By Dale W. Eisinger
While Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and Macklemore left the Barclays Center Sunday night with MTV Video Music Awards in hand, some Brooklyn residents living near the arena feel as though they came out on the losing side of the event, which aimed to co-opt a touch of that Brooklyn cool factor.
Though many living in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn have long opposed the Barclays Center’s presence near their residential streets, the first national event of its kind marked a particularly troublesome moment outside of the general gripes. Locals cited vague communication with event coordinators, relentless noise disturbances, a lack of civic interaction on behalf of MTV and public agencies, and clear violations of the code of conduct for such events as set forth by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment for Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. Some had trouble understanding whether or not they’d have limited access to their streets, how amplified noise would affect them, and whether or not there would be crowd control measures.
Residents near the south side of the arena—where, for example, 2 Chainz and Grimes strutted the red carpet in the same pair of Versace pants, under a faux-Brooklyn Bridge—were particularly soured to the experience and worried it would set an ugly precedent for future events of this scale.
“It was a huge interruption to the community for what was essentially a 90-minute segment that they did,” Taniya Gunasekara, who lives on 6th Avenue between Dean and Bergen Streets with her 18-month-old son Walter, told Radio.com. “I had to call in late to work today (August 26) because it was not a good night for trying to get him to sleep.”
Gunasekara said that, while fans thronged and music pumped through the street, she had to remove the air conditioner in her toddler’s room and move a piece of furniture in front of the window there in order to block the noise. He usually falls asleep around 7 p.m. “We had to stop everything that we needed to do for our lives.”
“In terms of the way it impacted residents it was a much, much, much bigger event than we were told,” Peter Krashes, president of the Dean Street Block Association, told Radio.com. “You want to be able to count on communication and commitments being met and if those things aren’t done you hope that the next time around, they are done. Everything went wrong this time.”
Krashes, a Prospect Heights resident since 2001, acknowledged the development, especially following the boom of the arena, was somewhat inevitable. But he was more concerned with the procedure by which information was disseminated to the public.
“It’s another example that, if an economic incentive exists, then the ability of the community to mitigate effects of the event lessens and lessens on behalf of the community,” Krashes said. “A lot of people had no choice during this event to either simply stay at home, to leave completely, or to go the event itself. There was no ability to move about the neighborhood.”
Norman Oder, a veteran reporter who once lived a ten-minute walk from the rusted-steel-clad arena (and has written op-eds critical of it for Reuters), has been reporting on the Atlantic Yards development (which includes Barclays) consistently for about eight years. He told Radio.com that many of the citizens attending community meetings and concerned with the event were not a part of the broader anti-Barclays protests that marred the arena’s opening last year.
“People are worried,” Oder said, “not just because of this large event, but because of the precedent it may set. Neither MTV nor the Mayor’s office of film/broadcast/TV would come to a public meeting. Plans were not submitted to the local community board(s). It doesn’t look like the Code of Conduct is being followed.”
Though a representative from the arena had been available for public outreach and did attend one Dean Street Block Association meeting six days prior to the event, representatives from neither the mayor’s office nor MTV had made themselves available to respond to questions and complaints. Many residents simply didn’t know where to get the information they wanted, even if it was available.
On part of the Barclays Center, Ashley Cotton, a representative from the arena, said there were many lines of communication in place, including two letters that went out into the community and a hotline and email for locals to contact. She also mentioned community meetings for dean street residents, lots of one on one meetings and calls, the regular Atlantic Yards quality of life meeting, Barclays Reps going to local meetings, and a representative available 100 percent to answer questions.
Saturday night, when large lights were pointed at Gunasekara’s building, Cotton came by her place offering window covering that would blackout the light. But the black cloth she received did not cover her windows. She also noted that the only flier she received was slid under her door on August 19, informing her of how to park cars during the event; badges would be provided to residents for parking in the Barclay’s lot.
“The only information I had was information I actively sought out,” she said.
Krashes was also insistent the information the community received was either incomplete, inaccurate, or delivered in a way that made rebuttal or change of request impossible.
“The community affairs office for the arena has been in contact with us, but the fliers were carefully calibrated,” he said. “The construction work hours were only included on Monday [August 19]. The street closures and access issues were inconsistent with the information that we’ve had. We’ve had one set of street closures that was announced a month ago and we were given a new set just a few hours before we had a block association meeting last Monday.”
“I moved in knowing this arena was going to be half a block from me,” Gunasekara said. “I also expected that I’d be informed about this. Not every event is going to be this disruptive to the community, but I feel that we deserve better.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘disrupting the calm,’” Oder said, “because some impacts of arena—notably leaking bass—have already been disruptive to neighbors. But it’s fair to say there was never any announced plan for a concert outside on the southeast corner of the arena block, right across from people’s houses.”
A source close to the issue, who asked to be cited anonymously, said on Saturday that complaints about “an unannounced concert” outside the arena on the day of the event are not relevant, because there was no concert, categorically. Rather, DJ duo Nervo were behind the decks, on a platform above the red carpet near the 6th Avenue and Dean Street intersection.
“There will be a DJ playing music during the red carpet and a singer briefly performing,” the source said. “To call it a concert would be inaccurate, and it is the policy of our office that these types of events are not pre-announced to prevent crowds from forming. It is the best interest of public safety that this so-called concert is not publicized as it would be imprudent for crowds to gather for a non-existent concert.”
In another ironic twist, the very Brownstone houses on Dean Street that would be blocked off because of outdoor stage construction became the backdrop for the red carpet pre-show, in order to give the proceedings a particularly “Brooklyn” vibe. In an article in the New York Times, David Sirulnick, one of the VMAs’ executive producers and a Brooklyn resident, acknowledged that the intent was to bring the setting into the show’s branding.
“This is one of the few arenas actually in a neighborhood,” Sirulnick told the Times. “It’s not going to be a red carpet show during which you can’t tell where it is.”
Krashner acknowledged the isolated nature of the complaints sounding “NIMBY” (not in my backyard), particularly in relation to the benefits for the community at large.
“I know it’s more thrilling to be excited about something than it is to be concerned with a small minority of affected people,” he said. “But the concern really is regulations to the state and to the city.”
The Press Secretary for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Etnertainment, Marybeth Ihle, issued a statement: “The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment has been in close communication with the community, meeting with residents and answering questions, in addition to the outreach done by MTV and Barclays. Our office has also reduced the footprint of this event significantly to lessen the impact on the local community.”
If that footprint is to shrink, were next year’s VMAs to be held in Brooklyn, MTV might consider finding a Moonman with smaller boots.