The Nets and Their “City on a Hill”


At a press conference in May 2006, architect Frank Gehry, who had gained fame for his designs around the world including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, unveiled his latest architectural vision for the Atlantic Yards development.

The point of interest for Nets fans was still the new arena, now known as the prospective Barclays Center after the London bank that signed on for the naming rights for the facility about a year later. But during the press conference, Gehry also talked about other aspects of the development, the complex’s tallest building, “Miss Brooklyn,” named after Gehry saw a bride walking the streets of Brooklyn in a flowing bridal veil. While coming up with his plan, Gehry said he studied Brooklyn, trying to understand “what is Brooklyn.” To those who opposed the project, it’s scale and scope and use of eminent domain to acquire the property needed, Gehry spoke of Henry Ford: “There is progress everywhere.”

Whether you supported the project or not, what could not be challenged was the cache and glamour an architect like Gehry brought to it. All of this talk of bridal veils and progress added intrigue the project. It’s a kind of poetry and attitude that seems distinctively New York in flavor.

Three years later, the current Nets Brooklyn situation brings me to a theme that was recently explored by Kevin Arnovitz in a must-read piece on TrueHoop. When the vision for the current iteration of Madison Square Garden came forward in the 1960s, it came at the expense of Pennsylvania Station, a Beaux-Art architectural masterpiece in New York City. The tearing down of the train terminal was considered outrageous, and born from it were new preservation laws that would prevent similar deconstruction in the future.

As mentioned in Arnovitz’s column, in a recent episode of Mad Men, the AMC drama about 1960s-era ad executives in New York (and a must-see for those who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet), MSG’s developer refutes criticism to their plans by comparing the structure to the Roman Coliseum. Then later in the episode, Don Draper, the creative director of the ad firm and the show’s central character, said of those looking to stop the construction of MSG in order to preserve New York as it is: “I was in California. Everything is new, and it’s clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden — it’s the beginning of a new city on a hill.”

Years later, MSG is known as the mecca of sports, a “city on a hill” for basketball fans. Even for those who lament the loss of Pennsylvania Station, few can deny the mystique and allure of MSG, a place the Kobe Bryants and Lebron James of the world still praise as the best that’s out there. I look at the twists and turns of the team across the river, the team I root for, in their quest to gain that level of mystique. It’s the NBA … in Brooklyn. Does a project like this need a Don Draper to sell it? I can’t help but think if the Barclays Center is ever built, and the area around it is developed the way Bruce Ratner wants, the long-term legacy of the project will only be tarnished by the fight that has gone into preventing it, along with the great number of changes and scaling back the site has experienced along the way.

Three years later and Gehry is now off the project due to the inflated costs associated with his vision. It’s a decision that has been publicly lamented recently by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the executives of Barclays. The public line is the Atlantic Yards development is still good for the city and Brooklyn. But without the clout of a Gehry behind it, without the talk of “bridal veils” and an understanding “What Brooklyn is,” the Atlantic Yards will likely never be a mecca for basketball fans or architectural aficionados alike. It will just be another development, albeit a highly controversial one that seems to have few if any selling points.

While a move to Brooklyn could be a financially good one for the Nets, I look at the Atlantic Yards proposal and wonder, could Don Draper sell this? And as someone who thinks Don Draper could sell binoculars to a blind man, I just don’t think he has the ability to ever convince people that there will ever be another “city on a hill” for New York City basketball fans.