The New York Islanders, the Barclays Center, and the politics of sport arenas: Winners and losers in the “Battle for Brooklyn”

The New York Islanders are moving to Brooklyn. When the Islanders faceoff in their first game of the 2014-15 2015-16 NHL season, it will mark an exciting day for the franchise as the team celebrates its move to a new arena in a new part of town. What Islanders players and fans may not know is that the opening faceoff will be taking place on the exact spot where, less than 10 years earlier, former Brooklyn residents lived before being forcibly evicted by the State of New York to allow a billionaire to construct the Barclays Center.

While fans of the Islanders may celebrate the end of constant discussions about the future of the Islanders, and while owner Charles Wang may welcome the possibility of expanding his team’s brand into the hip and gentrifying borough of Brooklyn, it is also important to consider the politics behind this move and the arena that the Islanders will now be calling home. This post examines the history of the Barclays Center, and the social movement of Brooklyn residents who tried, but failed, to save their homes and businesses from being seized to construct the arena, in light of the political significance of professional sport in the borough.

Today’s news that the Islanders will leave Nassau County at the expiration of the team’s 2014-15 arena lease was sudden, if not surprising. For years, the Islanders have been trying unsuccessfully to obtain public funding for a new arena in Nassau Country to replace the aging Nassau Coliseum. Residents clearly did not see the value in subsidizing a professional sport franchise and as a result the Lighthouse Project, Wang’s vision for a new arena and shopping complex, never came to fruition.

Meanwhile, less than 30 miles away from the Islanders home, a new arena was under construction in Brooklyn. The Barclays Center, which opened its doors last month with eight shows by Brooklyn native Jay-Z, is home to the newly relocated Brooklyn Nets of the NBA and has also revitalized boxing spectatorship in the New York borough. Suddenly, there was a clear alternative to the Nassau Coliseum for the Islanders – a move to Brooklyn could potentially increase the fanbase for the team without alienating existing fans by removing the team from New York City entirely.

Heading into 2012, speculation was rampant that the Islanders would eventually make Brooklyn their permanent home. In January, plans were unveiled to have the Islanders faceoff against the New Jersey Devils in a preseason match at the Barclays Center. In March the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) announced that it would hold two regular season games at the arena during the 2012-13 season – could the Islanders allow the KHL to be the arena’s only hockey tenant? This summer, John Imossi of The Hockey Writers penned an article giving a good overview of five key reasons that an Islanders move to Brooklyn was the logical outcome, including Wang’s hesitation to move the team from New York City and the financial windfall the team could expect from the move. Today the move was finalized in press conference featuring Wang, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other notables.

Many of those same notables, including Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, were also present in March two years ago at the groundbreaking for the Barclays Center. As the politicians smiled for the cameras and stuck their ceremonial shovels into the ground, a group of hundreds of residents gathered just outside the construction site to voice their displeasure with the arena. Despite police pressure to evacuate the site, the protesters were loud enough to be heard at the press conference that followed the groundbreaking – a fact that forced Markowitz to dismissively laugh off the protestors as “Knicks fans” displeased that a new New York basketball team was in town.

The groundbreaking protest was the swan song of a nearly decade-long social movement composed of residents who were negatively impacted by the construction of the Barclays Center. Their story is captured in an excellent documentary called Battle for Brooklyn that, in a very timely coincidence, I saw screened yesterday at University of Toronto. Here is the trailer for the film:

The film follows the development of the movement, which fights against the efforts of billionaire and former Nets owner Bruce Ratner to seize a sizeable chunk of land to build the future Barclays Center and a series of commercial and residential buildings – collectively called the Atlantic Yards Project. In order to accomplish this feat, Ratner needed the assistance of the State of New York to seize the land from the private owners who resided and worked there. To do so the State of New York invoked the law of eminent domain, which allows the state to seize private land in order to build public goods (e.g. a highway, a park, etc.). In this instance, the State of New York, with no input from local elected officials, ruled that seizing the privately owned land and transferring it to Ratner was in the public interest because the Atlantic Yards project would bring economic development to the area.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

While the Barclays Center is now open, Battle for Brooklyn documents how little of the other aspects of the Atlantic Yards project have moved forward. Ratner earned the cooperation of politicians and the support of many members of the public because he promised that prosperity would follow in the wake of this project. The film notes that of the 15,000 jobs promised as a result of the project, only a few hundred have materialized (and even fewer have been given to local residents). Meanwhile much of the Atlantic Yards land still lies dormant or is covered in parking lots.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent piece on Grantland a year ago about the politics behind the Atlantic Yards project and the way in which basketball was used as a smoke screen for what is otherwise a massive real estate deal:

Bruce Ratner’s original plan for the Atlantic Yards site called for 16 separate commercial and residential towers and a basketball arena, all designed by the superstar architect Frank Gehry. The development would be home to roughly 15,000 people, cost in excess of $4 billion, total more than eight million square feet, and make his company — by some calculations — as much as $1 billion in profit. To put that in perspective, the original Rockefeller Center — one of the grandest urban developments in American history — was seven million square feet. Ratner wanted to out-Rockefeller the Rockefellers.

Ratner knew this would not be easy. The 14 acres he wanted to raze was a perfectly functional neighborhood, inhabited by taxpaying businesses and homeowners. He needed a political halo, and Ratner’s genius was in understanding how beautifully the Nets could serve that purpose. The minute basketball was involved, Brooklyn’s favorite son — Jay-Z — signed up as a part-owner and full-time booster. Brooklyn’s borough president began publicly fantasizing about what a professional sports team would mean for his community. The Mayor’s office, then actively pursuing an Olympic bid, loved the idea of a new arena in Brooklyn. . . . Ratner was restoring the sporting glory lost when the Dodgers fled for Los Angeles.

Battle for Brooklyn documents much of the political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes work that allowed Ratner to score his coveted land deal. I highly recommend the film as an example of how corrupt practices can plague urban planning and a study in the ways that powerful corporate interests can manipulate politics at the expense of the “little guy.” For the purposes of this discussion, I now want to focus on the point made by Gladwell about the role of sport, including now the Islanders, in the heavily politicized repositioning and reimaging of Brooklyn.

Professional sport teams have long been viewed by powerful municipal interests as a symbol of a city’s prosperity and status. In Canada, NHL and Canadian Hockey League teams have historically been held up civic boosters as necessary for the image of particular cities. As Richard Gruneau and David Whitson note in their excellent book Hockey Night in Canada:

“Major league” professional hockey teams have been part of an expansive world of commercial entertainments that help to constitute “modern” urban culture. . . . Civic builders from Montreal to Vancouver saw successful pro hockey teams and large arenas as assets that could attract continent-wide media attention to their cities and advertize them as dynamic, modern places with local economies that invite investment.[1]

Evidence of this continuing trend can be seen in the controversy over publicly funding a new Edmonton Oilers arena or the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg in the form of the Jets 2.0. While hockey does not hold the same cultural resonance in most parts of the United States as it does in Canada, it is nonetheless a prominent sport and commercial product that can symbolize, for some people, “major league” status in a city.

Battle for Brooklyn certainly makes clear the way in which the NBA’s Nets served this function in Brooklyn. Borough President Markozwitz is particularly outspoken about the need for Brooklyn to have a “world class” stadium and about the restoration of Brooklyn’s pride, seemingly shattered when the Dodgers baseball team left for Los Angeles in 1958, that a pro sports team would bring to the borough. There is a strong whiff of Brooklyn exceptionalism in Markowitz’s rhetoric – at one point in the film he calls Brooklyn “the fourth largest city in America” – and this seems to fuel an underdog desire to see Brooklyn compete with the more affluent neighbouring borough of Manhattan.

This sense of Brooklyn pride is highlighted in another Grantland piece, this one by Rembert Browne, about the marketing of the new Brooklyn Nets. Browne describes the chip-on-its-shoulder mentality of Brooklyn and the ways in which Nets marketing places the borough, rather than the basketball team, at the heart of its marketing:

This offseason was crucial to solidifying a roster, but it was also the make-or-break time for the franchise to get the borough on its back. At times, this seemed like an insurmountable task, but somewhere along the line it became clear that the way to achieve this goal was to stare the people square in the face. It had to stop being about the Nets. The sole focus had to be on Brooklyn. BROOKLYN.

It is not hard to see the Islanders fitting nicely into this vision of Brooklyn as a “world class” city in its own right, one that may be grittier and less famous than its glitzy neighbour Manhattan, but one that nonetheless stands alone as a unique urban centre – and one that can match Manhattan’s Knicks on the basketball court and, now, its Rangers on the ice. The Islanders, as the Nets have already done, will help legitimatethe vision of powerful figures, such as Markowitz, of Brooklyn as (to paraphrase Gruneau and Whitson) a “dynamic, modern place with a local economy that invites investment.” While the teams may well generate civic pride amongst many Brooklyn residents, such sentiment obscures the political machinations that facilitated their moves to the borough as well as the losers in this political and economic chess game – namely, the mostly poor and racial minority residents who were evicted in order to pave the way for Ratner to build the very arena that is home to these pro sport franchises; and the many New Yorkers whose lives could have benefited from municipal investment in social services rather than sweetheart real estate deals to billionaires.

Battle for Brooklyn contains a clip of Mayor Bloomberg speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center. The mayor asserts a view of the project as a natural progression in the development of New York City and as an inherently beneficial development to the city. He also dismissively acknowledges the efforts of residents to halt the Atlantic Yards project, noting that:

“Nobody’s going to remember how long it took. They’re only going to look and see that it was done.”

Bloomberg’s statement is not only incredibly insulting to the former residents of the Atlantic Yards, it also speaks to the way in which powerful interests can write their own versions of history. Thankfully the stories of some of those residents, who in Bloomberg’s narrative are completely swept aside, live on in the collective memory of many Brooklyn residents and in texts such as Battle for Brooklyn.

These marginalized voices will not feature prominently when the Islanders faceoff at their new home in 2014-15 2015-16. But I hope that, amidst the glitz and glamour of opening night at the Barclays Center, at least some hockey fans spare a thought for the history of the building, the politics behind its construction, and the unsuccessful social struggle of dedicated residents who have been forcibly dispersed to other parts of the city.

[1] Richard Gruneau & David Whitson, Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics, p. 211.


9 thoughts on “The New York Islanders, the Barclays Center, and the politics of sport arenas: Winners and losers in the “Battle for Brooklyn”

  1. Will definitely have to check out this documentary!

    I’m glad to see the social ramifications of proposed arenas and stadiums being researched. Definitely provides a more human take, rather than the business consultant papers that I’ve come across.

    Just wanted to add that the Edmonton arena may not be knocking down any existing homes/businesses, but it will definitely have an impact on the homeless in the area. Also impacted will be the social service programs in and around the proposed site. I can’t imagine it being affordable for agencies that are designed to help the homeless to stay in and around the area.

  2. Yeah the Edmonton case is also really interesting. I did not know about the neighbourhood impact issue. Very sad that social services will be displaced and homeless people will be moved away. I doubt that human factor is included in any cost benefit analyses about the arena.

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