Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A New York Magazine “Best Bet”: The Brooklyn Museum Offers Its Love Of Brownstone Neighborhoods, The Savaging Of Which It Lauded

Left, Claudia Pearson illustrations featured in Brooklyn Museum gift shop.  Right, townhouses and Freddy's Bar torn down for Atlantic Yards- Click on any image to enlarge
During a ten-year stretch roughly coinciding with the Great Depression, Universal Studios gave us a golden era of monsters: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and werewolves as in the Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941).  You might also consider including The Phantom of the Opera with two principal release dates framing that decade (1925 for the original and a remake in 1943).  The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde films, with versions made in 1931 and 1941, although in a similar vein, was not from Universal, produced by two other studios, Paramount and MGM, respectively.

The fun thing about the monsters was that each came packaged with some hokum mythology not necessarily genuinely derived from classic source material.  It was useful if the framework of the mythology was also serviceable for setting up damsel-in-distress scenarios.  One such myth that served very well in this regard was the curse afflicting the cinema werewolves: That when they transformed they were compelled to try to kill the things they loved most.

Why was I thinking about this old horror film trope about werewolves?  Because, reading New York Magazine’s “Best Bets” column I discovered that the Brooklyn Museum is selling in its gift shop tea towels celebrating the charm of brownstone Brooklyn designed by illustrator Claudia Pearson.  According to New York Magazine, Ms. Pearson is “Clinton Hill–based” and “drew inspiration from her surroundings” when she designed these towels.  Presumably they are sold in the Brooklyn Museum in partial acknowledgment of the museum’s own  “Prospect Heights” address and by way of making a statement of its oneness with a community comprised of and valuing what is being depicted.
New York Magazine's "Best Bets" feature

Claudia Pearson tea towels from New York Magazine website
Rummaging around the internet I discovered that the Brooklyn Museum shop also sells a “Brooklyn Brownstone Mug” similarly designed by Ms. Pearson.
Claudia Pearson's Brooklyn Brownstone Mug
The not so humorous irony in all of this is that these same Brooklyn brownstone neighborhoods the museum is celebrating in its gift shop are beset by the prospect of some significant destruction and dismantling, with portions even being removed from the Brooklyn map altogether.  The vortex around which this destruction swirls is Atlantic Yards, the heavily subsidized corporatizing eminent domain takeover a significant swath of Brooklyn by which Forest City Ratner is increasing its mega-monpoly stranglehold on the borough’s assets.  Ms. Pearson’s Clinton Hill brownstone neighborhood, together with the Brooklyn Museum’s Prospect Heights brownstone neighborhood, both border the Atlantic Yards site footprint along with the other significant brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill.

Going to the Brooklyn Museum's gift shop online we see how prominently Ms. Pearson's brownstone Brooklyn work is being featured
For all its negative implications for these neighborhoods and for the rest of the city’s population, Atlantic Yards was something the Brooklyn Museum, itself, helped to promote and bring about when, with key approvals hanging in the balance without which the mega-project could not have proceeded, the Brooklyn Museum decided to give a special award honoring Bruce Ratner, the head of the Forest City Ratner, the developer/subsidy collection firm responsible for it.  In theory, the giving of the museum’s Augustus Graham award to Ratner was to signify that Ratner embodied, as a man, the praiseworthy attributes of community service and selflessness, something quite the opposite of what the Atlantic Yards project has truly been all about.

If the museum’s award honoring Ratner didn’t itself tip the balance toward Ratner’s obtaining the approvals needed, it certainly combined to exert influence with the things that did.   The museum’s award to Ratner was publicly protested (with Ratner being characterized as a “vampire” among other things) but the museum has never apologized to the communities of Brooklyn for what it did.  While the error of making the award should have been obvious at the time, that was before the mega-project significantly degenerated, and more and more underlying negative facts about it got publicly disclosed.  (Abbreviating the list: The mega-project is now receiving much more subsidy than before, its design has been cheapened, unions have been double-crossed, the passage of time steadily exposes the sham and folly of the community benefit agreement signing and endorsements, the time frame for its build-out will be decades- perhaps forty years- not the ten years first advertised.  And then there was the way that rightfully or wrongly Ratner skirted indictments when implicated in investigations.) . . .

. . . Notwithstanding that the negatives of the situation have become much more conspicuously abject, the Brooklyn Museum still has not issued an apology to the community or sought to reverse the travesty of its award to Ratner by reclaiming or renouncing it.

Is there a way that the effect of the museum now honoring brownstone Brooklyn could be more starkly startling?. . . . Ms. Pearson could design and the museum could sell in its gift shop, products (see below), tea towels and coffee mugs that depict Freddy’s Bar and Grill and the little nearby townhouses torn down to create the so-called “Barclays” arena and the now empty acres and parking lots Ratner owns around it.  Maybe that would also be more appropriate in that the museum, as with its dusty old linen-wrapped mummies, often focuses on educating the public about what was and is now no more.

Should the Brooklyn Brownstone mugs in the museum shop show townhouses in the process of demolition like the ones below?
The Tracy Collins photos above that appeared in Atlantic Yards Report show the demolition of Dean Street townhouses before it was clear the land would ever be used for the Ratner project.  Land on which they were sited is still vacant.
With an image of the now demolished 489 Dean Street derived from a Tracy Collins photograph, the kind of "Brownstone Brooklyn" coffee mugs the Brooklyn Museum could be selling
A Freddy's Bar Mug?
Tea towels that feature the buildings next to Freddy's that were torn down (from a Tracy Collins photograph)
If the Brooklyn Museum, set up as a charitable organization to serve the public, actually values Brooklyn and its brownstone neighborhoods, what was it that caused the lycanthropic transmogrification whereby it howled harmonizing tones of praise and support for Ratner as he wolfishly prepared to devour more of Brooklyn and its brownstone acres into his increasingly gargantuan government-supported mega-monopoly?  The elixir that brought about that transformation was money.  Despite what the museum’s Augustus Graham award is supposed to honor, Ratner was not honored for what he had done for the community: He was honored for the money he had given to the museum that had gotten his people placed on the museum’s board of trustees.

Sometimes the idea that one kills the thing one loves is explored as a concept with serious real ramifications that are to be studied.  Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist observer and thinker who wrote “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” explored in that book a sort of `killing the goose that laid the golden egg’ concern in an urban planning context: She wrote (p. 246*) that the benefits of a diverse economy can be killed off by a rush of businesses coming in to take advantage of an “enviable location” so that the “enviable location” thereby ceases to exist.  Or, alternatively, in another context, you can find theories that “killing the thing you love” is a beastly symptom of the alpha male urge to dominate at all costs.
(* “. . . .making the same mistakes as a family I know who bought an acre in the country on which to build a house. For many years, while they lacked the money to build, they visited the site regularly and picnicked on a knoll, the site’s most attractive feature. They liked so much to visualize themselves as always there, that when they finally built they put the house on the knoll. But then the knoll was gone. Somehow they had not realized they would destroy it and lose it by supplanting it with themselves.”)
The situation with the still unapologetic Brooklyn Museum is neither of these.  Although it’s a damsel-in-distress scenario with the public and Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods in jeopardy and although the treacherous peril of this world becomes all the more frighteningly dangerous when that damsel’s self-proclaimed lover suddenly reveals a sinister face that is opposite to that mild and friendly one that has been shown before, the elixir that provokes that Jekyll and Hyde transformation here is simply money and there is no real magic or mystery to the transformation. It is simply the hypocrisy that money can so readily buy.

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