On the morning of Saturday, June 3, a line of wee Brooklynites and their guardians was lurching forward into the United Central Methodist Church of Fort Greene. They had come to worship Dan Zanes, the spiky-haired folk rocker who makes music that toddlers can toddle to without their culture-deprived parents feeling lame. The occasion was a sold-out fund-raiser for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, an organization fighting the Atlantic Yards Ratner-Gehry mega-project.
Inside, there were ramps for strollers and, to the left of the pews, an entire stroller parking area. A Kolcraft and Chicco stuck out amongst the many Maclarens, like two Pintos in a cavalcade of BMW’s.
“This is crazy!” cried a mom.
“This is chaos!” cried another mom.
It was a happy chaos, and yet one worried. An encumbered stroller fell backward, its human cargo’s legs suspended in the air. Parents rushed to the rescue. A toddler standing nearby began to wail, horrified at the toppling of another’s trusted street tank.
New York State Assembly candidate Bill Batson was outside introducing himself to the eager adults, who were dressed in jeans and windbreakers and sneakers: middle-to-upper-class ready-for-anything wear. “These would be my peeps,” Mr. Batson said. And later added: “Brooklyn doesn’t need to be given a makeover. We stand within a half-mile of some of the greatest cultural institutions in the world. It’s not the place for 17 skyscrapers and a steel city.
“Brownstone Brooklyn is not a white, yuppie community,” Mr. Batson also said, and then scanned the very white crowd, which numbered over 1,400 and, according to D.D.D.B., included actress Michelle Williams.
“The folks who came to the concert have the money to do so,” Mr. Batson said. (Tickets cost $12.) A tall man slunk by carrying two kids at once—presumably to get them in for free.
(Controversy would erupt a few days later when African-American leaders who support the Atlantic Yards project called for an apology from D.D.D.B. spokesperson Daniel Goldstein after comments he made to a reporter; he later issued the apology.)
Incidentally, this was right across the street from another Ratner project, the Atlantic Terminal mall, home to Target and Designer Shoe Warehouse and wind tunnels. Construction on the nearby subway station, a hub in Brooklyn, clogged the streets; between that and the 512-foot-tall Williamsburgh building and the big, brown blocky mall, the teeny fans must’ve felt very teeny indeed. Where, oh, where was their beloved Brooklyn sky?
But spirits were high at United Methodist. Before long, a volunteer lawyer named Candace Carponter—not the founder of iVillage—took the pulpit to introduce the musical guest. “Kids, do you know how tall 60 stories high is?” Ms. Carponter said, describing the Atlantic Yards project, phasing in and out of adult-voice and kid-voice. “How many of you live in a building 10 stories high?”
“I can’t see! I can’t see!” cried a neurotic youngster in the crowd, having an anticipatory meltdown. Another overzealous toddler-fan in a striped shirt and jeans kept screaming “Yay!” at the wrong times. (Toddler-fans are a strange sight: It’s never clear whether they’re screaming and bouncing around because they actually love the musician, or because they’ve realized that when in the presence of the musician, Mommy and Daddy don’t scream at them for screaming and bouncing.)
Ms. Carponter introduced “our youngest spokesperson—my daughter,” who promptly apologized for her mother’s “boring” speech. “I don’t want Brooklyn turned into another Manhattan,” said Alia, age 12. After a few more words, she in turn introduced the actor Steve Buscemi.
“His music has ruined my life,” Mr. Buscemi, a good sport, said of Mr. Zanes. “Now, since I’ve been listening to Dan, I can’t stop cock-a-doodle-doodling in the kitchen!” And with that he started flapping his arms and legs. But it was dark and loud and everyone clearly wanted the music to start. “Dan Zanes! Dan Zanes!” chanted a grown man holding his daughter in the midst of the speeches, as if he were a disgruntled fan at a normal concert.
Then there was a great hush. Mr. Zanes, in a red suit, and a bunch of other people came trotting down the aisle, softly playing. The entire church sang along. It was like 1962 all over again. Or perhaps just 2000.
“You sound great,” the performer told the crowd, with a hint of irony. “This is going to be a wild party.”
From Del Fuegosto Diapers
Mr. Zanes, 44, a former member of the 80’s rock band the Del Fuegos, re-emerged some years ago as a “family musician.” He is now one of the marquee advisory-board members of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, along with actor Ms. Williams, her fiancé Heath Ledger and the authors Jonathan (Lethem and Safran Foer).
“Man, I didn’t know anything!” Mr. Zanes said a week before the concert, sitting at the Flying Saucer Café on Atlantic Avenue, near his Boerum Hill office, and discussing his newfound activism. A former West Village resident, he renovated and moved to a Cobble Hill brownstone seven years ago with his wife Paula, who directs TV commercials, and their daughter, Anna, now 11 and attending St. Ann’s School. He has a kind face, with crinkly eyes and a slightly devilish smile, and his trademark hair was shooting all over the place thanks to “some beeswax.”
“I was just carrying on with my life,” Mr. Zanes continued. “All I knew was that there was a stadium and Frank Gehry was gonna be designing it. It all felt inevitable. I had no idea 17 skyscrapers were going up around it. The stadium was the parsley, but the skyscrapers were the pig …. I know people who have sons who want to go see basketball games, but anyone who realizes what 17 skyscrapers and a stadium will do to an already complicated neighborhood …. Anyone who thinks that through is not at all in favor of it.”
Mr. Zanes spoke a little about his career. After his daughter was born, he “was really excited to listen to music with her, and all I wanted was a shared musical experience,” he said. He made about 300 tapes of Anna-inspired tunes and handed them out to friends. The response was enthusiastic and has grown almost fanatical, but Mr. Zanes is modest, as befits the kiddie folk-rock tradition (Peter Yarrow used to strum songs for his son’s elementary-school class at P.S. 6 on 81st Street). “Everything I do is based in real tradition,” he said. “I might be doing it in a new way, but I’m not doing anything new. And I’m certainly not trying to make children’s music cool or groovy …. I wanted music to sound as though it was made by people in a house.” His latest album of “house” music, Catch That Train!, was just released by Festival Five, his own Brooklyn-based label. “Any kind of music I’ve ever been interested in, people are making in Brooklyn,” he said.
The Develop Don’t Destroy concert “was my idea, but it’s an easy idea,” Mr. Zanes said. “I can do interviews, but the concert is really the thing I can offer. That’s easy. It’s harder for the authors to try and figure out what they can do.” (Besides Messrs. Lethem and Foer, the shiny new board, announced a month ago by the two-year-old organization, includes Jennifer Egan, Nelson George and Mr. Foer’s wife, Nicole Krauss, among others.) “I think the writers are starting to do dinners—where people will pay X amount to have an evening with somebody,” Mr. Zanes said. “So if you love Jonathan Lethem, you can have dinner with him.”
Mr. Zanes himself hosts dinner parties, which usually include lots of music-playing and stoop-sitting, and he often speaks about the Ratner project to friends (his wife counseled him to be funny about it). He’s constantly stopped in the neighborhood by weepy little fans, so Mr. Zanes also carries around leaflets to pass out to their moms. But “for a lot of people, this will be their first experience with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn,” he said. “So if there’s stroller parking and a diaper-changing station and everything’s been thought of and everyone’s really well cared for, that’s going to create a really good impression.”
Valet stroller parking? A Station of Diapers?
“Welcome to my world,” Mr. Zanes said.
Back at the event, which organizers said netted $17,000, everyone was dancing, in curious and creative ways. A tall man in green wellies and shorts swayed as if at a Phish concert, a child of indeterminate sex on his head. (Later, the toddler grasped perilously onto a chair; the dancing dad had abandoned him/her to concentrate on his moves.) A few feet from him, another couple hopped together, child perched on the man’s shoulders, the mother holding onto the kid’s hands. One dad had one tot on his shoulders, the other running back and forth through his legs. Over and over again. A baby whizzed by in his mother’s arms, waving a red electric guitar. Two moshing 4-year-olds nearly took out a wavy-legged 1-year-old. A number of times, parents who’d split up would reunite, trade kids and return to their spots; the two-kid handoff was clearly a practiced maneuver. “O.K., swap!”
Jeannine, a mother from Windsor Terrace, said she came “in support of the cause. And also, we’re really big Dan Zanes fans.” She looked down. “This is actually her favorite song,” she said, nodding at Violet, her 1-year-old in pink tie-dye and Converse sneakers, who was sitting on a pew cushion on the floor, her pacifier bobbing à la Maggie Simpson as she watched Mr. Zanes intently. Suddenly, Violet waved her arms toward the stage—like a mummy in a trance—and wobbled away. Jeannine followed.
The dangerous, moshing twosome found a large man to ring-around-the-rosy with. Not clear if any of these people were related. They all fell down—crashed to the floor, really—and someone got hurt. Crying, etc.
Scott Alexander, an editor for Playboy who has lived in Brooklyn since 1994 and moved to Fort Greene two and a half years ago, was wearing a black The Warriors T-shirt and had slightly graying, longish hair. He has three children and was holding a nonplussed 3-month-old baby girl named Frida.
“Good name,” said a stranger. “The whole Brooklyn baby-name thing is weird. But I haven’t heard Frida before. Spelled like Kahlo?”
“Yeah. And my eldest is Phineas,” Mr. Alexander said proudly.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said, of the show. “I have two older boys who are massive fans. That’s not to say I’m not simpatico with what they’re doing.” He said that the project “hasn’t been a topic amongst my acquaintances” and that he “felt like I wasn’t getting the whole story.” He noted that the high-rise towers are a “big problem.”
But what of this Dan Zanes cult? What does it all mean?
“My boys and I have code names for sugary music: Barney,” said Mr. Alexander, explaining his kids’ preference for Zanes-like music—Woody Guthrie, They Might Be Giants, “stuff that doesn’t discount negative emotions.” “They’ll say, ‘That’s really Barney,’” Mr. Alexander said. He noted that he sometimes plays Led Zeppelin for his small offspring.
“We moved here from the East Village to get away from the density,” said David Brown, 37, an attorney who lives in Fort Greene and sported that hot paternal accoutrement, the red-and-black BabyBjörn, in which bobbed a child named Isaiah. “We’re concerned about the high-rises ruining the character of the neighborhood.” And Dan Zanes?
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said, the apparent daddy declaration of the day. “Ella loves Dan Zanes. She’s thrilled.” He pointed to a little blond girl standing on a pew, high above the detritus below: Target bags, sippy drinks, plastic tambourines, Goldfish bags, napkins, napkins everywhere. Over an hour had passed, and people were leaving—shimmying out the door.
Outside, Mr. Buscemi was kindly, wearily greeting guests and posing for photos. “We do need jobs and housing,” he said to a reporter about Atlantic Yards. “But there are other ways.”
Groups of parents were pushing their stroller armies up the hill, toward Fort Greene Park, toward their brownstones, toward naptime.