By Orlando Lee Rodriguez
In late 1883, Brooklyn-based real estate developer Charles H. Byrne organized a team called the “Brooklyns” who would personify the proud Brooklyn identity for much of the 20th century.
After winning an interstate championship, Byrne attempted to make his “Brooklyns” better by buying the Cleveland baseball team in 1885 for $10,000 and transferring their players to Brooklyn.
That team, who would become the Dodgers, changed baseball and the United States forever in 1945 by signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the sport’s racial divide. Twelve years later, they became impactful again, when they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, leaving Brooklynities brokenhearted for half a century.
That is until another Brooklyn real estate developer with a Cleveland connection helped heal the wound.
“I think in some ways [The Nets] are more important than the Dodgers,” said Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies, who brought the basketball team to Brooklyn from New Jersey last year.
“We have a large, low income population in Brooklyn and having a basketball team is something that people, low, middle and upper income can really rally around.
“Having young people have something to look up to and be proud of where they live is very important,” he said.
Ratner, who had just received ULI’s New York’s 2013 Real Estate Legend award the day we spoke, came to New York in the late 1960’s to attend Columbia Law School. After graduation, he wound up becoming part of the post-Robert Moses era as the director of the Model Cities Program under Mayor John Lindsay’s administration and as the Commissioner of consumer affairs under Ed Koch until 1982.
“I just stayed, like so many people from the Midwest or much of the country,” Ratner said. “New York is a magnet-place in terms of people coming to school [or] people wanting to work here. It was sort of an obvious choice to stay, it offered so much.”
In 1982, Ratner left public service and joined the family real estate business, eventually leading up its New York operations. His most famous project before the Barclay’s Center -Metro Tech- was built at a time when Brooklyn was nicknamed “Crooklyn” for its infamous robbery crews who roamed its neighborhoods and congregated in the Fulton Mall, a testament to the lack of localized economy.
“Our company has in general really worked hard to try and do things that we think contribute in a civic way to the city,” Ratner said. “Whether it be the New York Times building or in terms of doing what it did at that time for the west side [or] Metrotech at the time when the city was trying to save jobs, or the arena, the place that people look at as the center place in Brooklyn.”
That center piece, now the home of the Brooklyn Nets, did eliminate a stretch of Pacific Street but at the same time brought localized entry level jobs, something that The Bronx, even during the height of its world famous arson fires, enjoyed with Yankee Stadium. The home of a team that Ratner knows well.
“If you came from Cleveland you didn’t love the Yankees back then,” he said. “They were always in competition [with the Indians]. They came in first and Cleveland came in second those years in the 50’s.”
Today, although they both have new facilities, it is the Bronx that stands behind Brooklyn in terms of development and is probably years away before its grand boulevards attract artists seeking the spaces its art deco apartments can offer.
Across the river, Brooklyn’s townhome counterpart, Harlem, has enjoyed a renaissance, but it still does not have anywhere near the buzz of Brooklyn.
That again, is a reversal of sorts, from when Harlem’s team, The New York Giants was a world champion. A team Ratner, the Indians fan, knows very well.
“My father bought me tickets to the fifth game [of the 1954 Worold Series],” he said. “I was 9 years old and I didn’t get to go because the Giants beat the Indians in four straight games.”
As it is with children and sports, wounds run deep. Just ask any man in his late 60’s about the Brooklyn Dodgers bolting for California. If he is firmlt rooted in the past, he’ll break into a rant of how the team broke his heart and how much he longs for Ebbets Field.
But Ratner comes across more future focused, labeling his grandson as his “greatest achievement,” and indicating that ones legacy, whether that of a single team or a single man, does not really mean very much in the scope of earth’s history or the universe.
“You know the world goes on and on,” he said. “100 years from now no one will remember any of us, so you just want to contribute as much as you can while you are around in any kind of way.”