neighborhoods

‘It’s a Tyranny of Mike’

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Facebook, Getty

It would be annoying to live in the enormous apartment complex that occupies a former hospital in Crown Heights without joining the building’s Facebook page. Members of “Neighbors of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital” help each other navigate an arcane heat system, find missing mail, and tap into perks: free cat-sitters, old furniture, and, two weeks ago, a post for a free Hot Wheels set. In 2014, posts about rent spikes set off a campaign for rent-stabilized leases, which succeeded.

A typical repost from the local precinct. Photo: Facebook

But the building could also feel unfriendly, and often, so did the page. Renters tended to be white, and some had, for instance, shut the door in resident Oluwakemi Oritsejafor’s face rather than hold it open. “Racial profiling has always been an issue,” says Oritsejafor, a Black woman who moved in five years ago, who felt like she was sometimes “living around fearful white people.” Meanwhile, the group shared a drumbeat of news about nearby crimes (posting “Wanted” posters from local precincts) and complaints about stolen packages. “There was something going on that was beginning to feel very uncomfortable,” says a white woman who has been in the building for a decade and felt like the page, over the last few years, had started to acquire a “Nextdoor vibe.”

But whereas the posts about stolen packages came from all sorts of people, the posts sharing “Wanted” posters came from a single user: Mike Fagan, the group’s admin, and over the past few months, members of the group started to push back. When Fagan posted a “Wanted” ad in October, Mariano Muñoz, a resident, asked Fagan about the “criteria” that made it relevant. In November, other voices joined Muñoz in asking for a similar post to be taken down. Behind the scenes, Fagan’s co-admin, Jessica Laine Trugman, privately asked Fagan to stop posting news from the precinct. In response, Fagan demoted her — stripping away her status as an admin and her ability to hit “delete.” Trugman posted publicly about the spat, and Fagan announced he’d be rebranding the page to be more widely about the neighborhood — with an array of news posts, including re-shares from the precinct. “It will grow larger with time, luck, and work,” he wrote, and “hopefully it will keep a lot of the current members.” People were not pleased. The general feeling seemed to be that Fagan was taking their building’s board hostage.

Photo: Facebook

Angry comments continued to pile up, bringing the page into the notifications of some of the 3,300 members who otherwise only checked sporadically. Views doubled. When Trugman went out to dinner, the owner of the restaurant told her he’d been enjoying the drama. As users peered in, some started wondering who Fagan even was. He didn’t look especially familiar. A few stumbled on a 2004 New York Times article that showed that someone by that name owned a co-op just off Grand Army Plaza, one neighborhood over. Fagan had been open about his address to the group, offering up a ladder to anyone who could trek over to his place to pick it up. But casual users might not have noticed until, at the height of the debate, Muñoz posted, “I still don’t know why we have an admin that has not lived in our complex for over 12 Yrs if ever at all.” (As it turns out, Fagan, a social worker, had never lived there. He had become a moderator to post a local event in the group in 2013, and inherited power after a resident moderator moved away.)

“The whole thing just felt ridiculous at some level,” says the white tenant who had shuddered at the group’s “Nextdoor vibe.” “The fact this is being run by this guy who was having such a negative impact, when he didn’t even live in the building?” And it bothered a Black man raising a family in the building: “This guy owns an apartment, probably worth over $1 million dollars, and he’s deciding for folks in a rent-controlled building — folks who aren’t poor but probably aren’t wealthy — deciding what they see, and basically kicking them out?” In other words, he saw Fagan as “a white guy on a power trip.”

Trugman shared what had happened with the group. Photo: Facebook

Users started asking Fagan to step down and hand over power temporarily to a council of building residents. Fagan wasn’t interested. He warned that the move could incite “endless war caused by evenly matched foes” or a “tyranny of the majority.” When someone raised their hand to volunteer, he quipped, “Can I require that you write a paper demonstrating understanding of tyranny of the majority?” The fight annoyed the resident, who had been there more than a decade, and she told me that she understood the threat of a tyranny of a majority — a populist uprising that oppresses minority views — “but I think people feel it’s a tyranny of Mike now.”

I recently met Fagan around the corner from the complex, in a booth at the Neptune Diner. He looked like his profile picture: a 54-year-old white man with a wide face whose frown lines naturally pulled down, though speaking about his online life seemed to excite him. He joked over a Diet Coke that he’d been accused of being a cop, a bot, and, sure, a dictator, but hoped he had been at least a “a benign dictator,” because any pain he’d caused was, to him, benign. Years ago, Fagan had been the editor of his graduate student newspaper at Stony Brook, and when he and his wife bought a co-op in 2004 in Prospect Heights, he’d been interested in what was going on, so he posted what he learned to the blog Brooklynian. Over the years, he noticed that while the audience for his blog posts was drifting away to social media, a Facebook page for the Jewish hospital buildings, run by a woman who lived there, started “doing very well.” Even before he signed up to be a moderator, he remembered thinking, Huh, I want to create one of those. He started a page designed to build its own audience, based a few blocks east (“Crown Heights isn’t just Franklin Avenue”). Sure, it didn’t cover an area where he actually lived, but Fagan found running Facebook pages similar to blogging. He described updates as giving pages “food” and saw members as his “readership.” The thrill was the same, and 2,000 people joined in the ten years he oversaw the hospital complex’s group.

Meanwhile, what those users wanted changed. He felt tenants today saw the page not as the neighborhood hub it had started out as but as a “mouthpiece and an organizing tool.” He felt that the tenants misunderstood how the world worked and he could guide them or, at least, that they should allow him to share his minority viewpoint. For instance, he’d come to believe that the building has “unreasonable expectations of their landlord that they expect it to be a doorman building,” he says. When it came to the precinct posts, he felt like he was defending another unseen minority: not landlords but crime victims. Plus, he didn’t feel like the users were coming from a sincere place when they defended suspects instead of victims. He felt that the building he had witnessed actively gentrifying the neighborhood was overly concerned about being perceived as “these white gentrifiers.” To a Crown Heights activist who’s a member of the page and has known Fagan for almost 20 years, the whole scandal over Fagan’s posts was “hilarious”: “These people complaining about cops are f*cking gentrifiers. It’s a relatively new building. It’s not like they’ve been there for generations.”

Fagan is now letting go. A neighbor reached out to him and heard him out, and he had agreed to her idea of conducting a formal poll to select a group of moderators. Trugman and Oritsejafor were part of a small group that won without conflict and plans to share power. “I don’t know if you want to call it a victory,” says Oritsejafor. “There’s a level of, maybe, exhaustion.” Still, she and the other moderators are planning events to meet neighbors and an annual survey, and they have come up with general rules around how to handle conflict: “I’m thinking about how can we all just connect with each other better?” Fagan worries that the moderators who take over may misunderstand the job. But it isn’t his problem. Not anymore: “I’ve been too attached.”

‘It’s a Tyranny of Mike’