The construction of Barclays Center—the 18,000 seat mega stadium built in 2012 that’s brought a new wave of commerce and culture to Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood—will probably always be a divisive issue for some borough residents. But looking back on the history of the land that it was built on reveals that, in some ways, the gargantuan stadium was always destined to be built.
Nearly a decade ago, Brooklyn residents balked when plans were announced to move the New Jersey Nets into the heart of their borough. It wasn’t just that New York was getting another team—the Nets’ exodus to Brooklyn was only part of a much larger project to fundamentally alter the neighborhood of Prospect Heights. Real estate juggernaut Bruce Ratner saw potential at the intersection between Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, and he was keen to capitalize on it. At the same time, though, native Brooklynites saw nothing but signs of bad things to come. There goes the neighborhood.
Many people living in Brooklyn turned to protest the new development, insisting that it would only make Prospect Heights’ gentrification problem even worse.
It wasn’t the first time development in the area courted controversy.
Early mass transit around the area that would eventually become Prospect Heights began in the late 19th century with the construction of the Flatbush Avenue train terminal, which finally brought steam-powered trains to Brooklyn. Previously, the borough had been limited to horse-powered transit, which had a depressive effect on commerce in the area. Flatbush Avenue connected the Long Island Rail Road to Brooklyn directly, quickly turning the borough into a high-volume thoroughfare to for workers and revitalizing the local economy. Plans were soon made to further build out the station to better accommodate the rising number of people pouring into Brooklyn.
The new Flatbush Avenue Terminal was up and fully operational by 1906, but it opened to little fanfare and much (perhaps unjustified) criticism from local architecture buffs. The then state-of- the-art steam train terminal connected Brooklyn to the Interborough Rapid Transit system, an early precursor of the MTA. Curiously, though, a 1907 edition of the Railroad Gazette described the Flatbush Avenue Terminal as “nothing very new to the engineer,” but from most accounts, the station was exemplary of the train depots of its time.
The two-storied, brick building rose up from Prospect Heights, adorned with earth-colored terra cotta. While it lacked Grand Central Station’s eponymous grandeur, its massive waiting room and shops are part of what made it the one-time focal point of life in downtown Brooklyn. In An Architectural Guide to Brooklyn, architectural historian Francis Morrone describes the Flatbush Avenue Terminal’s daily traffic as rivaling similarly sized stations in Hoboken and Jersey.
By 1947, there were calls to have the entire terminal torn down—many cited its unsightly, antiquated appearance as the main reason why. Even though the terminal had once been the heartbeat of downtown Brooklyn, it steadily continued to lose its cache well into the ‘50s. The Terminal’s struggles closely mirrored the type of difficulties Brooklyn was experiencing at a borough.
“In 1956, as the Brooklyn Dodgers were considering leaving the city,” Morrone explained, “Brooklyn Borough president John Cashmore unveiled a plan for a 50,000-seat baseball stadium (that intended to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn).”
The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles two years later.
Over the following forty years, the MTA actively campaigned to renovate and tear down Flatbush Avenue in hopes of building a more modern transportation hub. Years of neglect and underuse caused the terminal to fall into various states of disrepair. Looters ransacked its stores on a number of occasions, and eventually, Flatbush Avenue became a shell of its former self.
A number preservation societies like the Coalition to Save Brooklyn’s LIRR Terminal Complex fought back to keep Flatbush Avenue intact, arguing that the station’s history was integral to the community’s cohesion. Ultimately, though, it was demolished in 1988.
Though Flatbush Avenue as Brooklyn had known it was no more, the development it gave way to would eventually lead to the kind of flourishing community that so many people wanted for the area. The Atlantic Terminal, one of Bruce Ratner’s first major developments in the area, was built upon the same plot of land where Flatbush Avenue once stood, and it gave momentum to the Ratner’s plan to breathe new life into the area.
The Atlantic Terminal was everything that Flatbush Avenue had been and more. It was more than major public transit thoroughfare –it had become a multi story-mall, and exactly the kind of draw that would bring in large crowds, the kinds of crowds that would make a mega-arena worth building.
Though a simple baseball stadium wasn’t enough to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn in the ‘50s, the Barclays Center wanted to be something more. Since it’s opening in 2012, the Barclays Center has become the focal point of entertainment in Prospect Heights. It brought both the New York Mets and the New York Islanders to Brooklyn, and it’s drawn musical acts like Rihanna, Kanye West, and JAY Z.
In JAY Z’s Life+Times Presents: Where I’m From, JAY Z recounts his experience as the Barclays Center’s first opening act in 2012. His decision to headline for the venue was as strategic a business plan as it was a heartfelt personal choice.
“This was a long, long journey to get here,” he says in the documentary, which airs on Fusion on Monday, June 15, at 10:30pm EST. “This whole thing started off in 2003. Jason Kidd came to the club one night; he was like ‘the Nets wanna sell, you should get into them.’ I was like ‘yeah, whatever.’”
“So I told my homeboy about it and he reached out,” he said. “Then a man named Bruce Ratner came to my club 40/40 in Manhattan. He was like ‘you wanna be a part of the Nets?’ I was like ‘ok.’ Then he was like ‘we’re going to Brooklyn,’ and I was like ‘oh let’s do that.’”
“This is a guy from Marcy. Even if you’re not from Brooklyn, you’re not from Marcy projects, you know that life and you know that situation,” Young Guru, JAY Z’s Grammy award winning producer explained of why they came to open Barclays. “So it’s supposed to be like you’re looking at that and saying if this guy can do it, I can do it too. It’s possible. That barrier is taken down.”
Starting June 15th, Fusion will air four episodes of “JAY Z’s Life+Times Presents: Where I’m From” on Mondays at 10:30PM ET.