"A woman just called me up from Queens. She said, ‘Are you the Daniel Goldstein they are accusing of racism?’"
It was the very same Daniel Goldstein, the Daniel Goldstein who is the most visible and vocal opponent of Bruce Ratner’s plan to build a giant mixed-use development in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, centered around an arena for the New York Nets.
He had just gotten off the phone with the woman, who was from Queens, and was now relaying the conversation to his girlfriend, Shabnam Merchant.
"She said, ‘I just spoke to an African-American friend of mine and we both think that what you said was right,’" he told Ms. Merchant.
"Well," Ms. Merchant replied, "it wasn’t nice to say."
It wasn’t. In the increasingly complex racial politics of Brooklyn, to insinuate that two African-American groups that supported Mr. Ratner’s project were slaves serving "wealthy white masters" was ill-advised.
Especially since the e-mail later surfaced in a story in the New York Daily News.
After a stellar winter and spring, the e-mail, sent to columnist Ben Smith, was the first serious public relations gaffe by Mr. Goldstein and his group, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. But as the fight, with unlikely bedfellows on all sides, begins to get more public and complex, it may not be the last.
"We’re waiting to see what will happen," said Mr. Goldstein, a goateed 36-year-old, sitting on an early July evening in his seventh-floor condo. He looks a bit like a college student who has been up all night cramming for an exam. Among other things, Mr. Goldstein, Ms. Merchant and the six other members of the steering committee for Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn were trying to figure out whether to go forward with a massive rally planned for July 16 at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
The comment, Mr. Goldstein explained, while out of line, was made while he was chastising Mr. Smith, a former Observer reporter, for failing to publicize the financial ties between developer Bruce Ratner and the nonprofits that support him.
But Mr. Goldstein was not about to admit that he was wrong, not exactly. After five African-American leaders had issued a press release denouncing his language as racist, he sent out an apology. It was so little of an apology–five lines in a 55-line statement–that his board issued another blander, less vitriolic apology the next day.
"I get pissed off about a lot of things and sometimes it shows and sometimes it doesn’t," said Mr. Goldstein. "We had succeeded in taking race out of the picture. It hadn’t been part of the conversation. I gave it an opening to be part of the conversation again."
But "wealthy white masters" didn’t stay alive for very many news cycles. No one much aside from the Daily News reported on it, and three of the five black leaders who were making the fuss, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, had admitted taking money from Forest City Ratner previously, which was sort of the point Mr. Goldstein was trying to make.
As for blacks who were opposed to Atlantic Yards, the "wealthy white masters" comment did not make much of an impression.
"Do I think that was correct?" asked Bob Law, a former radio personality and Black Panther. "The first person to say that was me."
Mr. Law, sitting in a seafood restaurant that he now runs, recalled using the phrase "wealthy white masters" several times. About a year ago, he rolled it out during a public meeting. Later, members of BUILD, the improvised job-training organization that has received $285,000 from Forest City Ratner at last count, walked up Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights to boycott his restaurant. City Council Member Charles Barron, another African-American opponent of Atlantic Yards, and a friend of Mr. Law’s, happened to be visiting and told them they couldn’t do that.
"Then a few supporters of mine came up in vans and told them in so many words that they should go back down the street," Mr. Law said. They obliged.
And so, Mr. Goldstein will hold his rally after all. The house parties will continue to spread the word, as will the fundraising for political candidates who opposed the project, like Bill Batson and Chris Owens. Since news of a basketball arena in Brooklyn ever surfaced three years ago, the opposition has grown from a merry band of hecklers best known for opposing a homeless shelter to a sophisticated machine that is simultaneously fighting legal, political and public relations battles, and sometimes even winning.
Unlike last year’s fight against the West Side Stadium, which was funded by Cablevision, this movement is overwhelmingly grassroots, fed by hundreds of small donations, fueled by more than 500 volunteers and rapidly infecting this fall’s political races. In fact, Develop Don’t Destroy has been so successful-more than $200,000 raised so far-that six months ago it hired its first full-time, paid staff member, Ms. Merchant, an information technology analyst who met Mr. Goldstein during the fight. She had volunteered full-time for 10 months while living on her savings before the board decided to pay her in order to keep her on. She now gets paid the "median Brooklyn income"-which is to say about $35,000.
By contrast, BUILD pays its president $69,000 a year and ACORN, another Ratner ally, pays its executive director $46 298. Bruce Ratner’s salary is not public, but his cousins who are executives at the parent Forest City Enterprises, earn more than a million dollars a year, according to SEC filings.
A recent article on Slate by Jonathan Lethem shows the opposition’s synergy. DDDB’s inner circle recruited Mr. Lethem for a celebrity advisory board that was unveiled in May. His byline most likely helped get the diatribe published in Slate but the arguments themselves came from a pair of bloggers-the journalist Norman Oder and architect Jonathan Cohn–who are ostensibly independent of Develop Don’t Destroy but who do much of the analysis for the group. Then the article ended up photocopied and distributed the following Sunday by volunteers at a fair on Smith Street.
The thinkers, the strategists, the organizers, the proselytizers, the foot soldiers, each playing their own role, sort of like in an ant colony.
If Forest City was not expecting this sort of sophistication-Develop Don’t Destroy has already won one lawsuit, though it was reversed on appeal–it should have. Mr. Ratner has been developing in the borough for two decades, and could almost see the gentrification of Prospect Heights, the neighborhood in which the bulk of the project will go, from his office in MetroTech a mile away. A 2,000-square foot condo in the Newswalk Building-which would be surrounding on three sides by the project, just went for $1.05 million. At $536 a square foot, that is still well below the $800 a square foot Mr. Ratner hopes to get for his luxury units, but it still means money.
Even more so than money, though, these new Brooklynites, and some of the old ones too, have the types of backgrounds that are useful in modern community organizing-Internet technology, marketing, architecture. About four or five of them are doing nothing income-producing while they wage the war. Jezra Kaye, a 54-year-old corporate speech coach, dug into a credit line drawn on her family’s co-op to devote a year to the effort. Mr. Goldstein, a former website designer, is living off of a modest inheritance from his mother, a social worker who died of an apparent heart attack in December 2004 on a Union Square subway platform. Mr. Goldstein just happened to be a few blocks away arguing his case at the time before the Regional Plan Association, a civic organization that has remained neutral on the project.
Little wonder these newcomers should get turned off now that Mr. Ratner wants to bring in 16 Frank Gehry-designed high rises. The whole reason they moved was to get away from Manhattan.
"I used to live two blocks from Penn Station. It is a real strain on the neighborhood to have thousands of sports fans come in on a regular basis," said writer Jennifer Egan, who has lived in Fort Greene for six years.
Two years ago, a DDDB steering committee member, Lucy Koteen, noticed an unsolicited check from Ms. Egan as she was carrying donations to the bank. She worked up a relationship with the writer and then asked her to join the same advisory board on which Mr. Lethem–and Mr. Law–also sit. Ms. Egan eagerly assented.
"I think Frank Gehry’s buildings are monstrous," Ms. Egan told the Observer. "They are strange, huge, unappealing. It will seem like something that was dreamed up by a bunch of guys with a combination of strong-armed tactics and wheedling propaganda. The last brochure included pictures of a park space on top of the arena that it turns out will be a private park, and there were no pictures of the towers that were going to be built."
Members of the advisory board, which includes plenty of old-guard Brooklynites along with some new Brooklyn flash, do not need to do anything but lend a bit of stardust to the proceedings. But Ms. Egan is also one of DDDB’s 125 block captains-meaning she is distributing flyers along her street for the rally–and says that the writers on the advisory board are hashing out fund-raising ideas they may undertake.
"Our thinking behind why we wanted an advisory board was that it would help reinforce our credibility a bit because the Forest City Ratner people tried to cast us as a bunch of crazies and trouble-makers," said Yanis Bibelnieks, a 60-year-old, semi-retired investor relations consultant, who drafted Jonathan Safran Foer, a neighbor in Park Slope, to the advisory board. "We kept talking about how we could legitimize the idea that we actually represent the community, that we are not unique in the sense of we were just making trouble."
It’s a favorite parlor game for opponents and supporters to determine just how many people are in their camp. James Stuckey, Forest City’s project manager, said he does not think opponents are all that numerous.
"I think the core, intense opposition to the projects a smaller group of people who live in closer to this project," he told The Observer. "I have done close to 200 meetings all throughout Brooklyn and there is substantial support for this project."
As for the expected showoff force at Sunday’s rally, which organizers estimate will draw at least 2,000, he said, "You don’t know how many people will come out because they oppose it and how many people are coming to find out more about it."
It just so happens that Forest City staged an event a few days earlier, July 11, that looked an awful lot like an attempt to show its own support: an information session for people interested in the 2,250 affordable apartments that would be built under the plan.
Mr. Stuckey added that one of the opposition blogs, No Land Grab, evidenced "a lack of transparency" because it reproduced an ad for the forum without giving the time and place. (The blog did show a phone number and an e-mail address to reserve a spot, however.)
"What I think is amazing is that without us doing any work at all, we have received over 4,000 RSVP’s," he said the day before the information session. "That is not us working the crowd and putting up posters on lamp posts. That’s a couple of newspaper ads and an e-mail sent around to people."
Just a couple of newspaper ads in major city dailies–at a cost that would presumably have bankrupted Develop Don’t Destroy.
And as for those e-mails, they went out to about 20,000 people who had responded positively to a full-color brochure sent to "several hundred thousand households" in the borough, according to a spokesman. (Unfortunately, only one-ninth of the respondents will fit, and they will have to wait three to 10 years until their apartments are built.)
By contrast, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn is planning on taking out a quarter-page ad in the local community weekly this Friday and are distributing 40,000 photocopied flyers under people’s doors and at street fairs.
Still, Mr. Stuckey playing David to Mr. Goldstein’s Goliath is an indication of just how fortunes have shifted.
Forest City was supposed to have this all wrapped up. Even before the official announcement unveiling Mr. Ratner’s plans in December 2003, he had received backing from the Governor and the Mayor. Two months later, the city and state pledged $200 million to help make it possible. Charles Gargano, the chief of the state economic development agency, which is supposed to approve or reject it in the next few months, publicly said recently that he sees no problem with the proposal.
But the opposition’s sophisticated munching machine takes every scrap of information that Forest City or a government agency puts out, every effort at propaganda, and spits it back in the developer’s face. Hence the full-color brochure is called the "liar flyer" because it did not picture Frank Gehry’s designs for the towers. (Mr. Stuckey said it wasn’t meant to be an architectural brochure, and that images were given to the media two weeks later at a press conference with Mr. Gehry.) As for affordable housing, opponents have calculated that only 12 percent of the apartments will be affordable to people earning less than the borough’s median income. And numerous opponents told The Observer that what got them involved was a picture of Mr. Gehry’s Las Vegas-style design, which Forest City had given The New York Times as an exclusive and which ended up on the front page last June. Far from building support, the picture gave the opposition its best fuel.
And so, Forest City–this multi-billion dollar David–waits for another gaffe like the one Mr. Goldstein made in his e-mail. Next time, perhaps, the opposition will stumble and not be able to get up.