Eminent Domain: Hope Grows in Brooklyn

"The organized and individual opposition to the Ratner proposal--which straddles neighborhoods, race and economic class--can claim political power when we look at these electoral results. The opposition claims victory on these political referenda on Ratner's plans. The two mayoral candidates seeking votes in Brooklyn would be wise to take note of this." - Daniel Goldstein, spokesperson for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn in Leading Ratner Opponents, Letitia James and Norman Siegel Thump Ratner Supporters in Districts Impacted by the Developer's 18 Skyscraper and Arena Plan

A tree grows in Brooklyn; it is nourished by the hope that infuses a strong grass roots movement. Develop Don't Destroy Booklyn is a group of concerned citizens that cuts across all demographic groups --people of all races and income levels have come together to stand up to the power of Forest City Ratner, the State of New York, and the City of New York, who are pushing for a new city rising out of the Atlantic Yards and surrounding a stadium for the Nets basketball team. Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advocates greater transparency, government accountability and community involvement to the development of the Atlantic Yards area in Brooklyn. They challenge Bruce Ratner's proposed use of eminent domain to build the Nets Arena and 17 highrise development plan for the area.

The proponents of this project have largely ignored the neighborhood -the people, the buildings, and the small businesses. They do so at their peril. The strength of the grass roots movement is its organization and commitment to the cause - preserving their homes, neighborhoods, and their property. They will fight eminent domain in the press, in the courts and in the voting booths. And the politicians who push these projects will be defeated.

At an event on October 5, 2005 at the BRIC Studio in Brooklyn, "A Celebration, Inspiration, and How to Stop Eminent Domain in Its Tracks," sponsored by Congressman Major Owens, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and New York City Councilwoman Letitia James, the celebration included a toast to the recent success of Bloomfield, New Jersey litigants who are also fighting a Forest City project. The organizers showed a poignant file about eminent domain, George McCullough's "All for the Taking," followed by a panel discussion. The film documents the plight of several low income families in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania slated to be acquired for a large urban renewal project.

Since the city of Philadelphia established the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in April 2001, over 5,334 properties were scheduled for demolition. Carolyn Thomas“s home on Hoops Street was one of them. In May 2003, Thomas, age 62, found a notice stuck under her door informing her that the city planned to demolish her home. Thomas said: "I worked all my life to acquire the little bit I have. Their letter basically told me that the city had already taken my home, which my parents had owned before me. I knew I would have to fight to take it back."

NTI has a budget of $1.6 billion. But the city offered Thomas only $40,000 for her home, half of which was for moving costs. Thomas fought because this "would only leave the option of moving to another blighted area that would be subject to demolition as well." Because she fought back, Thomas was eventually able to get over $70,000, nearly twice the amount first offered. However, to add insult to injury, the city sent her a bill for over $9,000 for demolishing her property. They also turned off her electric and phone service
before she had a chance to pack to move. Under the NTI project, Philadelphia has authorized the seizure of thousands of homes. The object is to create a massive land bank to entice private developers to rebuild some of its most historic neighborhoods. Philadelphia“s program is part of a nationwide epidemic of eminent-domain abuse. Using the vaguely defined "public" purpose of eminent domain, developers have convinced governments to seize the land they desire.

Part of the film included an interview with Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, whose recent book, Root Shock speaks about the trauma to individuals and the communities who are the victims of displacement caused by eminent domain projects. The anology is simple: If you were to pull up a plant by its roots and attempt to replant it, the plant would experience shock. The human populations of redevelopment project areas are no different. For instance, the proposed dislocations in Long Branch, Neptune, and Asbury Park, New Jersey of senior citizens on fixed incomes and African-Americans will have a devasting and traumatic effect on these people psychologically, emotionally, and physically if these projects go forward. Many of these residents have lived in the same house for 30 or 40 years. In their haste to create new tax ratables, the cities implementing the redevelopment projects will cause a ripple effect in their own community and the communities into which the dislocated residents move. The cost of this dislocation is far greater than the acquisition of the property by eminent domain and the relocation of the residents. It is the taxpayers who will bear the cost for the health care and related traumas which inevitably will occur to citizens who are forced to move out of their homes.

In the panel discussion following the movie, Dr. Robert E. Fullilove III , associate dean of public health at Columbia University, and New York City Councilwoman Letitia James gave examples from their personal experiences in Newark, New Jersey and New York City, bearing witness to the traumatic impact of dislocation. This is a consequence which the politicians and developers never address. Fullilove spoke of his own experience when his family home was bulldozed for a highway that was never built through the city of Newark. His father was a doctor whose office was in his home and his patients were in the neighborhood. Once the people are dispersed, how can you replace these relationships? If you dislocate individuals and whole neighborhoods, how are these people to be made whole again? As Fullilove explained, if you want to see what's coming to Brooklyn, go see what Newark is today. Newark has seen one diaspora after another. As one neighborhood is razed for renewal, poor people are forced to move to a neighborhood they can barely afford; and in its turn, that area becomes the next generation's blight, slated for redevelopment.

Large projects have been stopped through citizen's efforts. One such project met its demise in the 1970s. Led by Nancy Shukaitis, a Pennsylvania homemaker, and others against the Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Government, and the states of New York, Pensylvania and New Jersey, the Tocks Island Dam was never built. A grass roots effort by ordinary citizens galvanized a movement that saved historical sites and preserved the land for future generations.

The people of Brooklyn need to know that they can prevail through organization, press, legal and political effort aimed at defeating the unholy alliance of government and big development for private gain.

Listen to Dr. Mindy Fullilove, author of Root Shock:
How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It
, discuss the traumatic impact that urban renewal projects have had on African American communities on WNYC. Please note: This radio broadcast is 30 minutes in duration.

Written By:Sara, Paralegal On October 10, 2005 11:20 AM

I agree with Fullilove's comments about Newark -- the displacement of people from a "blighted area" to another less affordable area, just becomes the next generation's blighted area. The town is just moving the "blight" but making it far worse, since it will take longer for the people that are dispersed to reestablish themselves --which some may never do. It makes more sense to leave the people and just help them remodel what they have, but of course then what is in it for the redeveloper? So the question becomes, what are the options if you leave the people and their businesses there? Where do we get the money from to help them rebuild? This really comes down to surface values. The age old, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It seems the government only sees what is going on the outside, and not what is on the inside -- the roots of its people.

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