Bruce Ratner is a very stubborn man. When he gets an idea that truly inspires him, he just can’t let go until he succeeds or even, G-d forbid, fails. In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice, Bruce Ratner’s palpable tenacity and drive shine through. Contrary to rumors of his impending retirement, at the young age of 68, Ratner remains a powerhouse; forging ahead with multifarious projects. By the way, Bruce rarely fails.
What is driving the man who is one of the top real estate titans in the United States, along with holding the positions of Chairman and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, to both give the face of Brooklyn a makeover, along with rebuilding its once vibrant downtown section; thus recreating the excitement of yesteryear when Brooklyn had a world renowned baseball team called “the Dodgers” and also bringing an arts and culture presence to Brooklyn, and oh yes, building large scale affordable housing so people can move there and enjoy all this in their back yard?
What is driving him?? Brooklyn !!!
Ratner loves Brooklyn, loves the excitement of the every day and loves his job. “I was always fascinated with Brooklyn and as a child always heard about Brooklyn. Brooklyn is where all the Passover food came from. It was also the place where a lot of great people came out of.” Ratner relates that when the opportunity arose to get into the real estate business, he realized that Brooklyn was the place with the greatest potential. It has a great transportation system, beautiful brownstones, and neighborhoods and is educationally amazing with a wide array of schools and universities. “There are more students in downtown Brooklyn than in Cambridge, Mass.”
Meeting Bruce Ratner is a delightful experience. Initial images of a tough, unforgiving business man quickly dissipate when you see him walk over to the door of the vast offices of the Forest City Ratner Companies, on the 23rd floor of Brooklyn’s Metrotech Center and personally escort you into his office. Sitting down at an office conference table, he passionately starts talking about those events and people in his life that he loves and about those he can’t connect with because they just don’t share his ideals. Ratner is a staunch Democrat and liberal and cannot imagine people, especially Jews, who are not.
Talking about Judaism, Bruce loves being a Jew. He reminiscently talks about his family and his immigrant parents who hailed from Poland and settled in Cleveland and he remembers growing up in the difficult years where every penny counted. He talks about making it into Harvard College and graduating Columbia Law and eventually moving east to New York. He then takes his history forward to his stint as Consumer Affairs Commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch, OB”M, followed by an idea about transforming an ugly part of the New York landscape, downtown Brooklyn, into an urban fairyland, against all odds and against the wishes of many.
With a dream and the need for lots of money, in the early 90s Ratner forges forward and Forest City Ratner takes on a one billion dollar project in downtown called the Metrotech Center, a vast array of office and educational facilities. He follows that with the acquisition and building of the Atlantic Center mall in 1996, the Atlantic Terminal mall in 2004, the Atlantic Yards residential buildings, after which he decides he will have the “chutzpah” to build a sports stadium in Brooklyn.
“If you have a sports stadium you need a sports team, so let’s bring the Nets basketball team back to New York from New Jersey and install them in a brand new stadium and call it the Barclays Center. Best way to do that, buy the team!!!!!” Ratner finds a wealthy Russian oligarch named Mikhail Prokhorov who agrees to partner with him to buy the New Jersey Nets and invests in the building of the Barclays Center. Lots of people have lots of ideas about this and many in Brooklyn are calling it a folly. Many are adamantly opposed to it and many are trying to halt its progress, but many don’t have the formidable inner resilience and fortitude of Bruce Ratner.
Ratner is proud about how Jews have made it here in America. He speaks with awe about how he was afforded such incredible opportunities and has seen part of his dream come true despite all odds. Ratner talks about the years of planning, fighting and building and says, “During the process and up until Barclays Center opened I was not sure it was all worth it, but now I am sure and happy and proud. It was so, so worth it.”
Comparing the difference between Barclays Center and other venues, Ratner says that it’s all about Brooklyn. A thoroughly ethnic melting pot of different cultures, all intertwined and proud of their unique heritage. Brooklyn is not a “place” it’s a “community.” This community needs a meeting place and Barclays Center fits the bill in an extraordinary fashion.
Barclays Center has so far been the home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and will soon be the home of the New York Islanders hockey team. It is also the ever expanding home to the arts and culture scene with such events as concerts and shows. Already it has seen the likes of Jay Z and Barbra Streisand and will be seeing Mumford and Sons, Green Day, Marc Anthony, Alicia Keys, Beyonce and Justin Bieber.
Ratner’s Jewish heritage sparks with ideas for his Jewish friends. He remembers as a child the cantor in his community in Cleveland and how hearing him was an essential part of his religious experience. He thus became a cantorial aficionado. As the Barclays Center started to grow, he received a call from an old friend, legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, who told him about his “Eternal Echoes, Songs and Dances for the Soul” recording with renowned tenor Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. This gave him the idea that his first Jewish event at Barclays on February 28 is going to be a cantorial concert with Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Helfgot.
Ratner relates that cantors the likes of Koussevitzky and Rosenblatt were rock stars in Brooklyn in the old days and Cantor Helfgot is the 21st century version of these cantors with a voice that is both amazing and inspiring. Ratner states, “This was an event that was perfect for Brooklyn, for the Barclays Center and for me”. The concert is a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the Perlman Music Program and profits from this concert will go to the Met Council to further its work with the Jewish poor and the Perlman Music Program to give aid to talented young musicians.
The concert on February 28 will provide attendees with the option of purchasing glatt kosher food from Abigael’s of New York and The Avenue K Restaurant. In addition, there will be separate seating available in a section for Orthodox Jews who require such facilities for modesty purposes. As a general policy, the Barclays Center caters to the Orthodox Jewish crowd throughout the year at all of its events by providing them with a wide variety of kosher carts and concession stands in various locations.
Next in Bruce Ratner’s dream book is a new building complex of mixed luxury, middle income and affordable housing. Ratner is a great believer that downtown Brooklyn is ready for high rise housing. He also wants to keep the cost down while utilizing union labor. He believes that the unions created the middle class in the United States and must be supported. Forest City Ratner has invested millions in a new type of high rise modular prefabricated construction. The first anywhere, it will both speed up construction and keep costs down.
He is also super excited about the future of the Brooklyn Nets. He sees continuous growth, the games are almost all sold out. The team ratings have tripled and are far greater than they were in New Jersey,. One game at Barclays Center has a bigger gate in dollars than four New Jersey games. The difference is that the team is in now situated in the “County of Kings.” There is a symbiotic relationship of sorts going on, as Brooklyn loves basketball and the fans also love Brooklyn. It then becomes a synergy of the place and the fan.
When asked about what he wants to leave to society, Ratner states: “I am not trying to leave a legacy; people will hardly remember President Clinton in 100 years and will probably not at all remember me. Rather, it’s about living today, making each and every day count, be productive and meaningful and have a positive impact on other people’s lives. “
Tickets for the Perlman-Helfgot Concert at the Cushman and Wakefield Theatre at Barclays Center on Thursday February 28 at 7:30 PM may be purchased via Ticketmaster by visiting www.barclayscenter.com or www.ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 745-3000.
Tickets are also available at the American Express Box Office at Barclays Center located at 620 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
PULL QUOTE: “Ratner relates that cantors the likes of Koussevitzky and Rosenblatt were rock stars in Brooklyn in the old days and Cantor Helfgot is the 21st century version of these cantors with a voice that is both amazing and inspiring.”