Barclays Center in Brooklyn Becomes a Classroom


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Teresa Genaro, an English teacher at the Packer Collegiate Institute, is giving her ninth-grade students a two-week symposium on Barclays Center and the history of sports in Brooklyn.

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Karsten Moran for The New York Times

It was hard to tell what the 19 ninth graders, seated in section 213 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a game between the New York Islanders and the Detroit Red Wings, were enjoying more: the action on the ice, or the long inflatable noisemakers in their hands. With each hit or shot came a cacophonous, joyous thumpathumpathumping.

For many of the students from the Packer Collegiate Institute, a 170-year-old private school in Brooklyn Heights, the hockey game on a recent Monday night was their first time inside the arena. Yet it was a place many of them knew, if not from daily life (only eight of the students call Brooklyn home) then at least from the ads and media attention that accompanied the 2012 opening of the borough’s first professional sports facility since the Dodgers left Ebbets Field in 1957.

That history, and a homework assignment, brought the students to Barclays Center in their down coats and burgundy Packer hooded sweatshirts. During the intermissions, they filed out of their seats, into the concourse of Budweiser- and Smirnoff-branded bars and concession stands selling expensive sandwiches, tacos and cakes from some of Brooklyn’s most beloved restaurants, to interview fans and workers about the arena.

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Marvin Polonsky, a former public school teacher and an amateur Brooklyn historian, spoke to the class last week.

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Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The next morning, over bagels in their classroom, the students were a mix of excitement and exhaustion.

“I thought it was really interesting that’s how the Barclays Center wanted to be perceived — that all Brooklynites go to the Barclays Center, and if you’re visiting Brooklyn, you have to go,” Kai Carse said.

Abbey Flamm raised her hand.

“The fans are so into it, but they’re there for the team, and not the Barclays Center,” she said. “They would follow their team anywhere.”

They grimaced over a photo of the giant scoreboard, which had flashed a welcome for the “Packer Collegiate Institution,” thinking that it had made them sound insane. They marveled at the price of a bottle of water — $5.25 — and the ambivalence of Islanders fans to their new home. Teresa Genaro, an English teacher at the school, thanked the students for not bringing their noisemakers to class.

It was her idea three years ago — when the school replaced midterms with two weeks of intensive, single-subject symposiums — to have students study Barclays Center, as well as Ebbets Field, and the ways sports shaped Brooklyn, and by extension the world. With the assignment of producing a multimedia blog chronicling their discoveries, the students were playing the part of a junior Frank Deford and Jane Jacobs, scouring the neighborhoods, bleachers and news reports of the venues to create stories of their own about an ever-changing, ever-cheering borough.

That a group of ninth graders could spend more than a week scrutinizing Barclays Center with the same attention they would give to “The Scarlet Letter” or a science fair frog was another reminder of just how fixed the arena has become in the modern identity of Brooklyn — and how even at a young age, New Yorkers can feel conflicted about this or any development project.

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The destruction of Ebbets Field began in February 1960, after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.

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Robert Walker/The New York Times

Archie Caride, a student from Manhattan, said, “It’s like it happened all over again, with the Dodgers move, and then the Nets move and the Islanders move, and each one changes its community.”

Hadassah Akinleye, a student from East New York, Brooklyn, said, “Definitely for me, the Barclays Center makes me wonder if we have the right to enjoy ourselves because so many people sacrificed their lives and their homes.”

Most of the students were unaware of the back stories for the old stadium and the arena — when the Atlantic Yards project was announced in 2003, they were only 1 or 2 years old — so that was where their exploration began, with a pair of documentaries. First, there was “Battle for Brooklyn,” about the fight, both on the streets and in the courts, to stop Atlantic Yards (since renamed Pacific Park).

A vigorous debate ensued among the students about whether it was proper to use eminent domain, a concept none of them had heard of, to build a private enterprise. On one point they did agree: that the film’s protagonist, Daniel Goldstein, the last holdout, could be a little harsh. Whether students were fans of teams that played at Barclays Center or lived nearby and had to contend with traffic or noise during events also seemed to affect their opinions of it.

“It’s not that simple,” said Henry Green, a student who lives in Brooklyn and roots for the Nets. “I think if I was kicked out of my home, and I went to the Barclays Center, I’d think a lot about the positives, too.”

After watching a second documentary, “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush,” and meeting Marvin Polonsky, an amateur historian who had attended Dodgers games in Brooklyn, the students’ dialogue was less impassioned, though they began to draw parallels between past and present.

The Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, for example, was himself a shrewd developer who secretly bought up the land in a part of Brooklyn that was known as Pigtown to build a state-of-the-art stadium in 1913. And many students sympathized with Mr. Ebbets’s successor, Walter O’Malley, often cast as a villain for moving the team to Los Angeles. After all, he was stymied by Robert Moses, who blocked efforts to construct a baseball stadium on almost the exact site where Barclays Center would rise.

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From left, Ava Horn, Jack Howard, Archie Caride and Kai Cedeno interviewed a woman on a recent afternoon about Barclays Center and the neighborhood.

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Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The students agreed the hardest part of their work was the man-on-the-street interviews they had to conduct one day outside and one night inside the arena, as well as a trip to the Crown Heights housing project that replaced Ebbets Field. On the streets of Park Slope, they found busy parents and indifferent shopkeepers, and also plenty of opinions.

“If they worked there, they seemed to like it, and if they don’t, they generally don’t,” Esme Ostrowitz-Levine said while standing at the corner of Flatbush and Fifth Avenues in between interviews.

Like many New Yorkers (including Michael Kimmelman, The Times’s architecture critic), the students struggled to decide the value of the new addition to the borough, and whether it could match the storied stadium that came before.

“I never understood what they did about the brownstones, and that made me mad,” Ava Horn, whose family lives in the neighborhood, said. “But then you see what they’ve done for all the businesses, and that was good.”

Brett Yormark, the chief executive officer of Barclays Center, said its complicated history offered a lesson in perseverance. “If there’s one message I want kids to understand, it’s dreaming big and reaching as high up as you can,” Mr. Yormark said in an interview, “and the Barclays Center embodies that.”

The class seemed to offer students not just a new view on Brooklyn sports history but also a new way to look at their city. Eleanor Happy has grown up in Battery Park City in Manhattan and pointed to recent changes there, like rising rents and a renovated Brookfield Place mall full of tourist-attracting luxury stores.

“It’s a fun neighborhood,” she said, “and they’re trying to drive the old families out.”

For Will Landau, a certain New York Zen had set in while observing the changes wrought by Ebbets Field and Barclays Center. “I don’t know if it’s any worse or any different,” he said. “It’s just what happens in New York City.”

Correction: February 1, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of a ninth grader who took part in a class assignment to interview fans and workers about Barclays Center. He is Kai Carse, not Cedeno.



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