The Uber driver squinted through his glasses at the rearview mirror after I’d finished a phone interview. He had to ask: Do you work in media? Was that someone criticizing Barclays Center? Yes. His assumptions from what he overheard confirmed, he had a take. No, Barclays Center is actually good.
Keble Jackson, a 42-year-old Brooklyn Nets fan, spent the rest of the 20-minute ride conversing about his point. He would’ve been vivid even if he didn’t have his old childhood haunts to gesture at as he drove down Eastern Parkway into Prospect Heights, his lifelong home. To the left, he’d rap with friends near the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch. To the right, there’s a well-kept building that once was a drug house that sits not too far from the Grand Army Plaza fountain, where the neighborhood’s kids swam in its dirty waters. When he turns right down Flatbush Avenue, he mentions how parents use to make their children stand on certain parts of the street, where they could get a view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower’s clock to learn how to tell time. That sight is now crowded by high rises and condos.
They’re symbols of erasure for many of Brooklyn’s residents. Jackson scoffed at that idea.
“There was nothing there,” Jackson said as we passed by Barclays Center neighboring Atlantic Mall. “When I used to catch the B45 directly across the street from the entrance of target on this side of the Barclays Center, there was abandoned graffiti, dog shit, garbage on the ground. People lived in the back end of that.”
It’s been chill at least watching the Nets. They had a surprise playoff berth last year, and Kyrie Irving – one of the summer’s big free agency grabs – kicked off this season by giving the Timberwolves a 50 piece. On the other side of the river, Julius Randle – the biggest free agency grab the Knicks could find – did not give a 50 piece.
While Brooklyn started off the season struggling to hit .500, almost every worst case scenario at least has them getting a recovered Kevin Durant next year. Their cross-borough “rivals” are so low, complimenting them requires the sort of condescending pandering you’d give to an eight-year-old who’s finally managed to hit the rim – except these are paid adults. They got a good young core. They’re giving “effort”. And yet the Knicks are as win-starved as they have been for most of the millennium.
My longtime friend Elijah said that “being a Knicks fan is like being a fan of old New York”. Sometimes that’s a shorthand for the closest thing they’ve come to “glory years”, when they spent much of the ‘90s under Michael Jordan’s shoe and wasted the one year he traded in his sneakers for cleats thanks to one guard’s tragic Game 7 shooting performance in the NBA finals. The physicality that went into every Knicks field goal and their underdog personas also endeared them to the working-class fans. And in Jamaican-American Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, Flatbush’s strong Caribbean contingent had their pride.
Generation Y isn’t far enough removed from those years to not have memories of watching them unfold with their parents. They did come of age in the century where the Knicks have the worst winning percentage in the NBA and – even more unforgivably – saw them waste Carmelo Anthony’s prime years by making him watch the playoffs from the couch with us. Some stick by because the spectacular mediocrity is a way of life at this point. I’m not part of that some: You’re birthed into a set of struggles when you grow up in a Caribbean working class home in Brooklyn; if there’s a voluntary hardship, I’ll opt-out.
But just latching on to the competent franchise isn’t so simple. Anyone who’s lived near Flatbush for over 15 years has had conversations attempting to take stock at just how much has changed within its radius. These talks often, at best, carry a bitter awe: The coffee shop jokes are a cliché, but they’re street level stand-ins for the tight-knit communities priced out and displaced, leaving those left behind to grouse about a way of life they can barely afford. The neat story of Brooklyn is of a borough that’s survived the debasement of the crack era and soaring murder rates. But that narrative is about change of one thing. New Brooklyn and Old Brooklyn aren’t quite the same; the former is a capitalist force that’s imposed on the latter.
Barclays Center and the Nets didn’t solely cause the renewal, but they’re the most visible symbols of that dissonance. “Gentrification” peaked as a buzzword during the Nets’ first two seasons in Brooklyn, but the arena’s inherent odiousness was there a decade prior. Barclays is part of the Atlantic Yards project, real estate mogul Bruce Ratner’s $4.9bn plan to transform 22 acres in downtown Brooklyn for residential and commercial purposes.
Architect Frank Gehry eagerly hinted at the 2003 press conference announcing the plan that the community wasn’t a priority, saying he was ready “to build a whole neighborhood practically from scratch”. He’d be fired from the project in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure, but his foreshadowing came to fruition. Independent businesses and families were forced out by increased rent. Pacific Park/Atlantic Yards developers, Forest City Ratner, and any current or future developers are required to build 2,250 affordable housing units by 2025; they’re behind schedule and the units they did build are mainly affordable to moderate and middle-income families, according to Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee and a member of BrooklynSpeaks. Another insult was how financial interests could prostrate state and city-funded land to Chinese real estate developers and a Russian oligarch for investments; the working class and other non-members of the 1% didn’t get that sort of affection.
The Warriors are analogous to Brooklyn in some ways. Golden State’s reign as the decade’s most dominant dynasty went along with San Francisco’s rent rising to an average of $3,550 for a one-bedroom apartment as the Bay Area reconfigured itself around the tech boom. Still, the team logo illustrates the Golden Gate Bridge, which is just as much of a wholesome San Francisco signature as it was when Full House was on and the Warriors’ seasons ended in April. Barclays Center Nets games comes replete with did-you-know-that-we-are-in-Brooklyn accoutrements – has there been a home game where there isn’t one Jay-Z reference played through the speakers?
But taking on hip-hop aesthetics seem at odds with city policy’s historic impetuousness against the black working class from which the culture originates. The stadium opened under the mayorship of Michael Bloomberg, who was openly support of the violative stop-and-frisk police tactics that disproportionately affected young black men. Even seven years later, the police’s new emphasis on cracking down on the violent crime of fare evasion has been criticized as another example of the MTA’s bias against the vulnerable poor. It’s hard to think of a sports franchise this eager to wear the culture of those its city insists on purging.
For many, the Nets have come to represent an act of capitalist imposition instead of something that blustery former Brooklyn president Marty Markowitz claimed the borough would be “1000%” behind. But Barclays Center’s life as a corporate barnacle isn’t without precedent. A few blocks closer to the bridge lies the MetroTech Center, another Ratner project that bounced hundreds of people from their homes and razed businesses in the name of commerce. I remember feeling an out-of-placeness every time I walked past the complex to and from high school, where our heirloom was bucketball, a game in which a bucket sat atop a stack of mats as a makeshift basket because the school was too run down for a gym. This downtown Brooklyn was never really ours, but we’d made memories around its auspices nonetheless.
I ended up embracing the Nets fairly quickly, though. It had very little to do with them being the borough’s first team since the Dodgers left in 1957 – Brooklyn has endured worse traumas than a baseball team leaving. Having a hometown team you could talk about for long periods without a forlorn sigh helped, too: The Nets are already on pace to have more playoff berths this century than the Knicks since their move.
A lot of working-class Brooklyn’s fate has been decided by various systemic cruelties, policies and capitalist ambition, long before “gentrification” became common lingo, during every one of the Knicks’ losing spells. Those ailments all follow Barclays, but it’s myopic to pin them solely on the arena. What’s a more specific experience to the Nets is how it grew from having a washed-up Joe Johnson to having Kyrie Irving getting buckets across the street from the decades-old PC Richard & Son. To love a sports team is an inherently vicarious endeavor; Jackson and I took pride in how our relationship with the Nets is a bit more intimate.
“The rest of my family, they root for the Nets but they’re still Knicks fans. They’re like, ‘Nah I can’t just go against the Knicks like that.” Jackson said as he drove away from Barclays. “But for me, nah. That shirt say Brooklyn. That birth certificate say Brooklyn. I’m going for Brooklyn.”
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