Historical Hindsight

Ratner foe Norm Oder saw a familiar name below Sunday’s New York Times op-ed on Atlantic Yards: John B. Manbeck, a historian who contributed two quaint essays on brownstones and bridges that appeared in copies of the Brooklyn Standard, the promotional paper put out by the project’s developer, Forest City Ratner Companies.

But this op-ed was much sharper in tone: “The plan is overkill, for which public officials are partly to blame. But the community’s response to it—a mix of not-in-my-backyard rejection and idealized nostalgia—is overkill as well.”

Oder has dissected the column on his blog, but The Real Estate wondered, how did this esteemed historian—he edited Kenneth T. Jackson’s “The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn”—dare bite the hand that fed him?

Manbeck, tracked down in Pennsylvania, said that he had agreed to write for the Standard early this year knowing full well who was behind it and even while he had reservations about the project. “I was not unaware that it might have been a conflict of interest, but I had my standards and I upheld them,” he said. “I said I wanted to write about history, not politics, and they said okay.”

He charged Forest City the same modest fee he receives for his weekly column in the Brooklyn Eagle. He would not divulge the sum, but said that the Times, which commissioned the op-ed a couple of months ago, paid better.

“Brooklyn is my neighborhood,” he said. “I had been following the story about Atlantic Yards. I was trying to hit a middle ground…. My feelings are neutral. I am interested in preservation but at the same time I believe that gentrification can do some good.”

A third column on Coney Island waits in the Standard’s queue, ready for the next issue. Manbeck said he wasn’t sure he wanted to write more for the Standard. The decision, of course, may not be his to make. “I doubt they are going to ask me to write any more,” he said.

-Matthew Schuerman