Victoria Sheil IDIS sect 2: The Bruce Ratner Comparison

In order to explore power dynamics at the city level several theories provide explanations to who has the power and how they maintain position of decision making. The models we identified in class include the growth machine and the regime theory. The growth machine is local power structures in land- based coalitions (handout). Decision making is economically driven. Considering factors outside economic growth, Barbara Ferman explores the urban regime theory in her book, Challenging the Growth Machine explaining institutions role in shaping the opportunities for and conditions of, participation in the political system (8). Each has their own characteristics, however they both distinguish the relationship between local government and private interests. What is most interesting though is the power dynamic in “Brooklyn Matters.” The developer of Atlantic Yards, Bruce Ratner, supports existing thoughts that private interests can influence decision making, however Ratner has used dynamics to gain even more power and get rid of the local government relationship.

Several examples were included in class, including Ferman’s, to support the regime theory. Brooklyn Matters can also support this theory by looking at the way Ferman describes the relationship between public and private sector. Ferman describes power dynamics in which internal influences affect the governing regime in either the civic or electoral arena through which policy and political outcomes occur (11). Ratner follows this logic because business interest have influences in decision making. Similar to Pittsburgh, it is a civic arena where private interests can hold power (Brooklyn Matters 2007). This highlights the private sectors ability to be in the power dynamic of decision making.

The other theory discussed, growth machine has an even stronger argument in the movie. Local decisions are commonly looking to increase land values (handout). In class, we organized who had decision making power for the Atlantic Yards scenario, and it is very clear that business ownership dominates all other institutions, supporting the growth machine. The dominance of economic development in decision making give Ratner, a planner of economic development, a lot of support and credibility in power dynamics.

While the movie can both support regime and the growth machine, it can also contrast them. It is Interesting to watch the Movie “Brooklyn Matters” because the relationship between local government and business owners is almost nonexistent. Bruce Ratner’s decision making and the non-existence of local government power questions the theories in two ways. Does the current dynamics of local government allow individuals to gain more power and also, how does this disrupt current ideas of the too power theories?

Ratner’s ability to pursue Atlantic Yards meant a different strategy then the Ferman suggests. He went passed the local governance straight to the state level (Brooklyn Matters 2007). This dynamic disrupts the expected relationship between local governance and business sectors. However, it’s the way the relationship exists that allowed Ratner to gain more power. In Ratner’s case the regime dynamic actually opens the door for business interests to cut ties with local governance. A main concept of regime theory describes, “to make things happen in a community, to marshal resources, bring interests together, and enact and implement policies—in other words, to meet “social production” goals—government officials need to form coalitions with other groups within the community” (Reese and Rosenfeld 645). The local governance reliance creates an unbalanced relationship towards business. Therefore, is was easy for Ratner to bypass local governance and gain support from the state.

This contrasts current ideas and diminishes the role of local influence. For Ferman’s idea, any local level organizing no longer has an arena to influence decisions. Ratner’s dominance in decision making minimizes the CBO’s and neighborhood influence seen in Challenging the Growth Machine. For example, “Pittsburgh’s elites demonstrated expansionist or accommodationist tendencies, which set a precedent for future corporation between CBO’s and the governing regime” (Ferman 17). While groups with power interact with CBO’s and governing regime, Ratner barely has to interact with either. In fact, this disruption gave Ratner influence over certain CBO’S so that he could pinned governing regime against CBO’s, disguising the fact that neither had any decision making power for the project.

Each city developed institutional framework to shape expectations in decision making creating formalizations and governing orientations. Ratner bypasses all of that and goes straight to the state in order to undermine the institutional framework reconstruct the constraints and empowerment of certain activities. The power dynamic seen in Brooklyn Matters disrupts both the growth theory and the regime theory with consequences in local ability to make decisions. By giving power to the state for local city level decisions, Ratner gains power and locals lose control. The power dynamic is uneven towards the private sector so that the local governance is reliant on private interest in order to enact a form of power.


Reese, Laura A. 2002 Reconsidering Private Sector Power: Business Input and Local Development Policy Urban Affairs Review May 2002 vol. 37 no. 5 642- 674.

Brooklyn Matters 2007 Documentary

Ferman, Barbara. 1996. Challenging the Growth Machine: Neighborhood Politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh. University Press of Kansas.