SB Nation

Brandon K. Thorp | November 1, 2012

Branding Brooklyn

It's 9:37 p.m. on a late summer's Friday outside the modest housing project at the corner of Classon Avenue and Lefferts Place, in the gentrifying southwestern corner of Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, and Buster's drunk already.

"Booooy," he says, as he slides west along the roadside, weight supported more by the stone wall he leans against than by his shuffling, scuffling bowlegs. "I need a light!"

Next to the housing project, in front of one of this neighborhood's many newly refurbished townhomes, stand a few of the neighborhood's many newcomer Caucasians, waiting on a cab. The whites and blacks here don't talk to each other much. Especially not on Friday nights, because Friday night means a street party in front of the project, and the parties make the white people nervous. There are sometimes fights. Sometimes the police are called, and the white newcomers stand atop their shared townhomes, looking down, smoking cigarettes and worrying.

One of the Caucasians is smoking now, so Buster heads towards him.

"Got some fire?"

A Bic is produced from a pocket.

"Thank you!" Buster lights up, huffs enormously on his cigarette, and exhales. "How y'all doing? Waiting on a cab?"

"Yep. It's a beautiful night."

"It is! It is! Peaceful, too! Not for long, though."

"There's gonna be a party?"

"What? I mean it's not gonna be peaceful here for long, period. Because of the stadium."

"Barclays?"

Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with Manhattan in the background
Building the Barclays Center

"Yes-that's-right! I live right across from it. It's a big old thing."

"But pretty."

"Yeees," says Buster, sniffing the air, looking around. "It's okay."

"You're not looking forward to it opening?"

"What?"

"You're not looking forward to Barclays Center opening?"

"No! I am. I am."

"You like the Nets?"

"Sure-I-like-the-Nets. Got to. My cousin's the chef over there, at the Barclays. And my other cousin, he's the maintenance man. And I live right across the street. Right next door! I'm gonna get hooked up. Free everything."

"So—you don't like the Knicks?"

Buster becomes very still, his face frozen in wily appraisal of his interlocutors.

"Now," he says, "I said I like the Nets. I like 'em. But I love the Knicks."

"Me, too."

"Buster!" A middle-aged woman is running across the street. "Buster, you come here. You need your insulin."

Nets preseason game at Barclays Center

"I ap-parently need my insulin," Buster explains. To the woman: "Martha! These folks here love the Knicks!"

"Oh?" Martha looks around at the little smokers' gathering. "Don't mind Buster. His blood sugar's gone all cattywompers."

"Goddammit, Martha, I'm just drunk. I said these folks love the Knicks."

"That true? You all like the Knicks?"

"Yes ma'am. I expect Amare Stoudemire's gonna have pretty big season."

"Ha!" says Buster. "That's right! He's got-ta get that fire in his belly, though. He's a big man. He's talented. He's just got-ta rebound."

It being not quite 10 p.m., the crowd gathered outside the project is still small, maybe 20, 25 people. There's a beaten-up black SUV on the street, and suddenly the stereo therein is blasting Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind." (For the last two years, it has been impossible to go a day in the city without hearing "Empire State of Mind.")

"Hey!" Buster yells to those gathering down the sidewalk. "These folks like the Knicks!"

This is a moment of moment. Two groups of people, each of which has spent the summer pretending the other doesn't exist, now both know that they're pretty much all rooting for the same basketball team. The assembled ponder the implications for several seconds, before a youth with a James Hardenesque mohawk says:

"Melo's a piece of shit."

"Melo's a scoring machine," says one of the Caucasians. "And watch—if he and Amare can spread the floor, and play fast, they'll be as good as the Heat."

"Oh, yeah," says somebody.

"They won't even be as good as Deron Williams and Joe Johnson," says a tall boy, maybe 14 years old—a boy you'd expect to say that kind of thing, because he's wearing a black and white Nets cap.

Deron Williams
Joe Johnson


"Bullshit!" says Buster. "Amare! Amare! The Knicks! Knicks!"

"The Knicks!" yell some others.

"The Knicks!"

"Fuck the Nets!" says somebody else.

"I'm gonna go see 'em, though," says somebody else.

"Oh yeah," says Buster. "I'll go see 'em. But, you know. Fuck 'em."

Barclays

It's an ugly sight, but the Center is beautiful.

Such is the sentiment on the street at the southwestern corner of Clinton Hill, just a block north of Atlantic Avenue, one of those hideous eight-lane highways you sometimes find in New York City designed just for big trucks and thousands of cars and not at all for pedestrians, lovers of architecture, or families. Just across Atlantic and a couple blocks to the west, there's a sudden, block-sized hole in the solid wall of auto repair shops and shady clubs and storage facilities that line the avenue in that part of town; a hole 30 feet deep, with dirt and tractors and train tracks at the bottom of it. Another block east there's another hole, and the emptiness persists all the way to Barclays Center.

Bruce Ratner, the 67-year-old property developer who masterminded Barclays (along with Metro-Tech, the vast office complex in downtown Brooklyn; and the New York Times Building, currently tied with the the Chrysler Building as the fourth-tallest skyscraper in New York City), intends to fill these holes and the air above them with thousands of units of "affordable" housing. (Whether the housing will actually be affordable to ordinary Brooklynites is unclear.) Right now, though, if you stand on this stretch of Atlantic looking south, you're looking straight from the sooty concrete chaos of Atlantic Avenue into the guts of the neighborhood of Prospect Heights.

It's an ugly sight, but the Center is beautiful. Graceful, protean, made of glass and metal swoops and coils, and covered in a skin of "pre-weathered" steel panels. These panels, because of the pre-weathering, are brown; a not-quite-uniform hue that harmonizes nicely with the exteriors of the 19th century brownstones, townhomes, and storefronts on neighboring Flatbush and Sixth Avenues. Barclays was originally to have been designed by Frank Gehry, and would have included a park on the arena's roof, as well as a skating rink, to be used exclusively by the inhabitants of the apartment buildings soon to rise along Atlantic Avenue. But Gehry's design would have cost $1 billion to realize, and that was too much. The current design, by Ellerbe Becket and SHoP Architects, was to have cost only $800 million. (It ended up costing $1 billion anyway.)

This is a big, big building, in a part of Brooklyn that doesn't have many of them. Prospect Heights is a wonderland of trees, bistros, old houses, wrought iron, craft beer bars and designer strollers. Across Atlantic Avenue from the arena is a mall called Atlantic Center—another Ratner project—and beyond that is the neighborhood of Fort Greene, which is what all of Brooklyn would look like if it had been designed by Norman Rockwell. These places are pretty, precious, maybe a little twee, and as quiet as any place can be four subway stops away from Manhattan's Financial District.

Perhaps to keep from disrupting the small-town-cum-urban aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhoods, Ellerbe/SHoP has turned Barclays into a subtle optical illusion. Visitors arriving on Atlantic or Flatbush or 6th Avenues do not see the whole arena: they see only one of its rounded, protruding edges, while the building's tremendous bulk recedes in the distance. As a result, Barclays seems small from most angles, like an especially large regional theater. You would never think its footprint is actually a shade bigger than that of Madison Square Garden, the Knicks' vast homecourt just 11 stops away on the C-train. (Nevertheless, the Garden fits about a thousand more people than Barclays.) It's only when you're alongside the arena, on disused sidewalks far from the main entrances, that its hugeness becomes apparent.

there was a weird sense of calm on the surrounding streets in the days before Barclays' big opening night.

And perhaps because its hugeness is hidden from the most commonly trafficked angles, there was a weird sense of calm on the surrounding streets in the days before Barclays' big opening night. That was the night of Sept. 28, when Jay-Z—rapper,Brooklynite, and minority shareholder in both Barclays and the Brooklyn Nets—kicked off a week of sold-out concerts at Barclays, all of which Jay-Z performed wearing a baseball cap sporting the Nets' chic new black and white logo (which, incidentally, Jay-Z helped design). At Der Schwarze Kolner, a convivial German beer bar one block into Fort Greene, a waiter remarked that there were no particular plans to beef up the staff for the concert crowd. At the neighboring Greenlight Bookstore, a clerk, when asked about any repercussions from the arena's opening, said: "Oh. That's tomorrow?"

Basketball shorts showcasing Nets' new logo

Only at one nearby business was there any sense that something big was going on. That was Modell's, a 12-year-old sporting goods store with the excellent luck of having opened directly across 6th Avenue from Barclays' future site. At Modell’s, the forward quarter of the sales floor was entirely given over to Nets paraphernalia. There was, most of the Nets should be pleased to know, almost equal representation of the starting five among the on-sale jerseys; four racks apiece for Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez. (Power forward Kris Humphries, perhaps because of his embarrassing entanglements with the Kardashians, got only one rack.) The jerseys sold for $60. Nearby, T-shirts dramatizing the inevitable rivalry between the Nets and the Knicks sold for $20. "NY Divided!" read one of them, alongside a closeup face-pic of a severe-looking Lady Liberty. Behind the long sales counter were hundreds of Nets hats in dozens of designs. A very tall, 40-ish black woman wearing a floral summer dress and legwarmers exited the store with five of them. "For me, my husband, and my girls," she said.

The woman’s name was Veronica Williams, and she lives in Park Slope—the even-leafier, even twee-er neighborhood just beneath Prospect Heights, which runs along the western edge of Prospect Park. Veronica and her husband would attend the third night of the Jay-Z concerts, she said, while her sister looked after the kids. "They're too young for Jay-Z," she said. But at seven, nine, and 11, they aren't too young for the Nets.

Jay-Z, part owner of the Brooklyn Nets, sits courtside This is about Brooklyn, having something of
our own.

"We're basketball people. We've always liked the Lakers—my husband's people are in L.A., so … We could've liked the Knicks, but they've been so bad for so long. And why would you keep following them after they got rid of Jeremy Lin?"

"No," she said, "we don't have any really strong feelings about the Nets yet. They were mediocre in New Jersey, right? Even people in New Jersey didn't like them. But this isn't about the Nets. This is about Brooklyn, having something of our own. We're proud of Brooklyn—we don't even go into Manhattan, except my husband, for work." (He works for an architect in SoHo.) "We'll support them because we want everyone to know that Brooklyn has its own culture. We're not just Manhattan's bedroom community."

Veronica, her husband and her three girls will go see the Nets' second home game versus the Knicks on Dec. 12.

Across the street, construction crews executed last-minute modifications to Barclays' side entrances. A tractor idled. A few tourists gawked at the 60-foot, wrap-around video screen in the courtyard outside the arena's main entrance. The scene was quiet —

On the night

— and then it wasn't. On the night of the first Jay-Z concert, the streets suddenly, shockingly flooded with humanity. Fans came up out of the subways in unprecedented thousands—from the Long Island Railroad, from the 2, the 3, the 4, the 5, the B, the N, the Q, the R—all of which stop at the remodeled subway station once known as Atlantic and Pacific and now known as Atlantic Terminal. They rode the escalators up into the Atlantic Center, or out of the ground in Barclays’ courtyard, through an exit constructed to look like half a hill-side, with a gently arcing slope of turf atop a glass and metal foyer. They came down from Harlem and East New York on the C, spilling out of the local line's little vomitoria in Fort Greene in their miniskirts and makeup and heels and Nets jerseys, looking at their iPhones, trying to figure out how to get from this charming little postcard of a neighborhood to the big urban arena they knew was somewhere nearby. They were black and white and Latin and Asian—a surprising number of Asians; mostly Chinese teenagers in loose denim, white tennis shoes, Nets gear and gold chains—and some of them drove cars, which they parked in spaces going for $15 and $20 and, later, $30 and $40 on bits of private property almost certainly not zoned for commercial use. For a little while, Der Schwarze Kolner was overrun with concert-goers, pre-gaming on big boots of beer and bottles of super-strong Aventinus Eisbock. I tried to flag down a busboy to ask him what he thought of it all, and he said: "Later, bro! Later! We're busy!" There were, it appeared, a huge number of Jay-Z people inside the Greenlight Bookstore next door, but that was wrong—the people in the bookstore had turned out for a book signing by the author Zadie Smith. (In Brooklyn, literary gatherings and rap concerts draw more-or-less identical demos.)

On the night of the first Jay-Z concert, the streets suddenly, shockingly flooded with humanity.

Twenty minutes before the concert, just around the block, there were police cars everywhere, a few ambulances on standby, cops directing traffic against the signals. The foot traffic was crushing, but the car traffic wasn't that much heavier than usual—the concertgoers mostly came by train and cab. In the courtyard in front of Barclays' main entrance stood maybe 4000 people, awaiting their dates, smoking cigarettes, listening to and chuckling at the overwhelmingly hairy and white contingent from Occupy Wall Street, who'd descended on the evening with their "Guitarmy" to sing songs about the evils of Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov, the eccentric Russian billionaire who owns most of the Nets, and of the terrible spiritual betrayals of Jay-Z, who the Occupiers believe has sold out his ancestral homeland by getting involved with real estate developers. "He's forgotten where he came from," said a Guitarmy regular. Where Jay-Z comes from is the Marcy Projects, a half-hour walk northeast into Bedford Stuyvesant, and nobody at the concert felt moved to point out to the Occupiers that white, self-styled bohos with very un-Marcy-like origins were very nearly the only ones complaining. This was a Brooklyn crowd, in large part a Bed Stuy crowd, and they were happy.


Limos came. There emerged at least one New York Knick — Tyson Chandler, a baby-faced dinosaur — and a small huddle of other celebrities obscured from view by a phalanx of handlers, all of whom disappeared into a side-door by Barclays' Nets store. Pictures from the event would show various Nets and Knicks and spouses posing chummily with each other, apparently indifferent to the interborough rivalry about to erupt between them.

The street emptied out, except for a few sad souls who'd lost their dates or friends or tickets. Most of those people were drunk, and stood in little clumps along the Atlantic roadside, cursing intermittently. On South Portland Avenue, a little back-alley of a lane full of carriage houses and churches that connects the craziness on Atlantic to the commercial bits of Fort Greene, a lone white girl in her late teens and suggestive eveningwear screamed into a cell phone:

"You're at the fucking bar? What the fuck am I supposed to do? I don't have tickets — I don't even like Jay-Z! You've abandoned me in the fucking ghetto, you creep!"

When the concert ended, the streets flooded again, and for maybe the first time in its history Atlantic was as full of yellow cabs as any avenue in Manhattan. It could have been Manhattan — it could have been Eighth Avenue, by Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Madison Square Garden, in the urgent hour after any Knicks homegame — except on Eighth Avenue the cars don't disappear after midnight, which they did here, and Brooklyn looked like Brooklyn again.

COMPLAINTS

Those who protest the existence of the Barclays Center and the attendant development of Atlantic Avenue do so on three grounds: That the state displaced hundreds of residents via the use of eminent domain to secure Ratner's rights to the property; that the hoped-for affordable housing on Atlantic has yet to, and may never, materialize; and that the development of Atlantic will lead to runaway gentrification. The first complaint is plainly valid—eminent domain is brutal—and the second may become so, depending on what happens with those holes in the ground at the edge of Prospect Heights. The third complaint is crazy. This corner of Brooklyn gentrified a long time ago, which is why the most constant complaints about the arrival of the Barclays Center come not from long-time residents who fear rising rents, but from those residents whose arrival has caused rents to rise. (Full disclosure: I am one of those residents.)

There is, on the southwestern side of Barclays Center, a tiny Italian restaurant and wine bar serving supernaturally fragrant focaccia and on-tap Prosecco for six dollars a glass. It's called Vah'Beh', and ordinarily it closes at 10:30 p.m. On the first night of the Jay-Z concerts, a waitress told me, the place stayed open 'til 2 a.m., and there were lines out the door. "Obviously, the economics are good," she said.

"But," she continued, "before the concert, it was like Night of the Living Dead out there. People teeming down the street—these girls in mini-skirts and ridiculous heels, trying to walk to the arena. Just hundreds of them." After the concert, the waitress saw a woman collapsed against a yellow cab, barfing on the street.

When you've got 20,000 people coming out here three times a week, that's going to change a place.

"People move to these neighborhoods because they have character," she said. "They're quiet, they're old, they're beautiful. When you've got 20,000 people coming out here three times a week, that's going to change a place. And none of us know exactly how it's going to change it. So we're grateful for the business, but what happens now?"

At Der Schwarze Kolner, a waitress who lives in Manhattan said something similar. "Brooklyn's got its own Madison Square Garden now, I guess. Does that mean this place is going to become like Midtown? Because if this place gets fratted out, that is, like, literally, the very worst thing that could happen."

In late September and early October, stickers supporting the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays appeared on the windows of businesses all over northwestern Brooklyn. They didn't necessarily mean much. "That sticker? So, I think somebody just came in and gave that to us," said a clerk at Governor's Thrift, on Park Slope's 5th Avenue. At De Lux Gallery, a salon in Fort Greene, a hairstylist and self-professed "basketball nut" was noncommittal. "I guess we'll support them," she said. "The sticker says so, right? I think my boss hopes they'll be good, because it'd be good for Brooklyn." She shrugged.

Even at Modell's, where Nets paraphernalia has by now netted the owners many thousands of dollars, the staff evinces no great confidence in Brooklynites' love for the Nets. "Brooklyn is a brand," said an employee—who, like all the employees at all the businesses I spoke to, wasn't authorized to speak to the press, and asked to be quoted anonymously. "We've been selling a lot of Nets stuff, but it's not because people love the Nets. It's because people love Brooklyn. I think we've even had Knicks fans in here buying stuff."

Asker her own feelings, she said: "The Nets? I'll take them or leave them. But I love Brooklyn, of course I do. And I bought one of these Nets hats because it looks awesome. Way better than that blue and orange crap the Knicks sell."

Outside Modell's on Oct. 3 stood an elderly black man almost entirely dressed up in precisely that blue and orange crap — a Knicks windbreaker over a Carmelo Anthony jersey over a white tee-shirt, and an old-timey New York Knicks cap that actually said "Knickerbockers." This man's name was, it happens, Oscar Modell. "No relation," he said.

Modell lives in Bed Stuy, and always has. "I just took a walk to see [Barclays]," After he did a walk-around of the arena, Oscar said he'd go to Junior's, in downtown Brooklyn, for a piece of cheesecake.

“Brooklyn doesn't have a basketball team," he said. "Brooklyn's
got an arena.”

"This is looking real good here," he said. "I never thought I'd see something like it. I look forward to seeing the Knicks beat the stuffing out of the Nets here."

Asked why he, a lifelong Brooklynite, wouldn't root for a Brooklyn basketball team, he laughed.

"Brooklyn doesn't have a basketball team," he said. "Brooklyn's got an arena. But I read the boys on the Nets don't even live in Brooklyn. They don't even live in New York."

This is true. The Nets mostly still live in Jersey, near their practice facility. Small forward Gerald Wallace remarked recently that he'd never move to Brooklyn; that he's too frightened of New York City to ever live in it.

"The boys on the Knicks, maybe they're not from New York, but at least they want to come here," he said. “Just like people from all over the world want to come here. That makes it a hometown team. But the Nets? The Brooklyn Nets? The Brooklyn Nets is just a logo. Maybe one day it'll be more than that, but not yet. Not for a long time." ★

About the Author

Bktbrooklyn

Brandon K. Thorp grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where he worked for half a decade for Village Voice Media as a theater critic and investigative reporter. He moved to New York at the end of 2010 to co-produce a four-part documentary for CNN's Anderson Cooper. He's written for Gawker and CNN.com, served for a year as the weekend editor of Towleroad.com, and has worked as a news anchor at Sirius XM and an arts critic on Miami's NPR affiliate, WLRN. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner, the journalist Penn Bullock.

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