Fort Greene, the neighborhood that has hosted BAM since 1908, has greeted the news with cautious optimism. Optimism, because residents feel the area, which is peppered with vacant lots and empty storefronts, could use some new development. Caution because the arts center has a reputation for paying more attention to international performers and Manhattan patrons than to Fort Greene and the rest of Brooklyn.
To BAM, its role is benign. “We want to create a vibrant 24-hour mixed-use cultural district right in the area around BAM,” says Jeanne Lutfy, who was recently hired as president of the LDC. “We don’t want to disrupt the community. We want to weave this into the existing fabric of the community.”
Lutfy, who ran public relations and marketing for the city’s Public Development Corporation under mayors Koch and Dinkins, insists BAM doesn’t want to build the Lincoln Center of Brooklyn. She says the LDC’s master plan, which is expected to be completed by summer, will include improvements like tree planting, installation of new signs and new street lighting. BAM’s LDC will also most likely advocate some development, with housing, stores and arts space all potential parts of the mix.
But some Fort Greene residents fear that BAM’s plans will further fuel the real estate fervor that has just put one brownstone on the market for the unheard-of price of $1 million. The artists and retailers who have made Fort Greene a mecca for African and African-American culture are likewise discovering that they cannot take the character of their neighborhood for granted.
“It’s sort of like a takeover. That’s what it feels like,” says Lucille Kenney, who has lived on Cumberland Street, a few blocks from BAM, for about 30 years. Kenney contends that news of the proposed cultural district has generated many unsolicited visits from real estate agents. She fears that all the interest in the neighborhood--BAM’s LDC, the plan to build movie studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the recent idea of putting a Greyhound bus depot on Myrtle Avenue and the redevelopment of several buildings along Hanson Place--has prompted realtors to pressure her and other long-term homeowners to sell their properties.
Realtor Eva M. Daniels, who has been selling homes in Fort Greene since 1982, points out that real estate throughout the city is commanding top dollar; Fort Greene is simply part of the trend. At the same time, she concedes sadly, the rocketing values have changed the neighborhood. “It still has a large percentage of African-Americans,” she says. “But it’s not as much as it was even two years ago.”
From the 1970s to the 1990s, as impresario Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM from a second-rate theater into a tabernacle of the avant-garde, the Academy thought and acted globally, bringing Swedish theater, Japanese dance and German performance art to Brooklyn. But locals have long groused that BAM seems more interested in servicing patrons from Manhattan--BAM even runs vans to ferry ticket-holders from across the river to its shows--than developing an audience and artists closer to home.
Fort Greene, a middle- and working-class black neighborhood, has creative assets of its own. Artists such as jazz singer Betty Carter and director Spike Lee have called it home, and local venues like the Paul Robeson Theater and Brooklyn Moon Cafe promote homegrown musicians, poets and artists. Only recently, with the opening of the BAM Cafe, has BAM regularly showcased local performers.
Now Lichtenstein, who has retired from BAM but pushed to create the LDC and heads its board, is leading the charge into development. Fort Greene residents and merchants wonder whether he will finally push BAM to knit itself into their community.
“What the BAM LDC is doing will almost certainly benefit our merchants,” says Errol Louis, executive director of the Bogolan Merchants Association, a group of businesses clustered along Fulton Street just east of BAM that cater to the black diaspora--American, African and Caribbean. (The group takes its name from bogolanfini, a mud-dyed ceremonial cloth from Mali.) “Anything that brings more cultural dollars and tourism and arts and entertainment has got to be a good thing.”
At the same time, some Bogolan members say, BAM remains insular. Merchants laugh as they describe having to take Lichtenstein and other academy bigwigs on a tour to introduce them to vibrant artistic businesses located just a few blocks from the theaters. “The idea of making this a cultural district on the face of it is good,” says Selma Jackson, who owns 4W Circle of Art and Enterprise, a fashion and art boutique two blocks from BAM on Fulton Street. Yet the cultural institution hasn’t done what it could, she says, to put Fort Greene’s existing creative culture on the map. “This is already a cultural district. Why are we reaching outside the community and not reaching to the people who are here?”
One clear answer is that culture means different things to different people. Whenever an institution talks of creating a cultural district, Louis points out, “you get into some very sticky questions as to whose culture or what culture or why certain choices are made.” To make sure the LDC reflects the community, Bogolan is asking the LDC to add two merchants to its board.
For now, the only local representative on the board is the district manager of Community Board 2, which covers Brooklyn Heights as well as Fort Greene. The LDC also tapped several real estate developers for the board, most notably Bruce Ratner, who also chairs the Academy’s board. Brooklyn’s leading builder, Ratner created downtown towers for Morgan Stanley and Metrotech and put suburban-style retail around the corner from BAM in the Atlantic Center mall. As the designated builder for two nearby urban renewal sites, he stands to benefit from the dollars and development opportunities the LDC can bring to the area.