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Ikea And Red Hook's Racial Divide

by Tom Angotti, Jun 15, 2004
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"I have to laugh at the groups who say Ikea is splitting the neighborhood," says Judith T. Dailey, a long-time resident of Red Hook in Brooklyn. "The fact is Red Hook has always been split."

Dailey was among scores of Red Hook residents who attended a recent meeting of Community Board Six in Brooklyn to support the proposed building of a 350,000 square foot Ikea superstore on the Red Hook waterfront. . The board is expected to give the necessary approvals for the project to go ahead.

Environmental groups have joined with some Red Hook residents to oppose the project. They point to the proliferation of big box stores on the city's waterfront, as well as the increase in traffic and air pollution.

The longstanding divide that Judith Dailey alludes to is between residents of Red Hook Houses, a public housing project where about 70 percent of the neighborhood population lives, and homeowners in "The Back." But this division is more than just about turf. The majority of people in Red Hook Houses are people of color, and the most vocal residents of "The Back" seem to be white. Only the public ethic of color blindness allows everyone to politely forget the mention of race as a factor in this division.

Ikea's opponents correctly point out that the trucks and over 9,000 cars per day that Ikea will attract will create havoc in this peninsula that functions well as an urban village. The planned reconstruction of the Gowanus Expressway, or its deconstruction and replacement with a tunnel, will route even more traffic through Red Hook for over a decade. Ikea is proposing to re-engineer several intersections and widen some streets, but that will only make it easier for people to drive to Red Hook, whether for Ikea, the new Fairway planned for another waterfront site, or any number of other new commercial giants waiting in the wings to gobble up Red Hooks vacant waterfront sites.

But according to Judith Dailey, "The traffic won't kill us, we need this window of opportunity." Representatives of tenants at Red Hook Houses believe the 500 to 600 jobs promised by Ikea are more important. Perhaps 60 percent of those jobs will be full-time and Ikea has promised to accept applications from Red Hook residents before opening up the hiring process to others. They also propose to provide training.

Ikea Looking Good

On the surface, Ikea looks pretty good when compared to the standard head-strong developer who plows ahead without consulting with their future neighbors. This Swedish multinational giant with 180 stores in 31 countries looks like a socially responsible neighbor when compared to bull-headed predators like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, or the despots of downtown Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner. Instead of ignoring public housing tenants as developers, Ikea talked with them. And tipping their hats to the other side of the Hook, they put in a few environmental innovations, like a small green roof. They committed to keeping a barge operator - one of the last vestiges of the working waterfront - as a neighbor, and say they'll start a ferry service and shuttle to the nearest subway. In all, despite charges that it exploits labor and contributes to the destruction of forest land in poor countries, Ikea has a pretty good public image.

But before giving any civic awards to Ikea, consider what they're NOT doing. First of all, there's nothing in writing to guarantee local jobs. Verbal commitments alone can easily evaporate, and the recent history of big box stores raises serious questions about the quality and long-term viability of their jobs (see the recent article by Hilary Russ in Gotham Gazette). Ikea's goal of 100 prtvrny local hires is hardly altruistic. Most of the jobs pay modest wages that won't attract workers from long distances anyway.

Secondly, the street improvements Ikea says they will pay for are more likely to help the SUV drivers coming to shop from all over the region than Red Hook residents. Ikea isn't helping to create safe pedestrian or bicycle ways in Red Hook and instead will bring more traffic through the most heavily populated areas, including public housing. Ikea needs to make the street improvements to get past the legally-mandated environmental review and they would lose time and money if they had to wait for the city to make the changes.

Third, the ferry and shuttle bus seem to be only icing on Ikea's cake, since the company estimates that 85 percent of its shoppers are going to drive there anyway.

Fourth, by providing public access to the waterfront, Ikea is not giving anything extra to Red Hook. It would be required to do this under the city's commercial waterfront zoning.

Lost Opportunities

Precisely because Ikea is more open and willing to give something back to the neighborhood that welcomes it, we have to ask why they're allowed to get away with giving so little. Wal-mart and other big box developers are eyeing Red Hook, so doing the right thing with Ikea could set a higher standard for future proposals. If Ikea could genuinely integrate their project into a revitalized Red Hook it may not turn out to be yet another corporate enclave on the waterfront.

There are at least three reasons why Ikea is a lost opportunity.

The first reason is that it leaves intact the historic divide among Red Hook residents (and businesses, too). This fits neatly with the classic role that racism has played in community development: it allows developers to divide and conquer. Until our color-blind officialdom starts talking honestly about race, it will continue to undermine the ability of communities to have a say in planning their futures.

Secondly, city agencies that should be playing a proactive role are, at best, passive players. Why isn't the Department of Transportation and the Department of City Planning telling Ikea to reduce the amount of parking, beef up public transit, or find a better location? The Department of Transportation years ago rejected the de-mapping of truck routes in Red Hook that run through residential streets, so I guess it would be out of character to now be concerned that pedestrians might get run over by Ikea's trucks and shoppers.

Finally, the Ikea proposal ignores the official plan for Red Hook, which was approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council. This plan was developed a decade ago in a two-year-long process that brought together the neighborhood's diverse residents and businesses. It projected a vision of a mixed industrial/residential community without separate waterfront enclaves. The city takes no responsibility for implementing this plan. After it was approved the Red Hook plan was put on the shelf and forgotten. If the city's planners took it seriously they would remind everyone that the Ikea site was to be preserved for industrial and maritime uses. This policy is consistent with the city's own Waterfront Revitalization Plan. So why isn't the city sending Ikea and the parade of other big box stores to downtown locations where subways and buses are already in place, and promoting industrial and maritime uses on this section of the waterfront?

Perhaps the divisions in Red Hook give city officials a good excuse for their actions and inactions. Both Ikea and the city could use their considerable power and resources to bring everyone to the table. But perhaps that's too much to ask for. When people start working together they may envision a future that goes far above the bottom line and remember their own visions for the future of their neighborhood.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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