Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama Inaugural Address: National Themes and Atlantic Yards

We recently posted two pieces about the possible appointment of Carolyn Kennedy to the New York senate seat vacant now that Hillary Clinton has been confirmed as Secretary of State. . . (See: Monday, January 12, 2009, The Prospect of Caroline Kennedy as a New York Senator and Wednesday, January 21, 2009, Caroline Kennedy, in Our Defense Against Eminent Domain?: The Way it Might be.) . . That is now no longer possible since Ms. Kennedy abruptly withdrew her name from consideration (See: Kennedy Drops Bid for Clinton’s Senate Seat, Citing Personal Reasons, by Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim, January 21, 2009)

Why Withdraw?

Although Ms. Kennedy cited personal reasons for withdrawing it is not at all clear why exactly she withdrew. It could easily have been as simple as this: Her experiences in pursuing the office could have been driving home just how stressful the conflicts of political ideology and power-struggle agenda can be. . .

. . .Each of our posts on Ms. Kennedy worried over the possible influence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg over Ms. Kennedy. In the most recent we noted Wayne Barrett’s Village Voice piece, Bloomberg Maneuvers to Crown a Kennedy: Who's Caroline's daddy? (January 13th 2009) which makes a strong case that Mr. Bloomberg was hoping Ms. Kennedy will be his pawn.

Our Audacious Hope on a Choice of Influences

We were concerned about Mr. Bloomberg’s possible influence over Ms. Kennedy, but here is what we can point to with hope. This hope is what we were in fact writing when Ms. Kennedy’s withdrawal made news.

Ms. Kennedy’s recent awakening interest in politics appears to date back to her commendably active support for Barack Obama’s campaign for president. (Mr. Barrett is only one of the commentators pointing out that Ms. Kennedy was previously inactive politically.)

It has frequently been pointed out that Mr. Obama’s campaign was special in ways that inspired many who had never been inspired before. We ourselves have unusually high hopes for the new administration: Over and over again Obama is proving himself to be such a high-quality individual that we put extraordinary stock in the possibility that there may be only minimal differences between Mr. Obama and his rhetoric even as dazzling as his words can be and even though we know Mr. Obama to be a real-world politician who will have to deal with many difficult practical political realties. We are engaging in the “audacity of hope.”

We already wrote about the Obama Future (in our first post about Ms. Kennedy), expressing hope that she will follow in the new directions in which we believe he will lead. We could not help but have these thoughts once more as we listened to Mr. Obama’s inauguration speech.

Therefore while we had a fear that Ms. Kennedy would be politically led astray by Mr. Bloomberg, there was hope that she would instead chose to follow Mr. Obama in an entirely different direction and, as we listened to Mr. Obama’s speech, we heard things about direction he told us the nation would be taking that perked up our Noticing New York ears. We set them forth here.

Always the Poster Child: Atlantic Yards

If you need any help interpreting our Noticing New York hopes, we suggest that you hold up against Mr. Obama’s hortatory remarks Mr. Bloomberg’s worst New York City project, the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment, which we and others believe should be generally accepted as the poster child for the very worst of the worst excrescences of government misfunction.

Using the Alantic Yards test, we observe that Mr. Obama seems to envision a better future where with our “eyes fixed on the horizon” we will see no Atlantic Yards.

Below we supply our sampling of President Obama’s words (emphasis supplied). (From the full transcript as prepared for delivery of President Barack Obama's inaugural remarks on Jan. 20, 2009, at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.):

In the words of President Obama:

. . . . That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. . . . Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. . . .
Atlantic Yards is clearly an example of the worst kind of greed, but it is also an example of the kind of irresponsible diversion and misdirection of resources that has crippled our economy.

Yes, the greed is on the part of private developer Forest City Ratner, which wants to monopolistically own over 30 contiguous acres of Brooklyn, and the firm that designed a superdense medgadevelopment to act as the maximum possible subsidy sponge. Perhaps most egregious is Ratner’s proposal that over a billion dollars of public subsidy pay for a basketball arena that would be essentially privately owned by them and in which negligible or no private money would be invested. But the greed is also on the part of politicians like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who take his money for political contributions and for charities they use to help secure their political power. The greed is also on the part of groups like ACORN that negotiate no real benefit from such projects for the public while promoting their own self-enhancing agenda and accepting significant secret money from Ratner.

President Obama. . .

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
Atlantic Yards has not been about delivering honestly-described public benefit. Every step of the way it has been about misdescribing the project and bait-and-switch. What if it had been acknowledged from the very beginning that this project was would involve decades of empty parking lots? (Those empty parking lots are in obeisance to the idea that Ratner should be given monopolistic control over an entire region of Brooklyn and develop it at his leisure.)

And yes, Atlantic Yards is modeled on long-discarded “urban renewal” models. Part of the justifications relied upon to legally argue for Atlantic Yards in court is that it is adjacent to an urban renewal area created 40 years ago. Urban renewal folly was based on dogma that was worn out and discarded decades ago.

President Obama. . .

. . . the time has come to set aside childish things.. .
“Childish” is one word that comes up in Isabel Hill’s “Brooklyn Matters” documentary to describe the proposed Atlantic Yards arena. Specifically the film described the kind of knee-jerk senselessness that wealthy subsidy-collectors like Ratner try to engender from the public so as to take advantage of them in constructing sports stadiums and arenas. It is this childishness that is relied upon for the misplaced focus where public taxpayer resources are diverted to pile subsidies onto already wealthy sport team franchise owners.

President Obama. . .

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
When it comes to real estate development, the Bloomberg administration is always looking to get something for nothing and, not surprisingly, what we ultimately get is nothing as a result. Over and over again the Bloomberg administration has been interested in the short-cut of placing huge tracts of land into the hands single developers without adequate public participation or effective bid. The hole created in the urban fabric by Atlantic Yards is only one example. Other examples of failure are: West Harlem, Coney Island, Willets Point, Hudson Yards, the Moynihan/Penn Station area, and Ground Zero.

The public is the poorer for these abdications of responsibility. To whom then do the pleasure of unfairly created riches go? To the likes of Ratner!

President Obama. . .

. . . But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
Again, what better example of serving a narrow interest can one cite than government’s artificially bequeathing a 30-year, 30+ acre monopoly on the development of prime parts of Brooklyn to Mr. Ratner?

And what should we be doing? It is time to take Atlantic Yards back to the drawing board so that it can be properly designed and properly bid out to multiple qualified developers. It is time to “Start all over again” to quote the lyrics by: Dorothy Fields from the movie Swingtime.*

* (We note that President Obama in his speech was paraphrasing lyrics from “Pick Yourself up” from the 1936 Film (Lyrics by: Dorothy Fields / Music by: Jerome Kern) with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers:

Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again.
BTW: We note that, according to the New York Times, one of Ms. Kennedy’s “more political” books, “A Patriot’s Handbook,” includes lyrics by Irving Berlin. See: In Book World, Caroline Kennedy Is a Powerhouse, by Nicholas Confessore, January 16, 2009.)

President Obama. . .

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. . . .
Atlantic Yards is an example of the kind of big government perversion of the free market that Republicans (Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, Republican when he signed onto it) adore. And although it cross-dresses in social program guise that gives Democrats (Governor Spitzer and Marty Markowitz) cover to hobnob with (and take money from) and specially favor the prosperous subsidy-grabbing Mr. Ratner, the megadevelopment is fundamentally anti-populist, anti-community and an example of top-down thievery that doesn’t work. It is the kind of megaproject whose unwise numbers and expenditures have to be kept secret because they won’t stand up to a public accounting. Rather than brave the “light of day,” Atlantic Yards avoided, rushed through and rigged every public process which stood in its way.

When we want to explain why vital trust has been lost, Atlantic Yards is on the tip of our tongues in blaming our politicians

President Obama. . .

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
We know that this is about the way that the Bill of Rights has been sacrificed in the name of national security. We know that this is foremostly about Guantanamo and unwarranted public surveillance. But it is easily about more. The same Bill of Rights protects against eminent domain abuse. Are we not now too often justifying the stripping away of this amendment’s protections against the seizing of property for careless convenience sake and a willingness to let “majority rule” conceptions trounce the protection that should be afforded individuals? And isn’t it in the end a similarly “false choice,” because aren’t the economics that will serve us best those where we don’t let a subsidy-grabbing Forest City Ratner displace the market’s natural “power to generate wealth and expand freedom”?

Not only are we faced with “false choices,” we are faced with “false boundaries.” Bruce Ratner’s brother Michael, a civil liberties attorney, is famous as the “laudable defender of the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo.” At the same time, as Bruce Ratner’s brother, he is “a part-owner of the [AtlanticYards] Nets, and a contributor to the campaigns of some Brooklyn machine candidates.”

Where is Michael Ratner and where is the New York Times (similarly a Ratner business partner) when it comes to the fight for our other trampled-upon protections under the Bill of Rights? Can life be so easily compartmentalized? Do we not find cognitive dissonance here? Or is it that if you fight for one set of protected rights, you can then make money by trampling on another?

President Obama. . .

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
Really and truly, can Atlantic Yards measure up to traditional values and good citizenship? We hold the answer to be a self-evident and resounding negative.

Speech’s National Themes Are Not a Rorschach Test

Obama’s speech was not unduly long but it was not a short one. You may think that we reacted to it like a Rorschach test, our ears selectively perking up only at what we wanted to hear, but we think the above fairly represents what is most central to the important national themes President Obama spoke of. We also believe that we have confirmation on this. We pay a lot of attention to the New York Times editorial page, both when we agree with them and when we think they are wrong and need to be corrected. After we selected the above quotes and wrote most of the above, we came across the Times editorial on Mr. Obama’s address (Editorial: President Obama, Published: January 20, 2009). We note the Time’s concurrence with us in their selection the quotes that set out Obama’s important themes for the nation, nearly all of which are much the same as our own.

How can it be that the Times and ourselves think so much alike on this and so differently on Atlantic Yards? It could be because the Times has a business partner (Bruce Ratner) that we do not.

Public Service in this Vein Still Possible

One last thing: We know that Ms. Kennedy has withdrawn from consideration for appointment to the senate seat for which she campaigned. Still, having wanted to be of public service and play a greater role in the public dialogue, there is no reason not to continue in this pursuit even though Ms. Kennedy will not now be filling that senate seat. She can still further the ideals Mr. Obama has expressed. When we evaluated as part of what we would do next in our career, and weighed what was the greatest possible public contribution we could make, the answer that came to us was to do our best in joining in the fight to stop Atlantic Yards. Senator or not, this is a course we suggest to Ms. Kennedy.

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