Ask most New Yorkers about the Atlantic Yards
project and they'll talk about everything that's being added to the Brooklyn skyline: A new basketball arena, as well as an array of high-rise housing projects.
A little less discussed are the various things the project has displaced in the years since it was first announced. Residents have been relocated—many against their wishes. Close-knit communities have been torn apart. Businesses have gone bankrupt. Activist groups have grown skeptical about the claims of affordable housing and local jobs that are supposedly on the way.
A new play, In the Footprint
, gives voice to those lost characters, paying tribute to the people who once lived and worked in and around the development, as well as those who have been stirred to political action by a sprawling project that moved forward while sidestepping the city's political process. For those concerned about the disintegration of the Atlantic Yards community, or the ability of government to seize private property via the process of eminent domain, In The Footprint
presents an essential framing of the controversial issues. It offers a populist addendum to the official record; the unknown faces behind the much-publicized arena.
Directed by Steven Cosson (Gone Missing
, This Beautiful City
), co-written by Cosson and Jocelyn Clarke and featuring music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
), In the Footprint
is inspired almost entirely by interviews conducted The Civilians
—the investigative theatre company that spent two years interviewing more than 150 local residents, business owners, political leaders, union members and community organizers. The goal: To shed a light on the various forces that aligned to make the development a reality—and the people who felt the most direct impact in terms of lives interrupted. At the center of the story is, of course, Daniel Goldstein
, the web designer who for six years fought the Atlantic Yards project, refusing to make a deal with developers until his apartment was seized via eminent domain and he reluctantly accepted a $3 million payout.
It's a haunting spectacle, to behold the Civilians' depiction of Goldstein, standing alone on the stage, fighting the seizing of his property, acknowledging his forced relocation. But while many New Yorkers can recall the day that this last Atlantic Yards holdout was forced out, few outside Brooklyn know the stories of those other Brooklynites who felt as if they had no voice in their eviction.
This passionate survey of a disappearing neighborhood runs through December 11 at the Irondale Center
in the heart of Fort Greene—only blocks from the Atlantic Yards site. We talked with Cosson about what part of this drama inspired his company to act, and how he views the Atlantic Yards project differently today, after learning more about those in the surrounding community.
The L: When most people talk about the Atlantic Yards project, I think they start thinking architecture and construction and basketball teams. But you saw it and thought: Theater. Why?
When the story first started, I was living in Fort Greene and followed the project from day one because it was literally set in my neighborhood. In the play, we try to explore individual stories that are important in and of themselves, but also stories that have a deeper resonance. I think the Atlantic Yards is a fascinating story in and of itself, but if you think about it a little longer, it also says a lot about how our city and state politics and economies are working right now—since a big part of what's making Atlantic Yards possible is that a private corporation is playing the role of what a government might have done.
It's also very much a New York story. New York under Michael Bloomberg is very much about the private developer opening things up for bids, and essentially in many cases about the government staying out of the way and letting it be pretty free and unregulated. In comparison, look at other cities, where the government took a more active role in starting the development, putting out calls for proposals, and allowing multiple developers to submit ideas. In other cases, there was more of a governmental process, where the community was heard and a lot of wrangling was done in search of a compromise. But the New York style is apparently quite different from that; with Atlantic Yards, the whole project started with a private developer who said "This is how we have to do it," and it was approved with no vote, no public process to speak of.
But how do you make sure that a gripping news story, a fascinating political story, translates into compelling theater?
Our company specializes in investigative theater, so we work with a quasi-journalistic approach in compiling interviews and research and translating that into a theatrical staging. It's something we've been doing for 10 years. And the Atlantic Yards story works really well actually as a theater story. It's a story that might be read one way in a newspaper article—as a story of numbers and dollars—but in a theater piece it tells the story of the real people who have been involved with, and affected by, this issue. We also try to touch on all sides of the development, acknowledging the many different perspectives that came to bear.
Well you've certainly got enough tension here to fuel a play. That's a crucial element, yes, tension between the main characters? When it comes to the Atlantic Yards, we're talking heated emotions.
Oh, definitely. What makes this story theatrical and why I thought it would be a good theater piece is that once the Atlantic Yards project was rolled out and essentially announced as a done deal, there was a huge groundswell of opposition from people in the neighborhoods. For the most part, ordinary people who just happened to live in this neighborhood suddenly became full-time activists. Daniel Goldstein was a not a politician or a community organizer; he was just a guy who bought a condo and moved in and thought he had planted himself there for life. But then someone from outside the community tried to take all that away and his whole life changed. I'm not sure if you remembered, but the New York Times
headline that day
was "Goldstein sells out," and it wasn't that at all. It was an eviction. The state took it.
So there certainly is that David vs. Goliath aspect to it all—this strong governor and mayor and borough president and national developer all trying to push this thing through, and kind of a grassroots opposition that had to become increasingly sophisticated very quickly, learning how to fight it both in court and on the street. Add into that the issues of eminent domain and you have all the conflict and drama and complexity you could ever hope for in a play.
Obviously the fact that you're bringing the play back to Fort Greene is ironic and appropriate. I'm sure some of the people who dealt with this in real life will be there in the audience, eager to weigh in. But beyond the struggles of this one neighborhood, it seems as if you're also saying this is a larger Brooklyn vs. Manhattan story. So the Brooklyn venue seems doubly poignant.
I think that's undeniable, that it's a Brooklyn vs. Manhattan issue. This story and controversy never really got the attention or depth in the media that it would have gotten had it happened in Manhattan. Back before we even started this project, there was a time when people were talking about the West Side Stadium
. And I think I heard about that issue every single day—about every side of the issue on every single news broadcast. But with Atlantic Yards, you not only have a stadium but 16 skyscrapers too—and still, it's thought of by many as "that thing going on over there in Brooklyn," where at the end of it all maybe we "go over to a basketball game in that place we're really not sure where it is." But this isn't some faraway land; this is the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush. Anyone who knows Brooklyn knows where that is; it's all of five minutes from Manhattan. And yet somehow it was dismissed as different in the public imagination.
So yes, we're happy to tell this Brooklyn story, just a couple blocks from where it's going to happen. And for a night, we can remember what once was here. What was lost.
(photo credit: The Civilians, Carol Rosegg)