The mythology of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the borough’s leading developer told New York magazine recently, is "nice nostalgia, but we have to get beyond that. In a metaphorical way, we have to get over the Dodgers." In Bruce Ratner’s view, the best way to do this is for the city to help him bring the Nets to downtown Brooklyn, to play in a Frank Gehry-designed stadium built over the Long Island Rail Road yards on Atlantic Avenue. Ratner believes his idea is more than just another development scheme, however. Dodgers nostalgia, he says, represents "the way Brooklyn used to be. And how one talks about the New Brooklyn is very important."
How one sees the present and future is indeed "very important," but no less crucial are the legacies of past eras one wishes to preserve. The Dodgers of mid-20th century lore represent less the way "Brooklyn used to be," than what it promised to become. As the historian Joshua Freeman observes in his book Working-Class New York, "Nothing better symbolized the cosmopolitan, pluralist spirit that infused New York in the wake of World War II than the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Jackie Robinson Dodgers." The team’s 1949 roster included three African-Americans, two Poles, two Italians, two Scandinavians, one Jew, one Hispanic, and one Italian-Hungarian. On the field, the Dodgers represented the pluralist working-class aspirations of the borough. In reality, Brooklyn was becoming increasingly segregated by the time the team left town in late 1957, which ultimately only fed the nostalgia for the Dodgers integrationist promise.
Fast forward to 2003, and terms like integration and working class are absent from public discussion. Ratner’s vision of New Brooklyn is geared toward the "entire generation of creative, educated, and solidly middle-class New Yorkers" who were "pushed" across the East River by "absurd real-estate prices." At the same time, what in his view proves that Brooklyn is "once again a major-league town," is actually "the price of brownstones in Park Slope, some of which have tripled in value in the past ten years." That same bracket yields those with the disposable income to see an NBA game, as the league’s ticket prices average $51 per game, with the Knicks checking in at nearly $90 per ticket. On the floor, the league’s players are more than 90 percent black; yet in the front offices, ownership and management are nearly all white, a pattern Ratner’s presence would not change.
Look, I like pro basketball as much as the next guy. But what it symbolizes today, if anything, is the ability of a very talented sliver of the population to make an enormous amount of money. Perhaps in an era of exponentially growing inequality, it may be the right metaphor— yet surely we have the imagination to create a more egalitarian New Brooklyn than that.