Thursday, January 05, 2006


"I get mine and they get theirs": hard truths on development deals from playwright August Wilson

Supporters say the Community Benefits Agreement Forest City Ratner signed with eight local groups gives black Brooklynites, including black businesses and professionals, a seat at the table regarding Atlantic Yards. They call it an important step, even if it's "not the best CBA we could have". Critics, however, say the CBA isn't legitimate, noting that only two of the signatories were incorporated at the time, and the low-income group ACORN has recently been severely criticized by some progressives. But behind the support is calculation, and historical anguish, often not vented publicly.

Or you can go to August Wilson, the great American playwright (1945-2005), who finished his one-a-decade cycle of plays set in Pittsburgh's African-American Hill District with his 1990s play, Radio Golf, which debuted earlier this year.

The Hill District is just minutes from downtown; in this play, some black entrepreneurs are planning a federally-funded redevelopment project that will proceed as long as the city determines the neighborhood "blighted" and agrees to knock down houses blocking a new apartment building and national chain stores.Now that's not a direct parallel to Atlantic Yards--residents in the proposed Brooklyn project footprint range from rent-stabilized to much better off, of various ethnicities; Prospect Heights has been gentrifying on its own; developer Forest City Ratner says that, unlike in its malls, chain stores won't be the priority for the project's relatively small retail component. Still, emotional and conceptual resonances remain, especially since several signatories of the Community Benefits Agreement stand to benefit themselves from the project, and some have already done so.

Setting the scene

In one scene early in the play (which appears in the November 2005 issue of American Theatre), real estate developer Harmond Wilks, a candidate for mayor, and his friend and business partner, bank VP Roosevelt Hicks, discuss local powerbroker Bernie Smith's invitation to Roosevelt to join in buying in a local radio station. (The image above is from the production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; the one below is from the Seattle Rep production.) Consider Smith a local version of Forest City Ratner president Bruce Ratner.

Harmond: Why's Bernie want to partner with you? What's he get out of this?

Roosevelt: We'll be able to buy the radio station for two-thirds of what it's worth. We buy it at that undervalued price and right out of the gate we're ahead making money.

Harmond: That doesn't make any sense. Why would the owner of the station sellit to you for less than he knows that it's worth. Is the station in debt?

Roosevelt: The seller of the station gets to defer a large portion of his capital-gains taxes by taking advantage of the FCC's Minority Tax Certificate. It's an advantage for him and an advantage for us.

Harmond: So you're the black face? You're just the front?

Roosevelt: Naw, Harmond. Naw. I get to get in the door. Remember in school we used to say we wanted to be in the room when they count the money? You're there already. This is my shot.

Harmond: You'll get in the room. All it takes is some time. You can't let Bernie Smith use you like this.

Roosevelt: This is how you do it! This is how everybody does it. You don't think Mellon has ever been used? We're talking about an eight million dollar radio station! This is the game! I'm at the table! There was a time they didn't let any blacks at the table. You opened the door. You shined the shoes. You served the drinks. And they went in the room and made the deal. I'm in the room! Them motherfuckers who bought and traded them railroads... how do you think they did it? This is business. This is the way it's done in America. I get to walk away with a piece of an asset worth eight million dollars. I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs. I pull this off and next time I'm on the other side of the deal, sitting at the head of the table. Right now I'm sitting here. I'd rather that than to be sitting on the other side of the door. Harmond, I have to take this. This is not going to come along again. The window of opportunity is already starting to close. If I don't do this Bernie will get somebody else.

Hard truths

The key line here is: I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs. That's the question facing local leaders, especially black leaders, and it's not an easy one. Some, like state Assemblyman Roger Green, have chosen to endorse the Forest City Ratner project, calculating that the jobs and affordable housing, however few in comparison to the total project cost and original promises, are still worth delivering to his constituency. (Likely this would be an accomplishment cited in his putative Congressional candicacy.) Columnist Errol Louis, without attempting to assess the public costs of the project, attacks opponents of Atlantic Yards [for having] demonstrated that they couldn’t care less about black businesses or black economic empowerment in Brooklyn or anywhere else.

Others may look at the broader public interest and, like City Council Member Letitia James, declare themselves "unbought and unbossed", quoting the late Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. Similar calculations likely have been made by the Revs. Herbert Daughtry and Al Sharpton, who support the project, while a larger group led by local clergy, the Downtown Brooklyn Leadership Coalition, opposes the project. Note that Daughtry asserted to the Brooklyn Papers that the DBLC rejected a "good faith" effort by Ratner.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks interviewed Wilson in the November 2005 edition of American Theatre magazine. Parks asked Wilson about a metaphor in the play, concerning an old house that would have to be demolished for the project, that also speaks to his playwriting.

Parks: I wonder about the architecture, the renovation in the Hill District in Radio Golf, and the structure of the play. Were they ever at odds? Like, you've got the architecture of the play which has certain demands—and then there's that moment about bread pudding. It's this beautiful digression. That's not part of the traditional structure of a play, kind of like the house on Wylie Avenue, the remnant of something old and powerful. But somehow you have found a place for it. Was the subject matter of Radio Golf ever at odds with what the play has to do?

Wilson: I hope not. I certainly don't think so. For me it had to have a certain smoothness, a different kind of language, like that of my characters Harmond and Roosevelt—but at the same time, we're talking about a 100-year history. So the bread pudding is simply representative of some of those houses that are still standing—the old way, the parts of the community that we're giving up. Miss Harriet, the fried chicken—these are all the things that were part of this Pittsburgh community that are being changed because of this slickness with the new building and Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods and Starbucks, simply to entice middle-class people to move back to the Hill, which is only a four-minute walk from downtown. That's prime real estate, and now what you've got is this slum sitting here. Now if we can get black and white people to move back into this area, we will have reclaimed this prime real estate for a better use. But the bread pudding is saying, "Wait a minute, there's a history here and it doesn't fit in with you guys' stuff." The bread pudding is not part of the traditional structure of the play, but it's part of the structure of this particular community backed up against change.

The New York Times didn't love the play (as produced in New Haven), but in a review published 4/30/05 suggested that it might evolve in future productions. The Los Angeles production got more praise, though Wilson, ill with cancer, probably couldn't tweak the play much. (He died on 10/2/05.)

For those visiting Seattle, it's playing there from January 19 to February 18 of 2006. It likely will come to New York. Even if it does play on Broadway, perhaps the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)--just around the corner from the proposed Atlantic Yards--could also host a production. (By the way, Bruce Ratner has been a BAM Trustee since 1989 and was the Chairman from 1992 until 2001.) It certainly would have both local and national resonance.

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