Alyssa Lappen - ESSAYS

Brooklyn Heights Poets Sing Ode To Community Action


On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists pierced a giant hole in New York's skyline--and in every heart in the city, including mine. Where I once longed for open sky, the sky is now too open. From everywhere in Brooklyn Heights--gazing over the Brooklyn Bridge, facing the Harbor or regarding the smoking ruins at Wall Street--a vast emptiness fills both sight and spirit.

Ironically, two years ago, I had begun a struggle (ultimately unsuccessful) to prevent too-tall buildings from marring the neighborhood that became New York City's first historic district in the 1960s. Developers planned a 20-story movie theater on a main commercial thoroughfare, directly adjacent to the largest cache of pre-Civil war homes in Brooklyn. It would cast huge shadows onto the quaint, quiet tree-lined streets, bringing thousands more cars a week into an area already strangled by traffic and smog.

From this fresh and intense mourning, a part of that crusade to protect the neighborhood from over-eager developers looks selfish, even petty. Today, I would do anything to disarm hatred and replace two tall towers that New Yorkers, less than a month past, took for granted. Yet in the face of unbearable wreckage, a closer examination of the failed neighborhood-preservation fight offers some redeeming lessons.

It started as a small, personal letter-writing effort to protect the quiet home and neighborhood in which I write poetry. It became a neighborhood crusade, in which people of every race and faith worked together. I led a fight to protect the small-town aura and scale that continue to foster writers, to preserve a community whose still-vibrant literary traditions stretch back some 150 years.

I did not know when I began whether great writing ever could or would come from Brooklyn's heart again, much less if I could hope to create it. But the Brooklyn fog with which Hart Crane filled his letters had got the better of me, too. I had at least an inkling of the quiet peace of which he spoke--so hard to come by in any city--and wanted to retain it.

Crane's best lines emanated from Brooklyn, about Brooklyn--and America. Like all great poems, his last and greatest work seems to reshape itself to the moment, in our case, to immeasurable trauma, ringing like a clear bell, as though he wrote it for us, for now. Ostensibly about booming and building, a nation on the rise, his rich and facile voice, in The Bridge, nevertheless wraps around the edges of destruction in these lines from "To Brooklyn Bridge:"

"Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn...
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still."

And these:

Under the shadow of thy piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The city's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year..."

Hart Crane was hardly the only major voice from Brooklyn. Walt Whitman had worked on the Brooklyn Eagle, then housed in the Eagle Warehouse at the Fulton Ferry landing across the East River from Wall. Here, in 1851, he wrote in The Leaves of Grass of America's greatness, its sins and follies. The bustle that spawned Crane's work had populated Whitman's poetic masterpiece 80 years earlier--and more than 30 years before the Brooklyn Bridge itself was completed:

"The hurrahs for popular favorites...the fury of roused mobs,
The flap of the curtained litter-the sick man inside, borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd-the policeman with his star quickly
working his passage to the center of the crowd;
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,
The souls moving along...are they invisible while the
least atom of the stones is visible?
What groans of overfed or half-starved who fall on the
flags sunstruck or in fits,
What exclamations of women taken suddenly, who hurry
home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here...
what howls restrained by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made,
acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the resonance of them...I come again
and again."

Adding to these American literary giants, the neighborhood also spawned or nourished W.H. Auden, John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore and today, political writer Joe Klein and poets  Harvey Shapiro and Philip Levine--the last two, both residents.

The problem was that a 20-story cinema on Court Street would simply not fit. Physically, it would stand more than three times taller than the nearest buildings, would lack windows and could never blend with the largest cache of pre-Civil war Brooklyn homes that stood on the same block.

Worse, at maximum capacity, the 12 theaters would seat 2,500 people. Simple arithmetic indicated that, even at half capacity, the complex would bring more than 6,000 extra people per day into the neighborhood, most likely via taxis and cars. Aside from pollution and noise--my chief worries--it would also create further congestion in the already overtaxed historic area.

Fighting the monstrosity, moreover, would prove a losing battle. The developer was Forest City Ratner, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Forest City. The parent company is one of the nation's largest commercial developers, and the subsidiary the largest New York City political contributor, giving upwards of $300,000 annually.

From our City Councilman and Borough President to our State Representative and Senator, politicians wanted nothing to do with this battle. We wrote thousands of letters, and knocked on every door. We were refused even a single meeting. We were a small, unheard-of group of professionals, writers and community activists who coalesced under my leadership as the Brooklyn Heights Protection Coalition. We were bucking the biggest developer in New York and the Brooklyn Heights Association, the non-profit force majeur in local politics, which sided strongly and inexplicably with the developers. Against developers' deep pockets and the BHA's $400,000 endowment, we could rely only on ink, spit and gumption.

Over time, we raised enough to hire a New York City attorney, Jack Lester. He had taken on other such battles before, and believed he could fight the project under the provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act, which requires traffic and planning studies for every project that would significantly increase traffic in areas with unacceptable levels of pollution. Brooklyn Heights is such an area. We sued Forest City Ratner, the City of New York, the State Department of Environmental Protection and various other agencies.

Walking the neighborhood for signatures on petitions became a key activity, which in more than six months of campaigning brought more than 3,500 signatures in a neighborhood of perhaps 30,000. Faxing petitions and letters to politicians became a weekly routine. We began sending representatives to every community board committee meeting. In July 1999, we packed a monthly community board meeting with more than 50 residents--all angry about the invasion of cineplex developers into our historic area. That got attention.

The Board then formed a committee to study the implications of cineplex development in the Community Board District, which also includes the historic neighborhoods of Fort Green, Vinegar Hill, Clinton Hill, and DUMBO. Others were also facing proposed megaplex developments. Appointed the chief researcher and writer, I prepared a report on the business, financial, employment, traffic, pollution, and quality of life issues surrounding the proposed megaplex projects. In late 1999, the Board adopted its recommendations--that no cineplexes be developed in the district without complete environmental impact studies and traffic reduction plans.

To be sure, this proved a pyrrhic victory. The Court Street movie complex was already well under construction, and the Community Board offered no palpable relief. Quite simply, we had no hope of halting the theater or making it smaller. Eventually we also lost our legal case.

But the report revealed the stupidity of developing several major movie houses within a matter of square miles. The corporate emperors had no clothes. We stopped in their tracks plans for three other megaplexes in adjacent neighborhoods--including Fort Green and DUMBO.

We also shook the political status quo to its foundations. The Brooklyn Heights Association had never before encountered activists resolved to preserve the area without their help, and could no longer claim to be sole represenatives of area residents. Forest City's board in Cleveland was shocked by our ferocity. And politicians finally listened.

Our vigilence on neighborhood protection helped to retrieve a major neighborhood rezoning package from a defeated citywide plan. The zoning change for Brooklyn Heights and downtown Brooklyn passed the City Council and was signed into law last summer. It will now prevent construction of anything quite so tall ever again. On Court Street, where the 12-screen movie house now rises like a giant misplaced argyle sock, future construction will be limited to roughly half its 200 foot size--more in keeping with the area. On State, Schermerhorn and Montague Streets, there are new height limits too.

Our neighborhood group can hardly claim sole authorship for the plan. But we pretty clearly exercised great influence in its passage.

In the face of international Islamic terrorism that has taken lives of more than 7,000 civilians in peace time, these achievements seem small. But in one sense, they are as large as the Brooklyn Bridge, and as magnificent as Hart Crane's magnificent song of it

"O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God."

The Brooklyn Heights Protection Coalition, in action, sang an ode to an American literary community, an ode to the American spirit, an ode to the Democratic way of life.

Alyssa A. Lappen was the 2000 recipient of the chapbook award from Ruah: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry. Her poems have appeared in print and Internet journals such as International Poetry Review;;; Heart Quarterly; Blueline; Sow's Ear Poetry Review; Touched by Adoption; Switched-on Gutenberg; Kudzu: A Digital Quarterly; New Works Review; Kota Press; Common Ground Review; Out of Line; Neovictorean Cochlea and Poetry Motel. Her work is also forthcoming in Midstream. Ms. Lappen was a print journalist for 25 years, mostly in the national financial press.


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