So, if you're shocked by the hubbub, and you want to get a better sense of what's REALLY going on here, I suggest you attend this Saturday's big meetup on the issue at 4pm at the Jan Hus Church along Ocean Avenue across from the Park itself. First, the flyer below, and then some random thoughts I've collected from my own observations.
Suffice to say the "tower" has touched a nerve - deep you might say. In a single rendering, or actually two, drawn by the project's architects (Marvel), you can per se, there's a subtext here that reads loud and clear to many longtime residents. That message might sound like this: "Hey PLG! We finally discovered your neighborhood and are now ready to encourage ever-larger numbers of people, most richer and whiter than you, to "discover" it too. You people have had to live in such squalor for so long...I'll bet you're DELIGHTED to see us come and help clean things up a bit and make it safer and more desirable to the Modern American Post-Graduate Artsy Professional (MAPGAP).
Of course I'm being a bit dramatic, sort of. (And my term MAPGAP is not yet trademarked). But you can probably recognize the dismissive condescension inherent in some forms of city planning and real estate development.
If you still have no idea what I'm talking about, I recently wrote a clumsy and inelegant allegory on the subject called The Qatarification Quandary. I'll also try to dramatize a thought I heard recently from an African-American neighbor who put it in away that I, a white dude originally from outside the City, could really understand. She could be talking about many places in NYC, or many cities across the whole country. And before you say that a building like 626 isn't about race, it's just sort of a natural economic thang, I encourage you to try the following on for size:
"Imagine you're black for a second - maybe African or Caribbean American. I know that's REALLY hard to do, but just give it a try. Every day as an honest and concerned professional doing your best to raise a family, you go to work in Manhattan in a neighborhood and in a job that's predominantly white, and for the most part about the white world. You're asked to function as a cheery member of the dominant culture in your dark skin, and you play the part well. You play by the rules, you don't complain when your coworkers make off-color remarks, you stay true to your beliefs that all people are created equal and even say a prayer for even the most ignorant of bigots. You might even have some good white friends with whom you can laugh about the absurdity of racism in an age of a Black President. And then, you get back on the train and you head home. You get off at, say, the Q at Parkside, and you feel a little bit of tension leave you, because you're back in your neighborhood, a place that ain't perfect, but it's your home, and you don't have to be anyone but yourself because this is a place you feel comfortable in your own skin"
I think we all know a place like that, where you just feel a bit freer and yourself. For me, it's become Clarkson Avenue, but only after a few years of calling this block and neighborhood home. It used to be Ames, Iowa long ago, and then my college campus, and then the East Village and the lovely Gowanus Basin, and just about any dingy rock club in any American city. And on the whole housing justice tip I could go on, as I have in the past, about how renters really are being pushed out, sometimes legally sometimes not, and how rising rents may spell capital gains for people who own (like me) but eat away at the sense of security in others.
Some, of course, are simply upset about a tall building along the park. Some are upset that zoning hasn't been properly addressed. Some are upset that a development of such magnitude seemed to sneak by without any review (Tom Anderson of the now-being-built 33 Lincoln Road building came by the Community Board, and that felt like the right way to introduce a new project - with transparency and sensitivity to a neighborhood "in transition.)
And some of you now may wonder - are so-called gentrifiers now the bad guys, and are people saying that white folks aren't welcome in Lefferts? Hell no. That would be too simple and knee-jerk a reaction. In fact, Lefferts has an uncommon history in the last 50 years of being remarkably resistant to full-on segregation. People like Bob Thomason and his colleagues at the original PLGNA worked hard to ensure that the neighborhood remained a bastion of King-like tolerance and unity. THAT's the legacy on which PPEN emerged, not some sort of us-against-us scenario. This is an open and honest movement of people concerned that decisions of enormous consequence are being made for the neighborhood by interests that have no deep concern in people over profits. Want an example? When Hudson looked for a community partner to help their affordable housing cause, they could find no non-profit closer than the Fifth Avenue Committee to help out. What do they, the 5th Ave group, know about us, one might ask? Part of the reason they got the nod I suspect is that we don't have strong advocacy or housing groups of our own (though Camba clearly works in the nabe more than 5th Ave), and we certainly have NO leadership from our Council person, who doesn't appear to grasp the most basic issues at play here. He does seem to blow with the wind, though I doubt he will be leading the cause for or against. It's not his...style.
Bottom line, since 2009 we've seen tremendous demographic change, so yeah the issue of race is at play in a project that promises bigger and faster change. But no one is suggesting that the legal transfer of property is a problem, or that changes in racial composition are anything but inevitable as Brooklyn continues to attract young professionals into its neighborhoody bosom. So don't feel singled out, whitey!. It's not about you, or your friends, or even the opinion you may have. It's about people coming together to manage their own destiny. And maybe make some noise, and try find out just how big and strong are their numbers.
To some 626 is the tree...a very tall tree. But to others, it's the forest. And if you can't see the forest for the tree, then you may not be on the same page as someone else who does. Though I can guarantee we're all reading the same book, at least for now, and since it's one book in a whole series, we kinda know how this one usually turns out. And there will certainly be a reading from various pages of that book on Saturday, and even an attempt at a rewrite or two. So why not come on down? We can even come indulge in a few more hackneyed metaphors to describe the whole darn sitch, cause I done drove that book/forest thing into the ground.