September 12, 2009

Evan Thies for New York City Council

Evan Thies, candidate for the 33rd city council district

There are seven people running in the Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council that has a tradition of being a political hot seat. That may have something to do with the fact that the 33rd councilmanic district takes in both the brownstone south and the industrial north of that part of Brooklyn that you usually see in the movies.

The two parts of this district are culturally and geographically separate. The south part includes the leafy warrens of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and other brownstone neighborhoods. The north part is an area of industry, tenement buildings, and traditionally working class town houses.

The two reaches of this council district are connected by a narrow strip of waterfront, where there is a long-standing restaurant called Giando's. Years ago, I stood on the patio of that restaurant with Ken Fisher, who was the councilman at the time. We talked about development. Giando's had hosted a presentation by the local community board for a housing development on the Williamsburg waterfront. Already, waterfront development had become the subject of a viscous firefight among several factions in the neighborhood.

The Williamsburg waterfront at that time was still a magnificent wilderness of rust. Valleys of surreal industrial jungle were interspersed with the huge gaping caves of empty warehouses. It was an apocalyptic landscape of dense industry in the process of being reclaimed by nature. And it was in this environment that the first big wave of badass college kids in the neighborhood took up what had been a tradition among badass local kids — the warehouse party! Our parties were probably more self-consciously Nietzschean in conception than those of the Brooklyn gangs of the 1970s. But then again, maybe not. You never know. That was the joy and the mystery of it all. One thing is for sure, though, they were better publicized.

If the artists hold some responsibility for gentrification and the ridiculous piles of crap that now stand empty all over Williamsburg — and look like they were airlifted in from Boca Raton — at the very least we can say this: We did gentrification better, and our vision was better. It was during a recession in the early 90s that artists filled the empty warehouses, lofts, and storefronts of Williamsburg with myriad forms of activity.

Today, the real estate developers have botched the game. They have not held up their end of the gentrification bargain, have they now. They have blown who knows how much carbon into the atmosphere, and now they can't sell their pathetic cubicles of sheetrock. Their excuse is the economy. But in the artists' manual, that is a wimpy excuse. It speaks to a lack of imagination. And development in Williamsburg has been anything but imaginative.

We are accustomed to viewing artist culture as a prelude and a part of real estate development, where there is a trajectory from art to real estate. But that model comes into question now. Hipster-bohemian culture continues to expand and evolve in all kinds of ways into Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Bushwick. New condo development, on the other hand, not only stagnates, but it is also out of key with the vernacular of both the bohemian and the local culture. Why would you want to move to industrial, gritty, cool Brooklyn, to live like a piece of chatska in a display window? It is not just that the economy is slamming the developers, it's that the developers don't "get it." Their product is fundamentally unhip, in a market that demands hepitude.

It speaks, in other words, to a lack of vision. And this goes for the drones in city government as well, who for decades have systematically ignored the community and kissed up to real estate interests. The result is crap-shoot development. "City planning" in this picture amounts to little more than some landscaping for the high rises on the waterfront. Well, the city and its clients have made their bed and they can sleep in it. They wanted in and out, fast, and they got snagged. Too bad. So much for a fast buck. But worse, they have left nothing interesting, nothing of substance, nothing sustainable, nothing of enduring value to the community.

On September 15th I will vote for Evan Thies in the city council primaries. I believe he is earnest about responsible development in Brooklyn. Thies would also represent downtown Brooklyn, where a major sweetheart deal between the city and a big developer has also stalled on account of a bad economy and a dim vision.

To be sure, the Atlantic Yards area near downtown Brooklyn should be developed. It is presently a fallow holding lot for subway cars. ("It's embarrassing," said one Thies campaign worker.) But the plan that has been force fed to the community is tone deaf. The idea for a Major League basketball arena, for example, is seated in the nostalgia of a few old men. They want to recreate an Ebbets Field, bring back the Dodgers, whatever. It is not where Brooklyn is going. Better to have skateboard ramps and boxing rings.

Moreover, the properties around Atlantic Yards should not be sold off at a fraction of their market value. This cheats the people of New York City. Evan Thies thinks the plan is illegal and he is considering suing the city on that account. Thies wants to put the Atlantic Yards properties up for public auction, piece by piece, and look at a variety of ideas from the real world, and "See what we get."

My assessment of Thies is guided in part by the old maxim of judging the people around the man. There is a strong component of New Brooklyn here, untainted by the kind of cloying patter that so frequently dampens politics in this borough, on the left and the right. There is just something fresh about this candidate.