“Eminent domain,” you’re reminded at the start of Battle for Brooklyn, is “the right of the government to take private property.” Usually, this measure is taken with an eye toward a “public good,” however that may be defined. In the case presented in Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s terrific documentary, the term appears to be especially vexed, as a private corporation makes a claim for public land. The film follows the controversy and legal ambiguities regarding the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, that is, that is, Bruce Ratner’s plan to build an arena for the (currently New Jersey) Nets and develop the surrounding property. While some residents of the neighborhood selected for the project object to the idea, others believe the promises made by Ratner, Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, Mayor Bloomberg, and Senator Chuck Schumer, namely, promises 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. But when the state government becomes involved, asserting eminent domain in order to take private property for the deal. Local organizer and graphic designer Daniel Goldstein early on puts his finger on one part of the problem, when he calls Ratner’s invasion and use of power “un-American,” before he refines his assessment, and adds, “You know what, it is American. It’s the American way.” Other issues 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.
Filmed over seven years, Battle for Brooklyn lays out the stakes for all parties, as well as how the fight is waged—in remarkably vivid fashion. The stakes continue to expand, as corporations continue to expand their influence in all sorts of “public” arenas, from political campaigns to educational infrastructures to war zones. It’s screening in Boston this week, at the Doc Yard on 19 March and at the West End Museum on 20 March, followed by a Q&A with Galinsky and Hawley.
See PopMatters’ review.