Last Friday two things changed. The shifts weren't seismic, or unexpected, but now Brooklyn is different and hip-hop is different. It's because of Jay-Z, who, despite owning only 0.067% of the Nets and less than 0.2% of the Barclays Center, has become the public face of Brooklyn – not the team, the town.
I live four blocks from the Barclays Center, the new home of Brooklyn's professional basketball team, transplanted from New Jersey, and a 19,000 seat concert venue. A couple of weeks ago I went out of town and the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues was the enormous construction site it has been for the past two and a half years, scaffolding spilling into the street causing midnight traffic jams. When I came back last week, there was an arena there. It looks like an alien shellfish, lit from within. The subway stop there has a different name. That intersection was unlovely before this whole project started, in 2003, and despite everything — the deployment of eminent domain, the demolishing of my second-favorite bar in the world, the billion dollars of NYC taxpayer money subsidizing the building and future development around it — I'm into it.
My councilwoman, Letitia James, has criticized the development. In August she was quoted in the New York Times, saying of Jay-Z's investment, "Bringing in someone who grew up in public housing, with a rags-to-riches story, who could identify with Brooklyn and African-Americans, that was slick."
I went to the first concert at the Barclays Center on Friday night — Jay-Z himself, on an eight-night stand. I took the subway over after work, and walked around the mini-mall across the street, past the Nets and the Rocawear stores that open onto Flatbush. There were so many wide-eyed people Instagraming in the vicinity of the building that cell service cut out. I swear to god I have never been asked to take so many people's picture before.
Some of the crowd was already wearing black-and-white B's on their hats and T-shirts. And if that picks up — whether people adorning themselves in Brooklyn's colors are aligning themselves with Jay or the Nets or they just dig the logo and color scheme — everybody who put up millions to bring the Nets here gets paid. I think Councilwoman James is right — Jay-Z's origins, the way he reminds us of the circumstances he came up in and his unapologetic joy at living comfortably now, links him to this team and its home court more tightly than other celebrity musician investors in professional teams are tied to theirs: Will Smith to the Philadelphia 76ers, Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Buffet et al to the Miami Dolphins.
What they're selling out in Brooklyn isn't an NBA team. They're selling Jay-Z's rags-to-riches story. And he's offering it up, at a lower price than you'd think.
"I've been on many stages. Been all around the world," he said on Friday. "Nothing feels like tonight." The crowd broke out into a chant of "Brooklyn, Brooklyn." Jay sounded as incredulous as we felt. As he took a breath a lone voice wafted through the air, quoting the man of the evening: "You crazy for this one Jay!" He had composed a verse for the occasion that included the line, "No, really, I got shooters on my team!"
"I grew up in Marcy Projects, which is about 15 minutes that way," said Jay, pointing in the correct direction, as noted by a dude in my row. The pre-show entertainment was radio DJ Mr. Cee, who reminded us that he grew up in Lafayette Gardens, which is half the distance to Marcy from where we were standing. Cee spun a good amount of Biggie's catalog to get us hype for the main event. He didn't play "Juicy," though — Jay called that one for himself, and just rhymed along to Biggie's track, like we all have, about a million times, and did again that night with thousands of our neighbors: "You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far." The culture has celebrated momentous achievements before, but Friday night felt like the farthest hip-hop had ever taken it.
Jay said that everyone in the arena was from Brooklyn that night, but when Mr. Cee asked for the Bronx to stand up, then Queens, then Staten, then Manhattan, the hollering was spirited, but manageable. When he asked where Brooklyn was, the roof blew off. "It's our night tonight," said Mr. Cee. "They can't never say that Brooklyn cats don't have money." They used to say that. Brooklyn was not always a good place to be from. It did not always imply achievement, mastery, flyness. Remember Saturday Night Fever?
The Brooklyn that calls Jay-Z its favorite son does not look like John Travolta's Brooklyn. And everybody who lives and works near the Barclays Center now has the opportunity to make money from it. Believe me, the parking garages did not hesitate to jack their prices up this week. A lady advertising her psychic services was handing out flyers in front of the arena and the vans that run up and down Flatbush more frequently (and more cheaply) than the public buses were full.
Jay-Z's tiny percentages will pay off, though he won't make as much money as Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns most of the team, will. Or AEG, the company that operates the venue. Or Bruce Ratner, the developer who started this whole thing. He has proposed to build 16 mixed-use towers with the arena as the centerpiece, a heavily subsidized project expected to cost $4.9 billion and be finished more than 20 years from now. The cash they all stand to make dwarfs what might trickle down to the local businesses and property owners, like me, nearby. That's if everything goes as planned, runs as smoothly as Friday night did. I don't think drunken sports fans sprawl is what my neighborhood needs the most.
Ratner's proposal, and his tactics, have raised hackles since the beginning. His company bought the rights to build in the heart of Brooklyn at a discount from New York's transit authority, the MTA. The last homeowner to leave the area claimed by eminent domain held out for seven years, organized a group opposed to the extent and style of the development, called Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, finally moved and received $3 million in compensation, which covered his legal fees and the value of his apartment.
And some politicians and business groups didn't oppose Ratner because he talked big about jobs and affordable housing in his original proposal. In 2003 he announced numbers of jobs and apartments created by his project that have since been drastically revised down, he says, in response to economic conditions. That affordable housing is to be subsidized not by Ratner, but by the city. As Councilwoman James said, it was a nice move bringing in Jay to paper over Brooklyn's doubts.
The Barclays Center is fraught, but watching Jay open it was touching, and that night, I did not feel complicated about him.
"I think every person in the world is born with genius-level talent," Jay said on Friday night. "I ain't no motherf---ing different than anybody in here tonight. And I'm standing on this stage as living proof. If you apply yourself to what it is that you're a genius at, you can do anything in the world. I hope that wasn't too syrupy and s---, but that's just the way I feel."
For many of us in attendance that might not work, but the night clearly belonged to Jay. (When the opening bars of "Run This Town" banged out of the speakers and Rihanna's disembodied voice hit the hook — "Who's gonna run this town tonight?" — my whole section just burst out laughing. There is such thing as a dumb question.) He was a generous MC. The guys behind me called him humble. Toward the end of his show he asked for the lights to be brought up. Spotlights pivoted to where he stood, and he laughed. "No, no I'm sorry, not those lights," he said. He wanted the house lights up, so he could see the crowd.
Jay moves in rarefied circles, but he lives here. He's out and about in New York. You can say what's up to him, as basically everyone does. You can acknowledge the early hour and your mutually large coffees with a shared smile and nod like I once did. You can congratulate him on his new baby while security hustles him and his wife through a crowd and he will stop, look you in the eye and say, "Thank you very much," as he did to a friend.
When I woke up the morning after the show I walked around my neighborhood and eventually back down to the arena. Everyone looked industrious that day. I don't know many people from my block who had been there, but everybody was running errands and gardening and dealing with kids. I felt like we were all applying ourselves. I went to the Target down by the arena, jaywalking across Atlantic Avenue with three men wearing walkie talkies clipped to their shoulders and T-shirts that read: "Jay-Z's Barclays Arena 9/28-10/6." Possessive apostrophe. Inside Target there were racks of Brooklyn Nets gear.
In front of the arena a couple of hours later, a middle-aged woman of color walked past me, not getting on line to go in, just taking in the sights. "I gotta give Jay-Z his props," she said to her friend. Then a white guy in his early twenties stood a couple feet away and took a picture. "This is f---ing bad---," he said. I spoke to the Radlers, a family of four from Long Island that was going to the show together. The paterfamilias, Bruce, was already inside, at the 40/40 Club. He's the president of Basketball City, and, having opened his own facility devoted to the sport this year in New York, he felt an affinity to both Jay and Bruce Ratner. His wife, Betty, said the family was really there for him — so he could hear Jay do "Empire State of Mind."
On Monday I went to a concert in Manhattan and, when the warmup DJ shouted, "Put your hands up if you've already been to the show!" we all knew what he was talking about. The crowd was industry-heavy and hands went up left and right. He said he thought we could guess why he was so proud to be from Brooklyn this week, and then he dropped "U Don't Know." Tuesday night I went to get my hair done. The place I go is five blocks north of Barclays. Within minutes of sitting down in the chair we, clients and hairdressers alike, were all talking about "the show." To a woman, we had trepidations about the arena when it was under construction. And now we're talking about buying discount Nets tickets just to go to the clubs inside Barclays. Sunshine Dunlop, who colors my hair, is going tonight. She has her outfit all picked out. She said she needed to show some Brooklyn love by rocking a Nets hat. She said it will be her first concert that isn't at a college campus. Another client said she has friends flying in from Paris for the last performance, on Saturday.
I told everybody I'm going again on Friday, this time just to dance. I'll go see the Nets in November. I'll walk home afterward, maybe hit a bar on the way. In Brooklyn we will talk to each other about this change, this happening, our new neighbor. We will laugh about the acts this week that we saw through and retell the moments we could tell weren't faked.
I could be completely cynical about Jay-Z and the Barclays Center. After all, it would be rare for any professional artist, entertainer, businessman to do something without caring about getting paid. But for this man, who is black, who was raised without a father in a nearby housing project, who flipped a rap career out of drug money, millions aren't only dollar signs. In his words, "I do this for my culture / To let them know what a n---- look like when a n---- in a roadster." Picture that, with a Kodak.