By Teale Sperling
Through December 11, local investigative theater company The Civilians are staging In The Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards at Fort Greene’s Irondale Center, mere blocks from where this long-debated project is currently underway.
have been following the saga of the Atlantic Yards project for years, conducting interviews with members of all sides of the debate about the large-scale project to generate material for their show. Versions of the production have been mounted over the last two years, culminating in this 90 minute production featuring words and music by composer Michael Friedman, of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Friedman wrote the catchy tunes matched to transcribed interviews with local residents and politicians, managing to make even ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) sound semi-exciting. We caught up with the lyricist and composer of In The Footprint to ask him about process, community dialogue and his personal views on the project.
Brooklyn The Borough: How was the process? How did the point of view of the show evolve? Did you try to stay neutral?
Michael Friedman: I don’t think there is such a thing as being neutral, when you do something you start having a point of view on it and to a certain extent just presenting what everyone says is not the same. We try to show the arguments as we begin to see them. I think there are certain places where we agree more with certain people we’re hearing, or that, I guess as a journalist just in your editing choices and the choices of who gets most and the choices of what do you say for them. You’re making decisions about what point of view you’re showing and what points of view you’re not showing and so nothing can ever be neutral, only reality is the full story, you know as every single person sees it.
BTB: How willing were the people of the community to talk?
MF: People are pretty willing to give, especially in a story like this where they want to have their point of view told. We were not able to get an interview with Bruce Ratner or with Bloomberg; really with almost anyone from Forest City Ratner. We did get an interview with Marty Markowitz; we did get Leticia James. So a lot of political figures did talk to us. The ones who you’d expect wouldn’t want to – which would be Ratner and Bloomberg – we were not surprised that that happened. Oh, and Frank Gehry. So for those people we were able to use their public statements and at least present what they had put forward as their point of view on this project so that’s as much as we could do.
BTB: Did you, in shaping this, have any intentions of how, or what you wanted the outcome or response of the community to be?
MF: I don’t know that I ever believe that our shows are going to make people change, change people’s opinions or make them do something differently, but I find that you can reflect. I think in this case people who know something about it might come out knowing a little more and therefore be a little more invested in it one way or another or at least be aware of something going on.
Certainly I now am more aware and invested and would – in my ability to vote on things or my ability to be involved – know what the situation is in a lot greater depths and I think that for all our shows is sort of just saying to people, like journalism – ‘Here’s a deeper richer version of something you might have just known superficially. Here’s the headline and here’s a longer piece as it were, a three part series about something’ and trying to bring that to life and trying to shape that and show the story as deeply as we think we can tell it in an hour and a half.
BTB: What were some of the things, like you said, some of the things or interviews that surprised you?
MF: To me, I think we all agree that one of the most revelatory interviews was this guy named Bob Law who is a business man. He owns businesses and talks about poverty and his thing is that he kind of takes it away from the issue of whether the development itself is okay, and actually into the question of public housing. He actually has this amazing statement where he says “Poor people do not need affordable housing. We need to eliminate poverty. Affordable housing is something that just makes being poor more comfortable.”
And so, rather than getting rid of poverty we make being poor a little less unpleasant and then his point is that previously when poor people used to be white, that eliminating poverty was one of the main goals, that’s why the City College system was created; that’s why all sorts of public school systems were created. All these things were about raising people up and then in a funny way they succeeded in eliminating white poverty in New York and now that it’s mostly a not white problem no one’s concerned with eliminating poverty they just create cushioning, which I thought the way he puts it is extremely concise and intelligent and really revelatory.
BTB: As a Brooklynite, what do you think about the Atlantic Yards project?
MF: Everyone agrees that the site needs to be developed. It’s a big empty space. That said, it seems fairly clear that the way in which eminent domain was used, and the way in which – I think Daniel Goldstein says – the way in which no one ever voted on this, no elected official ever voted on this, is not a terrific precedent… How have we come to have a system where we allow so many things that should transform our lives and our space and the things that we supposedly pay taxes for, to bypass the people we supposedly get to elect?
That’s a question of eminent domain of what is it used for, who gets to decide and obviously historically eminent domain has been used for some really important things in retrospect you’re glad it was used for. It’s also been used for things that in retrospect were horrible abuses of the power. So it’s not about ‘Is eminent domain a bad idea or a good idea overall?’ It’s a question of who gets to decide and what are our rights as citizens and as individuals within this society.
Which I think in the end, so much of our work ends up being about those sorts of questions, what are we owed and what do we owe as citizens and what are your responsibilities and what are your rights as citizens. Certainly in our last few shows I think that those questions have sort of risen to the surface of the real political process of what we’re interested in. So I think that, for me, has been the center of our work.