The Generalist

Photo by Jason Bergman

The Generalist

Robert Sullivan, a journalist and writer who also served as a contributing editor at Vogue for many years, also happens to be an expert on development in South Brooklyn. (Though he doesn’t tout himself as such, we asked other Brooklyn historians, who suggested we talk to him.) We met at D’Amico Foods in Cobble Hill and, surrounded by canisters of coffee beans, discussed the Fulton Mall, Forest City Ratner, acting like dog owners, and everything in between.

You’ve written about everything — the New Jersey Meadowlands, a 117-year old piece of cheese, Thoreau, subway rats — and for everyone, including Vogue, New York magazine and the New Yorker. Your most recent book, My American Revolution, follows your adventures tracing Revolutionary war history through the former middle colonies, like New York and New Jersey. What’s the connective thread? What lets you know you have a subject?

All my books are about the mundane and our everyday ecology. My American Revolution is about seeing history in a landscape. In The Thoreau You Don’t Know, I focused on Thoreau as a champion of seeing. The rat is a creature that only lives where people are; if you want to write a nature book like Rats, you’re really writing a nature book about people and cities. It’s all the same exact thing.

I read your essay “A Windstorm in Downtown Brooklyn,” and was struck by how incisive and delicate the details are, how much respect is paid to street life in the borough. Tell me about your relationship with Brooklyn.

My father grew up in Flatbush and moved, very quickly, to “the country” — Queens. There were still farms there when I was growing up. I moved to Brooklyn in the ’80s, moved to Oregon, and came back to Fulton Mall in 2000. New York just has so many people in it, and coming back from Oregon I was especially surprised. I started going around looking for those places where everyone shows up, like Fordham Road in the Bronx and Queens Boulevard. Fulton Mall is that to the 19th-power, because every subway line goes there, and the state and federal office buildings have been there forever. It’s an awesome place.

What initially attracted you to the Fulton Mall neighborhood?

It’s the downtown of Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a huge city and it felt a lot like downtown Manhattan. So many different kinds of people were there. You could get a good deal and a cheap lunch. A large number of people could participate in the place; it wasn’t owned by a single corporation, like a campus. It was an intersection at which everything popped and happened.

If Brooklyn was removed from the rest of New York City, it would be the fourth-largest city in the United States. But most reporting on Brooklyn is one-dimensional; it makes it seem like Brooklyn is the suburbs.

In the 1990s, I wrote a book about the Meadowlands in New Jersey. I thought a lot about industrial ruin and landscapes that people consider blighted by disused factories and old office buildings. Of course in the 1970s, we thought the city was dead, gone, done. It was bad enough that Manhattan couldn’t get started again because of the economy, but in Brooklyn in the 1960s there were riots. A large number of people gave up on the city and moved to the suburbs in search of a different aesthetic ideal. That started to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when more people decided that cities actually had some value. You started to see old buildings being renovated and artists coming in. People were attracted to the place again; it was wonderful.

The problem is that there was another story going on at the same time, and that’s that a lot of people valued the city in the time that it was abandoned by those other people. In the 1970s, when many left, there were many people still living here that did not give up on the city. They did not receive the kind of financial support that they had from their governments five years before, they didn’t have the kind of policing they might have had because of tax revenues, but they kept the city alive and vibrant. The people who weren’t living here just kind of discounted them.

Now we’re at this moment where the second tide is hitting a community that’s already living there. People see the possibility of a place; they don’t see — and frankly don’t value as much — what it currently is.

How does that relate to Fulton Mall?

The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership helped to rezone downtown Brooklyn in 2006. They wanted to rezone, maybe for taller office buildings, they thought at first. They ended up being residential buildings. There was not a lot of community input. The people who lived around Fulton Mall in neighborhoods that were increasing in value did not see a value in the Fulton Mall that existed.

Meanwhile, Fulton Mall was the second-most-profitable business strip in the city. It has more foot traffic than any place besides Fifth Avenue. The people who want to change its character don’t necessarily notice that. It’s always been a place where you can get a little tiny shop, or a table in a store if you can’t afford a shop. I knew a guy from Africa who owned a hat shop a block off Willoughby Street, a block from Fulton. He had always wanted to do that. He was next to a guy who had a sushi store — that was his life dream. What big players call “small businesses” were teeming down there. Fulton’s almost like an estuary. It is an incredibly rich place, not only business but for people.

I want to dig into that distinction. Is your argument for the protection of these spaces primarily an economic argument, a humanist argument or both?

First of all, we shouldn’t necessarily go into places in the city and say “We need to fix this, we need to make this better” — because it doesn’t work. We should focus on what is working; shelter that, encourage it and watch it grow. I remember interviewing [39th District City Councilman] Brad Lander a couple of years ago and he said “we don’t have a real model in the city for how to help these kind of places grow.” A place like Dayton, Ohio, has had great success in encouraging Hispanic businesses, which helped rejuvenate its downtown. And if young kids want to hang out in a place, rather than saying “Oh, young kids shouldn’t be hanging out here, because that’s just trouble,” we should see it as a positive thing. It means that they want to be there. This is something that we still don’t quite embrace, which we need to embrace.

So there’s an economic argument, there’s a humanist argument and there’s also a social justice argument. You give tax breaks or credits to large developers but you don’t have citizen input. The Fulton Mall was sold to a developer, he flipped it, then another developer got it. But what about public space? Why does only one group of people benefit?

How could you establish mechanisms for a different kind of development?

We need to first consider: is gentrification a bad thing? No, it’s a great thing. We know that bringing money into a place and helping people is a good thing. But we have to support people who already live in these communities and ensure they don’t get trampled on.

The system we have now is biased toward developers. Wouldn’t it be great if developers worked in concert with community groups that had actual teeth and representation powers?

Realistically, what would incentivize developers to change a system that benefits them?

Lander has embraced a movement called Participatory Budgeting. Right now, some councilmen do it with their discretionary funds. But what if citizens could vote on their entire budget? It sounds like a lot. You couldn’t have imagined rent control before it happened. But things evolve quickly.

The Barclays Center is part of the massive Atlantic Yards Project, developed by Forest City Ratner, which was supposed to include subsidized housing. Bruce Ratner has said of the project that “No one will care what we had to do to make it happen,” and has also said the arena was “largely about the children and youth of Brooklyn.” Which of these statements has played out more accurately?

No one has seen the low- and middle-income housing yet. If I was making a deal like that, I’d do the housing first and then put up the stadium. But you know, companies associated with Forest City Ratner have done some great housing projects in other cities — Cleveland, for instance. In neighborhoods like Park Slope, Fort Greene and other areas that are considered gentrified, there was a massive outcry against the use of eminent domain for private development. But in other areas, nobody said anything.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, both the city and private corporations have pushed to revitalize the manufacturing industry. Several endeavors in the new Navy Yard seem to be less about “manufacturing” in the traditional sense, and more about engaging in small-scale artistic projects. Is this problematic, or simply a reflection of the “New Brooklyn”?

We need jobs. That’s why Fulton Mall is so fascinating: are there a lot of jobs? Yes. Are they the best jobs in the world? No. Do people talk about taking those jobs and moving on to other jobs? Yes. Would it be really amazing if you worked five jobs in the Fulton Mall and had affordable health insurance? Then something would really be starting to happen. When you look at Woody Allen’s Manhattan, they walk along the Manhattan waterfront, and there were just so many ships, so much bustle. This is a larger question about the global economy and wages overseas. You look at Detroit now and ask, “What’s our future going to be?” Are we just going to make fancy things that cost a lot? I’m all for small industry, but we need to think about large numbers of people.

How can Brooklynites who are not activists or journalists get involved in these issues? How can people critically examine new development projects and separate the potentially destructive ones from those that ultimately benefit the most members of a community?

In downtown Brooklyn, you can follow Families United for Racial and Economical Equality, Furee. There’s another organization called ALIGN, which organizes for good jobs, vibrant communities and accountable democracy in New York City. I get Brad Lander — my councilman's — newsletter; I like the way he thinks about stuff. The Pratt Center for Community Development and Tom Angotti also do terrific work.

I don’t have a dog, but we should all act like dog owners. If we all had dogs, we would talk to everybody and we would know what the hell was going on. People are so much less likely in the past five years to talk to each other. It has to do with wearing headphones, but also with the loss of community functions. The really boring things require really boring solutions. My block has a block party. Maybe you don’t always love the neighbor that drives you nuts, but you know them and you talk to each other. If we’re developing a certain kind of condominium where you don’t use any public services, you’ll never see anybody. Running into each other makes for a safer neighborhood and a more vibrant neighborhood. This is the sad thing about Fulton Mall. It’s so vibrant, and we’re redeveloping it in a way that really threatens that vibrancy. You’re basically asking, “How do we connect with a particular kind of development project?”, when really the question is, “Are we connected at all?”

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a freelance writer and editor. She was born in Brooklyn Heights and now lives in Williamsburg.

Jason Bergman is a freelance photographer and videographer. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Bushwick.

Also in this issue

The Neo-Industrialist

The Pratt Institute’s Adam Friedman thinks that Brooklyn is on the cusp of regaining its manufacturing prowess. Interview by Phillip Pantuso

The Urbanist

Metropolitan observer Cassim Shepard on the future of New York’s cityscape. Interview by John Surico