Jonathan Lethem Protests Frank Gehry Building in Brooklyn

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.

5 Responses

  1. Litkicks’ Brooklyn
    Litkicks’ Brooklyn Nominated

    Litkicks’ Brooklyn should be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Foundation Genius Grant alone for the articles on this blog, non-inclusive of the other completed projects. How long will you hide your light under a bushel?

  2. Ha, well, thanks, Warren. I
    Ha, well, thanks, Warren. I keep waiting for the MacArthur Foundation to call.

  3. Urban Design, Anyone?I’m glad
    Urban Design, Anyone?

    I’m glad you opened with the admission that you are a person who sneers at other people’s accomplishments. It puts your entire screed into perspective. I’m also glad that you have (surprisingly!) judged yourself to have given Lethem’s letter a fair read: there are few individuals who would so selflessly compliment their own judgment this way. Good for you!

    Do you live in Brooklyn? Specifically, do you live in Prospect Heights, Ft. Greene, Park Slope or Boerum Hill? (FYI, Pineapple Street and Pierpont Street are in Brooklyn Heights, over a mile away from this proposed development, which anyone with any knowledge of Brooklyn would know.) Oh, that’s right, you live in Rego Park, Queens! (which is an absolutely nice neighborhood that would only be improved by a Scary Ghery-opolis, so I’m a little puzzled by all your sour-grapes about Lethem’s good fortune in living in Brooklyn. Or is it the sour grapes about the Macarther grant? Whatever, those grapes are pretty sour!) I’m just wondering what about your perspective allows you to make pronouncements. I’m sure you’re as well informed as Lethem, so you must have at least as many years as a resident as he does. And I’m sure you have completely researched the proposed development and must have a degree in urban planning to make your definitive assertions. But as you admit, you do not live anywhere close to this proposed development and somehow I suspect you do not know anything about urban design.

    “…a quiet paradise for millionaires, which is what the neighborhoods that surround downtown Brooklyn are now.” Do you know what the median income is in the area around this proposed idiocy? Well of course you don’t! That would take a little work to research and it’s so much more convenient to spout sendentiously, isnt’ it? The median family income for a family of four is $52,605. Yes, there are wealthier people, but they are very rare. And keep in mind that figure is the median income: think about how that figure gets skewed upwards by the presence of those few rich people. Then think about what Ratner is proposing: at least 4500 units for upper income households (your millionaires!) with the poor people pushed out. I agree with you that “Brooklyn was never designed to be a quiet paradise for millionaires…” So why are you in favor of a project that is designed to accomplish exactly that?

    “Skyscrapers are what happen to cities.” Travel a little, why don’t you. Been to Paris much? How about Berlin? Or London outside the ‘New City”? How about Beijing? Or Copenhagen? Or Rome? Or Vienna? Skyscrapers are what happen to cities that don’t protect themselves. Towers have to make sense in an environmental context as well as an urban engineering context, and as the recent Municipal Arts Society paper on the Atlantic Yards makes clear, this project simply fails on all counts.

    “Metrotech is just fine.” Well that about says it all. And leisure suits are haute couture.

    Overall your article would be much improved if you had done some research, exercised a little more thought, and a little less green-eyed monster about Jonathan Lethem.

  4. Joe — I did give the article
    Joe — I did give the article a fair read. As you noted, I stated upfront that I am not a fan of JL’s books, because this fact might be considered relevant to my evaluation. I think I handled this right — not sure what you think I am handling wrong, in terms of impartiality.

    I did not set out to write a rant, and I did not use phrases like “which anyone with any knowledge of Brooklyn would know”. But, since you started, I’ll mention that it’s Pierrepont Street, not Pierpont Street. Which anyone with any knowledge of Brooklyn should … ahh, you get it.

    The sour grapes think re: the MacArthur grant was just a joke.

    I think you make good points about Paris and Copenhagen and other European cities that don’t favor skyscrapers. However … this is Brooklyn, and this is the U.S.A. The art of architecture involves matching a city’s personality and public image, and in my opinion the Gehry proposal is loud, chaotic and disjointed (Lethem’s comparison to the film ‘Renaldo and Clara’ is apt here), and this matches Brooklyn’s personality.

    Your response didn’t address my central point, though, which is that Brooklyn has in the 20th Century lost its identity as a destination and a core of commercial/social activity. It’s become a suburb of Manhattan, and this proposal is meant to reverse this. It’s an ambitious project designed to make a big difference in Brooklyn’s identity and self-image. I’m not suggesting that we roll over and let real estate developers do whatever they want with our cities. I am suggesting that this particular proposal is a good and exciting one.

  5. good showI welcome
    good show

    I welcome SmithBrotherJoe’s comments, not because I agree with them or not, or even care anything about them. But I am very impressed that you publish them. It takes a true journalist to publish comments that are so vociferously, personally, and rudely in disagreement with one’s own point of view.

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