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How Barclays Center’s plaza became Brooklyn’s ‘accidental town square’

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Fourth day of Protests against police brutality over George Floyd’s death in New York. Photo by Pablo Monsalve / VIEWpress via Getty Images

Norman Oder, the long-time critic and chronicler of the Atlantic Yards, admits he was skeptical of a 2016 claim by the city’s Public Design Commission, that Barclays Center would offer “pedestrian-oriented public spaces” at the large plaza in front of the arena.

He was wary of the claim for a couple of reasons, as he writes Wednesday in BKLYNer. Although officially owned by the State of New York, it was controlled by the arena leaseholder, then Mikhail Prokhorov now Joe Tsai, How could such a private space be a public space?

In addition, the space was, as he has said, accidental. In the original master plan for the 22-acre site that surrounds the arena, the space was to be the site of “Miss Brooklyn,” a 50+ story office tower designed by star architect Frank Gehry. The 2008 recession and the Nets arrival in 2012 changed that.

It became, the de facto entrance plaza for the games and other events, where fans would gather before entering. With its subway station connecting nine lines and the LIRR at the opposite end, the plaza became a community “amenity.” The successor to the abandoned “Miss Brooklyn” would have to be built (eventually) across Flatbush where P.C. Richards and Modells now stand.

But things changed this spring. During the COVID-19 crisis, the plaza hosted food pantries for the poor of the borough. Those subway lines that brought thousands to the games and concerts were now carrying those in need.

Then, at the end of May, came the killing of George Floyd and the inauguration of the plaza as something very different, very political and very much as big —if not bigger— as the arena itself. As Oder writes...

Since May 29, though, crowds protesting police brutality and racist killings—triggered by the gruesome killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd—have converged at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, turning that plaza into Brooklyn’s new Town Square. The Barclays Center, thanks to its location at Brooklyn’s largest transit hub, its proximity to residential neighborhoods, and its mothballed-by-pandemic status, has become the locus of activism in Brooklyn.

It went on for days...

Nightly crowds of chanting, sign-wielding protesters calling for justice have faced off against police, separated by metal barricades. The protests have been mostly, though not entirely peaceful, with moments of silence (and empty chairs for the mayor and governor), prayer, and taking a knee, quickly shifting to angry clashes with cops, pepper spray and worse.

The protests had a sense of a pop-up, something impromptu where people came and went ... unless the NYPD was blocking the subway entrance. Not quite organized, not disorganized either. It was sustained by righteousness and a bit of history. As the days wore on and the level of violence lessened, Spike Lee drove by on his bicycle, stopped, spoke to the protesters, offered encouragement.

As Oder wrote, some of the protesters nicknamed it “Standoff Center.” There were incongruities that one would expect from the public-private nature of the space.

For days, the digital signage in the oculus, the arena’s oval canopy, projected discordant ads from GEICO, Ticketmaster, and JetBlue. On June 7, ads ceased at what one observer dubbed “Standoff Center.” The oculus offered a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—“The time is always right to do what is right.”–more gnomic than “Black lives matter.”

Earlier this week, Joe Tsai, who controls the space through his BSE Global, issued a statement through the Daily News on how he felt about seeing the plaza —his plaza— at the center of worldwide news coverage of America’s crisis.

Tsai’s response was, essentially, “fine by me” as long as everyone gathers peacefully.

“Those of us who cannot possibly experience the personal pain and indignity of racism towards black people feel a sense of helplessness as frustration and anxiety reach a boiling point. But it does not mean that we sit idle.

“We have said that we will use the voice and platform of the Nets, Liberty and Barclays Center to facilitate empathy and dialogue. In Brooklyn, the Plaza at Flatbush and Atlantic has become a place for people to assemble and have their voice heard. If it continues to serve as a place where everyone from our community – from residents to businesses to police alike – gather peacefully to listen to each other and find common ground, then it’s good with me.”

How much farther will it evolve? Oder thinks it will be a process, but its importance cannot be denied.

The plaza is hardly Brooklyn’s Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, at least not yet. Cops were seen as not just policing protests but also defending the arena, and graffiti left by the protesters tagging signage (before, after) and Ona, the sculpture in the plaza, has consistently been cleaned up. The pavement chalk slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Dissent Is Patriotic” are reappearing daily.

Ten days that shook Brooklyn, so to speak...

“My wife remarked the other day that for barclays center the protests have done in 1 week what the last decade hasn’t made it feel like part of the community. de facto town square, center of spectacle etc.,” tweeted New York Times reporter Andy Newman.”

A NetsDaily commenter quoted by Oder encapsulized the space’s transformation.

“Barclays Center is, in many ways, a public good though it makes money for private enterprise,” wrote the commenter. “A public space, with national branding and awareness, became the space for a public protest.”

It was as not planned, of course, but so much of New York is not what it was supposed to be. That’s one thing that makes it special.

Oder notes that there have been protests outside the arena before, by some who opposed gentrification of the area, by some who demanded action after Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD on a Staten Island sidewalk. He like Floyd, had died gasping “I can’t breathe” following a chokehold.

But Oder notes as well the more quotidian uses.

[T]he plaza has more often served to distribute t-shirts, make videos, hold a boxing weigh-in, host a live band for hockey fans, welcome an early morning TV shoot, or create a mural, activities often tethered to sponsors.

And In 2014, he notes “elected officials held a pep rally there, aiming to attract the 2016 Democratic National Convention.” Too bad that didn’t happen!

Oder wonders, What’s Next? (How can you not in these days!?) and asks whether the MLK quote will become part of the rotation on the oculus? How much ownership will permit in the future when the issues attract less attention?

The arena will always have a complicated role as a symbol of gentrification or renaissance in Brooklyn, depending on whom you ask. For now, the plaza, however accidentally, has fulfilled a 2010 prediction from architect Pasquarelli: “it’s quite a significant space, it’s something that’s very civic.”

Indeed.

In a follow-up report on his Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report, Oder notes that there are metal gates blocking the arena and subway entrances on the plaza, quoting an arena spokesperson saying it will be up to law enforcement as to how long that will last.

However, Mandy Gutmann also noted “Unless people are interfering with a Barclays Center event, or there are safety concerns, we would not take action to have someone removed from our plaza.”

And so it goes.