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