Since I’ve been known to sneer at the work of novelist Jonathan Lethem, one might think I’d automatically disagree with a strong position he takes in a just-published Salon article (via Bookslut) about a major new architectural development in Brooklyn, New York.
In fact, I gave Lethem’s open letter to Frank Gehry a fair read — and I disagree with him, not automatically but completely nonetheless. He is concerned about a loud, ambitious new real estate project designed to change the landscape of downtown Brooklyn. Lethem thinks it’s a bad idea and wants the acclaimed architect to pull out. Not in my backyard, huh, Lethem?
Brooklyn was never designed to be a quiet paradise for millionaires, which is what the neighborhoods that surround downtown Brooklyn are now. Brooklyn is a city, and skyscrapers are what happens to cities. We can only hope that the skyscrapers turn out to be good ones, and since Frank Gehry happens to be the most exciting architect in the world (the amazing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is his signature work) I think this new project might turn out quite well. The fact that it includes a major sports arena won’t hurt Brooklyn’s pride (or it’s economy) either.
Until just over a century ago, Brooklyn was a separate city from New York (the five boroughs of New York City did not combine until 1898). Downtown Brooklyn was once a top commercial and social center with its own daily newspapers, its own theatre district, its own baseball team. It competed for business and attention (and usually lost) with “New York”, which was the name of the larger city across the river, at the lower tip of Manhattan Island. Midtown Manhattan gradually began to supplant lower Manhattan as the center of the New York metropolis, and as the city’s commercial core shifted north away from the bay and the harbors, Brooklyn faded from predominance. Downtown Brooklyn has since struggled to find its identity: as a site for cheap warehouse and factory space, a strip mall of government buildings and cheap clothing stores, a locale for Spike Lee movies. The homey neighborhoods around the downtown streets, meanwhile, have become wealthier and wealthier as Manhattan commuters continue to convert former slums into expensive co-ops.
My grandparents and parents were raised in Flatbush, Stuyvesant, Borough Park. Ironically, I live in Rego Park, Queens now. I can’t afford to live in Brooklyn, unlike Jonathan Lethem (but then I didn’t win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, did I?). I go down to Montague Street and Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade all the time, though, and I’d like to live there if I could. I wouldn’t mind a big Frank Gehry building as a neighbor either.
I somehow think the precious rows of brownstones that Jonathan Lethem loves so dearly — with their quaint names like Pineapple Street and Pierrepont Street and their flower gardens and cozy corner cafes and their $2,000,000 plus price tags — will survive Frank Gehry too. The project is designed to increase Brooklyn’s visibility as a destination and a commercial core, rather than a residential suburb of Manhattan. We should not support this blindly — but we should not reject it blindly either.
Lethem’s article (which is not badly written — I like phrases like “a gang of 16 towers”) lists seven points against the continuation of the Frank Gehry/Bruce Ratner project, which I would like to briefly address, one by one.
1. Okay, so one of the buildings will be really big. Again, that’s what skyscrapers generally are. That’s sort of the whole idea.
2. I’m not convinced there’s a smoking gun here. So the Ratner firm printed up some cheezy brochures. They are in the real estate business, after all. Brochures aren’t usually expected to uphold high editorial standards.
3. MetroTech is just fine.
4. “What’s saddest is how this lousy proposal exploits Brooklyn’s residual low self-esteem, its hangover of inferiority. Does anyone doubt that in Manhattan such a thing would be shot down in a hot minute?” Umm … again, Frank Gehry is the most original architect in the world. Lethem points to mockups and design projections that make the building look shoddy, but it seems these specific illustrations were chosen to serve that purpose. I challenge Jonathan Lethem to look into Frank Gehry’s catalog and find examples of buildings Gehry has done that have not improved their surroundings.
5. Okay, I’ll give Lethem that one. Eminent domain does not sound fair. However, this has always been a necessary part of urban planning.
6. Oh my god, whatever! We all love the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, Jonathan. The tower will be just fine with its new neighbor. Maybe they will even play together.
7. It figures that Lethem disses one of my favorite movies, Renaldo and Clara. What can I say? I just don’t see eye to eye with this guy on anything.
At least Lethem’s article keeps a lively pace and stakes a strong opinion. I think it’s a better read than The Fortress of Solitude.