Fans For Fair Play
Challenging Bruce Ratner’s Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Picture 

Men drinking at a bar.

They're miserable.

The year is 1952. The place is Freddy's Bar, at the corner of Dean Street and 6th Avenue, Brooklyn.

The occasion -- another Dodgers World Series loss.

It's the same Freddy's on Dean & 6th that stands in the way of Bruce Ratner's skyscrapers. The same bar. Same window and ceiling and, in the background, the same bathroom. (Thanks to Paul Lukas, Brooklyn's expert on all things ephemeral, who heps us to the photo. Visit his legendary and remarkable UniWatch blog.)

Freddy's serves working people from Prohibition days 'til now. Before the Eighteenth Amendment is repealed, Freddy's is a speakeasy. There is also bowling for a spell. Freddy's is for factory people, including the pressmen from the Daily News plant around the corner -- Freddy's wets striking whistles during the tense 1990 strike. Closer to now, Freddy's is a cop bar. These days, everyone from punk rockers to firefighters to opera singers to local barflies call Freddy's home.

This photo appears in Summer In The City, a nice coffee-table photo book put out by the New York Daily News and written by Daily News columnist Vic Ziegel. The Daily News fails on many levels, but it has the city's best and most forward thinking sports columnists -- Mike Lupica, Filip Bondy, Michael O'Keefe, Lisa Olson, T.J. Quinn, Christian Red.

Those smarts do not extend to the paper's publisher and editors. The publisher is a man whose bloated wealth comes from real estate. The editors, who can know where they get their ideas? Maybe it's powerful types whispering in their impressionable ears.

This isn't a shot at the News' Brooklyn desk reporters, from Deborah Kolben to Jess Wislowski to Elizabeth Hays and Jotham Sederstrom, all of whom have shone what light they can on the Atlantic Yards project.

Still, one thing is clear: the Daily News wants to see Freddy's Bar torn down to make way for Ratner's obscene and wasteful project. Much like the New York Times, the Daily News is a business partner with Bruce Ratner. The paper is in the cross-promotion game with Ratner's Nets basketball team, an enterprise that needs all the promotion it can get.

The Daily News flogs nostalgia to sell papers. More than any other daily in New York, the News flaunts its tenure in this town. "New York's Picture Newspaper" is a slogan evoking a time when running photos in a newspaper is a novel thing. The News often publishes long-running series that remind readers of New York's storied past.

"New York's Picture Newspaper" is notable for something else: half of its papers are sold in Brooklyn (according to someone we know who works at the Daily News). That means they have a pipeline to the borough.

That's why the News' absolute refusal to cover the Ratner debacle is so extraordinarily galling. The sports columnists do a great job -- Lupica and O'Keeffe, especially. But this is a news story, Brooklyn's most colossal, maybe for all time. Brooklyn's biggest-ever building project, and a paper with half of its circulation in the Borough of Churches simply can't be bothered.

But they exploit Brooklyn's past to sell books, and they use it to help Ratner sell his skyscrapers.

So here's Freddy's, fighting like hell for survival, part of a federal lawsuit challenging Pataki's way of beating up regular New Yorkers, being used as sepia fodder in a book about "the golden age of New York baseball."

It's okay for the Daily News' editors to gush over Freddy's as long as it's a tender portrait of yesteryear. But today's Freddy's? Let it die, says the Daily News.

If Freddy's is Saddam, then the News' publisher and editors are beneath the scaffold in skimasks shouting "Ratner! Ratner! Ratner!!!"

Should Freddy's end up shuttered and broken in the insanse rush to match Manhattan skyscraper for skyscraper, then Brooklyn loses.

And the faces of everyone who's ever been to Freddy's look as long and desperate as the men in this frozen sliver of 1952.

The borough, of course, learns about losing by 1952. Losing the World Series, anyway. Brooklyn loses four previous World Series, including the frustrating '41 Classic, in the bag until Dodger catcher Mickey Owens' lets a strikeout pitch go by him and the hated Yankees stay alive.

Brooklyn loses a total of five World Series to the New York Yankees. Even though the Yanks play in the Bronx, they come off like the elite of Manhattan, which itself comes off as the elite of New York City. (The New York Baseball Giants are the only team of the time to play in Manhattan, but they never wield the dangerously sharp edges of the Dodgers and the Yankees.)

There is a serious rub for Brooklyn's baseball faithful when they lose to the Yankees. Even though every Brooklynite says "what do I got to be inferior about?," there is an inferiority complex. It's not Manhattan envy, just knowing what it's like time and again being on the bottom of the pile.

A not-very-big pile, but a pile there for everyone else to see.

Then, the Dodgers move west and the Yankees stay put and the borough starts to come apart at the seams. Although, let us be very clear, the fraying has little to do with a baseball team leaving and everything to do with the city lords shifting the city's economy from manufacturing to servicing big corporations' headquarters, neighborhoods everywhere feeling the pinch, the White Flight, fear and aggro of the '60s, the fiscal crisis of Abe Beame's '70s, Bushwick burning, and AIDS and poverty on a generation-long bender in the '80s.

That, maybe more than a baseball team packing the moving van, is what takes Brooklyn down.

In the '90s, Brooklyn fights back. People in Brooklyn stand up, rebuild, keep fighting. With no help from a Clevelander named Ratner or a Californian named Gehry. Stoop by stoop, block by block, community by community, Brooklyn is back. Finally, all those loses to the New York Yankees are behind us.
Brooklyn no longer feels inferior.

Except, astonishingly, for Marty Markowitz, who starts blubbering into his stroganoff about Manhattan being better than Brooklyn. Markowitz insults his constituents by wringing his hands and kvetching that Brooklyn still operates in Manhattan's shadow. He brings in Ratner to cast shadows over Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. Just to be like Manhattan.

Markowitz doesn't get how great Brooklyn is. He only sees Manhattan's skyscrapers, malls, corporate suites, NBA arena and "world class" architects' guilty pleasures, and cries out that Brooklyn doesn't measure up.

Long after every other Brooklynite puts Manhattan envy to rest for good, only Markowitz still lusts for soulless edificial erections across the East River.

At Freddy's, O'Connors, Mooney's, Frank's, Ruby's, and a thousand other bars, reggae joints, hip-hop clubs, wine bars, cocktail lounges, roller rinks, bowling alleys, dog parks, promenades, soccer fields, handball courts, bodegas, jerk stands, parades, churches, mom'n'pops, playgrounds, corners, docks, graveyards, subway platforms, amusement rides, beaches, picnics, movie theaters, stages, libraries, candy stores, bocce courts and sidewalks, Brooklynites ask ourselves "What the hell is wrong with him?"

But as luck often has it for people in power, others like them can lend a hand. So goes the luck for Markowitz and Ratner, as the city's newspapers all believe Manhattan is the standard by which all urban life is measured.

In particular, it is the Daily News that pimps nostalgia. They sing melancholic songs about grandpa and the mythical New York working man drinking at Freddy's in generations past.

But you?

You get TGIFridays and Houlihans.

Now you know how the men in the photo above feel.

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