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?
Steven Cosson: 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.