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December 1, 2010

Seeds of Change, new history of ACORN, contains a fundamental myth regarding Atlantic Yards, Bertha Lewis hagiography, plus many AY misreadings

Atlantic Yards Report

The demise of ACORN, coupled with the failure to organize sufficient voters to stem the Republican tide in the recent election, has generated some respectful reviews of John Atlas's book, Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, published in June.

I can't disagree much with the analysis from Harold Myerson in The American Prospect and Tom Robbins in the Village Voice--that ACORN was mostly a victim of the right-wing media, fixated on the spurious "pimp" video.

Still, I can't trust Atlas's sympathetic book, because the chapter devoted to Atlantic Yards is riddled with errors, large and small.

Neither of the above reviews addresses the chapter titled "Atlantic Yards, the Nets, and the Battle of Brooklyn," and presumably none of the respected figures blurbing the book (William Julius Wilson, Sudhir Ventkatesh, etc.) knew much about Atlantic Yards beyond what Atlas wrote.

Fundamental flaws

Though Atlas adds some texture to the story--notably ACORN leader Bertha Lewis's tendentious account of the deal with Forest City Ratner--the chapter is skewed by focusing on the early years of the controversy.

Atlas concludes that Atlantic Yards was a reasonable compromise and a battle between two groups of Brooklynites: the better-off, and the poor. That leaves little room to examine the larger bypass of democracy, the unhealthy power of the developer-government alliance, and the increasingly tenuous nature of the project's promised benefits.

(It's of a piece with the Brooklyn Paper's mis-judgment that Lewis, in the new play IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, makes a completely rational case for the project.)

More fundamentally, Atlas mythologizes ACORN's role. He suggests that, only after the project was announced did ACORN pressure Forest City Ratner to include affordable housing. Rather, ACORN was onboard from the start.

And he fails to analyze--despite clear evidence--how ACORN leaders manipulated their constituents. As I pointed out in August 2006, ACORN negotiated an affordable housing deal in which most of the subsidized units would not be accessible to the groupĀ“s core constituency.

Atlas is not unsympathetic to the Atlantic Yards opposition. He's obligated to take AY opponents seriously, as the two progressive activists in Brooklyn who ushered ACORN into New York in the early 1980s wound up on the other side of the Atlantic Yards controversy: Ron Shiffman of the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Rev. David Dyson of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Still, Atlas underplays the breadth of the opposition to the ACORN/Ratner deal among housing activists whose politics might otherwise be consonant with ACORN.

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NoLandGrab: We have to admit, though — we like their taste in lawn signs.

Posted by eric at December 1, 2010 9:57 AM