Laurie Cumbo first stumbled into the BAM battle at a public meeting in October 2002, held to address the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s plans for a new “mixed-use cultural district” in Fort Greene, on the edge of Downtown Brooklyn. Cumbo had heard that BAM’s Local Development Corporation planned to lure various arts organizations into their proposed district with offers of subsidies. She was interested in what this venerable performing-arts institution might offer her fledgling museum, the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts (MOCADA).
The cultural district was originally envisioned as an area larger than Manhattan’s Lincoln Center that would cut a 10-by-three-block zigzag through Downtown Brooklyn and the heart of Fort Greene. BAM and the BAM LDC are formally separate entities, but the LDC is chaired by Harvey Lichtenstein, who was BAM’s executive director for 32 years before founding the LDC in 1998. In 2001, he secured a $50 million matching grant from ex-mayor Giuliani. But initial meetings between Lichtenstein and Bloomberg’s deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff, were held behind closed doors. According to community activist Patti Hagan, “[Residents] thought that the BAM LDC was just one of these government entities that was remaking Fort Greene without any input from the people who live there— basically white people coming in and saying to a black community, ‘We know what’s best for you.’ ”