[8 December 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
As of now, only basketball and a handful of those [promised] jobs are guaranteed, all of which took three times as long as originally planned. Mr. Ratner and his partners like to blame the economy and the holdouts who sued to save their property, but the fact remains, they are running well behind schedule, possibly even in violation of previous commitments made to the state when the project was approved.
—Matt Chaban, “The Mod Squad: Will Bruce Ratner Transform the Way New York Builds, or Is Prefab Another Project Too Far?”
“This is an extraordinary opportunity for an architect like me,” Frank Gehry said in 2003. “I’ve been doing these iconic buildings, like Disney Hall and the Bilbao museum, but not an opportunity like this, to do housing, to do a mixed project and build a whole neighborhood practically from scratch and fit it into an existing fabric and make something special out of it.” He was talking about the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, that is, Bruce Ratner’s plan to build an arena for the Nets and develop the surrounding property. Almost as soon as he spoke, Gehry’s words became infamous, a point made at the beginning of Battle for Brooklyn, when some residents of the neighborhood selected for the project object to the idea.
The first problem for these residents, as Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s documentary suggests, is the implication that they matter so little as to be considered “practically from scratch.” To be sure, not all residents feel this way: some believe the promises made by Ratner, Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, Mayor Bloomberg, and Senator Chuck Schumer, that the development will bring employment opportunities to Brooklyn and improve material and economic conditions going forward. (Senator Schumer’s misspeaking during a press conference may or may not be telling: “Basketball is great, but you know what enervates me about this? 10,000 jobs!”) As the Atlantic Yards project divides the community, it inspires a range of responses, from placards in residential and commercial windows and street protests to local organizing and full-on media campaigns.
Filmed over seven years, Battle for Brooklyn follows one organizer in particular, Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who can’t imagine how his life will be changed. Though it appears at first that the battle lines are drawn along trust (who believes whom), the film reveals that money helps to shape this dynamic: one local those favor of the endeavor are paid for it. While it’s typical that trust and money are intertwined in a development deal, this one is complicated when the state government becomes involved, asserting eminent domain in order to take private property for the deal. Goldstein and others argue that eminent domain is supposed to be use in support of a public good, not for the benefit of a private company’s profits.
That the screening on 9 December at Maysles Cinema as part of the theater’s True Crime series, is followed by a Q&A with Goldstein, Columbia University Student Organizer Yoni Golijov, the Coalition to Preserve Community’s Tom Kappner (Columbia ‘66) and Mindy Fullilove (who is interviewed in the film) suggests how this battle presaged the current Occupy movements. Attorney Norman Siegel calls it a “David versus Goliath type of situation,” as Forest City Ratner (“the New York arm of the largest publicly traded development company in the United States”) and the government collude against private citizens whose homes and businesses are located in “The Footprint,” that is, the site where the arena and “residences” will be erected (facing high costs, the project has since been redesigned to use prefabricated components, affecting labor and, according to some observers, quality).
The name for one of these legal processes is “eminent domain.” In this instance, in order to seize properties of residents and businesses who refuse to sell, the government brings in assessors to declare these properties “blighted.” Goldstein invites several reporters to his home—including George Will—who note the absurdity of such an assessment of his location (his apartment and block), an absurdity that’s plainly visible on screen: the property isn’t blighted in any reasonably sense of the word.
Early on, Goldstein puts his finger on one part of the problem, as he begins to call Ratner’s invasion and use of power “un-American,” then backtracks and says, “You know what, it is American. It’s the American way.” Other parts emerge as Ratner makes deals with the city (in particular securing the right to build on the MTA rail yards) and, the film reveals, a seemingly grassroots organization, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (B.U.I.L.D.), is paid $5 million by Ratner. And yet another factor is indicated (if not exposed outright) when a series of “community meetings” either prohibit community members’ entrance or are scheduled so that community members do not cross paths with Ratner representatives, and several legal appeals look briefly auspicious and then fail.
Gehry claims that the project is an “opportunity to build an arena in a very urban setting, which is unique—most of them are built out in the fields, where there’s lots of parking around them. This has a different character, and we’re trying to understand it and work with that.” The film shows, however, that no one on the corporate or government side of this “opportunity” engages with this “different character.” The battle, which is waged on both sides for years, ends badly for the resistant residents. Still, Goldstein says, “If I had it to do all over again, I’d do the same thing.” As the film closes over time-lapsed imagery of the construction underway, you’re too aware that other residents, in other places, will have this opportunity.