At first glance, the title Battle for Brooklyn suggests a gang war raging on the streets of the Dodgers’ former habitat, the sort of hyper-violent slice of New Yorksploitation that frequently graced – if you want to use that genteel term – theater screens back during the Carter-Reagan years; think The Warriors, Fort Apache: The Bronx, or Cannon Films’ execrable Death Wish 3. But there’s no gunplay in this feisty documentary which spotlights a different type of fight, namely a David-vs-Goliath struggle between the residents of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights and the mighty forces of development giant Forest City Ratner, The Big Apple’s municipal authorities, and even the Governor’s office.
Introduced by actress Annabeth Gish, Battle for Brooklyn examines the ambitious Atlantic Yards project (“AtYa”), unveiled by Forest City Ratner (FCR) in 2003. This city-in-a-box undertaking would place a basketball arena – accommodating the New Jersey Nets – and 15 skyscrapers into an unassuming, long-inhabited Brooklyn neighborhood. The anointed architect is the celebrated Frank Gehry, and AtYa is cheerfully supported by Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, not to mention megarich hip-hop impressario Jay-Z.
The fly in the ointment? The residents of Prospect Heights – most, at least – prefer not to relocate, and Forest City Ratner is a private corporate entity, thereby making it illegal for the political powers-that-be to use eminent domain to allow FCR to plant their flag in the community. Of course, private property has been seized by government bodies throughout American history, but generally for taxpayer-funded civic projects, not for private enterprise.
The developers and their allies at City Hall claim that AtYa will multiply local jobs, but resident Daniel Goldstein – the “David” of this documentary – isn’t as sanguine. As his cohort Letitia James points out, these construction gigs will be temporary at best, and union rules will likely dictate that outsiders do the work. Besides, this “community from scratch”, as the development proponents call it, would essentially erase a viable one that’s existed harmoniously for decades.
Unsurprisingly, racial divides are stoked. B.U.I.L.D., a predominantly African-American planning organization, advocates AtYa, in the perhaps misguided belief that permanent jobs, which the local black community needs most desperately, will materialize. Accusations are hurled that B.U.I.L.D. Is on the take to FCR, and this fracas begins to veer into Tom Wolfe territory, or evoke John Sayles’ 1991 City of Hope, an anthill’s view of urban friction.
While not exactly even-handed, neither should Battle for Brooklyn be dismissed as propagandistic advocacy journalism, as it does present the opinions of the One-Percenters at the eye of the storm. Damningly, for them, Battle for Brooklyn also makes it clear that those same Masters of The Universe have failed to consult with Prospect Heights residents and even turn away some outraged activists from a suspiciously private meeting.
Of course, the ghost of New York’s fabled grandmaster Robert Moses – referenced in the six-minute documentary “More to Talk About”: The Tragedy of Urban Renewal—nevertheless hangs over these proceedings. Moses was, for decades, the modern-day Baron Hausmann of urban ergonomics and wielded awesome power over New York’s development, bulldozing neighborhoods with impunity and laying down multi-lane expressways as easily as toy train tracks. It’s no exaggeration to say that the New York we know today would not exist without his controversial, iron-fisted decisiveness. It’s stated that Moses’ cohorts, many captains of industry, benefited enormously from backroom deals struck with the Gotham Godfather. If so, it seems a foreshadowing of Prospect Heights’ looming date with the wrecking ball.
Extras include the aforementioned “More to Talk About”, a historical peek at a now-vanished African-American community rooted around Manhattan’s 98th and 99th streets. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 declared this enclave a “slum”, and it was promptly flattened. Robert Caro, author of the sprawling Robert Moses biography The Power Broker is interviewed, and Moses’ quiet corruption is discussed, along with footage of the “master builder”. Conversation with now-elderly former residents is a highlight.
Accompanying this is a 12-minute Filmmaker Spotlight, which features dialogue with the directors, producer David Beilinson, and Dan Goldstein, who has formed a grass-roots committee called Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Finally, there’s a selection of trailers for various Virgil Films releases, all muckraking docs, including “Battle”, Stolen Seas, and Big Boys Gone Bananas.
Co-directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, the scrappy Battle for Brooklyn uncovers an ideological tussle set in New York, but this sort of property-based tug-of-war is a universal phenomenon that has existed probably as long as humankind has lived in cities. The leftist in me whispers that these battles will increase as resources shrink and the wealth gap in the US continues to widen. Still, Battle for Brooklyn convincingly demonstrates that you can fight City Hall.