Norman Oder was standing at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and Dean Street in Prospect Heights last Saturday explaining the cappuccino test. “I have a friend that says if you can get a cappuccino within one block, the area can’t be blighted.”
He was referring to Atlantic Yards, the 22-acre project that will include a new arena for the Brooklyn Nets and possibly 6,400 apartments, assuming the developer, Bruce Ratner, can find more financing for the $4.9 billion project. Mr. Ratner had acquired much of the land between here and Atlantic and Flatbush avenues based on the argument that the area was blighted. With the backing of the state and the attendant threat of eminent domain, he forced a number of businesses and homeowners out, though not before a seven-year fight.
‘You should be writing about the … scandal, not Norman’s favorite fucking restaurants.’
Mr. Oder led the Transom on a brief stroll down Dean. He knows the place well, having written 3,980 posts–and counting–on his Atlantic Yards Report, the blog he launched in September 2005. He is accustomed to giving tours, operating a company that leads them all over Brooklyn, though far less often since the blog took off.
Now, the touring business and some savings are all Mr. Oder has to live on, as last month he quit his job of 14 years at Library Journal to write the definitive book on Atlantic Yards. Friday was his last day.
Mr. Oder would like the book to be popular but is uneasy with predictions. He will not, that is, pretend to be writing the next Power Broker.
He gestured back down Dean Street. “This is a bucolic street,” he said. “O.K., it’s not bucolic, there’s traffic, but it’s a relatively quiet, residential street. How they’re going to have thousands of people streaming down this narrow street on game night, I don’t know.”
A free baseball cap Mr. Oder got near his old office kept the sun out of his eyes, and he also wore a pair of beat-up black 501s and a long-sleeve T-shirt, also free, from “Open House New York,” the annual architectural tour of the city for which Mr. Oder once volunteered.
He has lived in Park Slope since 1992 and can walk to the future arena site in a quick seven minutes. Still, he insists he is no NIMBYist fighting to protect his neighborhood, even if some of his critics portray him that way.
“I’m not a crank,” Mr. Oder said. “I worry about being seen as an irresponsible advocacy journalist rather than a responsible, analytical journalist who comes to conclusions that are highly critical.”
It is not the so-called objectivity of The Times Mr. Oder values.
“I’m motivated by my recognition that reality as I understand it does not comport with what’s being represented,” he said. “It requires skepticism and what may be perceived as advocacy journalism. I argue the opposite, that taking a lot of this at face value is a dereliction of duty.”
He points to the lead Metro story in a recent Times about the drinking habits of MetroNorth riders compared to LIRR riders. “What the fuck?” Mr. Oder said. “That could be a cute little blog post, but why that needs to take up prime real estate in the paper, I don’t know. It’s a dereliction of duty.” (The Transom began to worry about what he might think of a profile about a Brooklyn blogger obsessed with a development project near said blogger’s apartment.)
After the tour, Mr. Oder ducked into Le Gamin, one of numerous new restaurants on Vanderbilt and a perfect proof of the cappuccino test. During a two-hour breakfast conversation, he ordered only a soy decaf grande mocha. He had already had his two cups of coffee for the day, as well as breakfast, three hours earlier.
“I hate to admit it, but I had breakfast in front of my computer.” Mr. Oder said. “As usual.”
Every morning, between 5:30 and 7, a post or three, many over a thousand words, appears on the Atlantic Yards Report.
Mr. Oder said he expected the pace to slow, with the project all but assured, following a string of legal defeats for its opponents and the arrival of Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch who took a major stake in both the Nets and the development.
That was before Mr. Oder broke one of his biggest scoops ever, a plan by Forest City Ratner, the developer of Atlantic Yards, to arrange thousands of green cards for Chinese investors to drum up $249 million for the project, using a program known as EB-5. Mr. Oder revealed how the numbers on the program do not add up, as well as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s planned trip to China to stump for it. Mr. Markowitz canceled after the Post re-reported Mr. Oder’s findings. And yet the only other outlets to pick up on it were the Journal and the Daily News (and the story may have been leaked to the Journal before Mr. Oder’s post to steal his thunder).
The Transom asked Mr. Oder to name his favorite restaurant. He arched his eyebrows and responded, “Totonno’s, in Coney Island.”
“Come on!” he declared, becoming momentarily exasperated. “You should be writing about the EB-5 scandal, not Norman’s favorite fucking restaurants.” –Matt Chaban