinth" will remind you why you loved movies in the first place. It is brilliantly acted by the entire large cast with a sort of vocational dedication to mood and character. Though subtitled, even your high school Spanish will be enough to catch the eloquence of the script and its constant irony as it is spoken with a lyrical Castellan lilt. The direction and cinematography range from the unflinchingly spare to the lush beyond description. None of it is just there to fill up the screen with dazzling clap trap, or ponderous, vacant starkness.

The true power of the film lies in its passionate indictment of fascism as a parasitic world view that infects and corrupts all things around it. The double curse of mythic nationalism and blind obedience to unreason invade this world in a way so perverse that we are fascinated even as we recoil.
No one and nothing in this film is untouched by the filthy taint of it even when they inhabit world's far removed from the Spain in the 1940s.

Most of all the film unswervingly shows that once having bitten the apple of fascism, cleansing the system of it is a hard, long, violent and horrid process. That is made worse in all cases by accommodating it. You cannot reason with unreason. You cannot render the criminal justifiable by argument. In the end, a fascist can never turn back from their commitment, and their victims must never forgive or forget. The price of getting it wrong and failing to purge the system of its rot, is too high. At times we cannot all get along because we should not.

It took Spain three generations to throw off its fascist domination with the death of Francisco Franco in the 1970s. Only death undid the apparatus that he held in his hand for a lifetime. The film is a brilliant and sharp lesson for those who would turn the other cheek to fascism or simply turn away because they are afraid of its tyrannical face. They will pay that much more in the end for their folly.

Beyond that, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a work of incredible sensual beauty in the best sense of what that can mean. Even if you never go to the movies, make an effort to see this one. It is a landmark of our time.

Steven Hart