Hot Docs: Battle for Brooklyn

It was once said of Robert Moses that, “He loves the public, but not as people.” Moses was of course the modernist “master-builder” of 20th -century New York City who, in his own words, “took a meat axe to the Bronx” and bulldozed whole neighbourhoods to build massive expressways and other large-scale urban infrastructure. In Battle for Brooklyn, directors Michael Galinksy and Suki Hawley provide a 21st century addendum to the troubling modern history of eminent domain use. Their film shows, up close and dirty, just how large a role developers play in defining the forms and functions of the urban landscape.

Battle for Brooklyn follows the seven-year fight of Brooklyn resident Daniel Goldstein and a group of community activists coalesced under the banner “Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” against the massive Atlantic Yards mega-project. In 2003 billionaire developer Bruce Ratner and his firm, Forest City Ratner, announced a plan to buy the New Jersey Nets basketball team and relocate it to Brooklyn. With starchitect Frank Gehry on board and millions in public subsidies, Ratner unveiled the goliath Atlantic Yards development – comprising not only a basketball arena but also sixteen high-rise buildings, housing luxury condominiums, office and retail space – to be built over the disused Brooklyn rail yards as well as parts of a long-existing and densely-populated local neighborhood. So began seven years of community protests, legal actions, and political bargaining, culminating with the State Supreme Court’s enactment of eminent domain, the subject of this compelling and important documentary about corporate power and the production of urban space.

The better part of Battle for Brooklyn documents the good fight of Daniel Goldstein and his activist allies against the greed of Ratner and his political and financial backers – and it is indeed a good fight, one well told and suspensefully structured. But the question that really animates the film – lurking at times a little too quietly beneath its narrative – is about this relationship between the public and the people. It is precisely those tensions that threaten to disrupt the veneer of a united neighbourhood community that are the really interesting ones. These tensions play out along line of race and class, local vs. gentrifier, tenant vs. homeowner – and pose hard questions about whose interests truly constitute the “public interest.” While the community organization most actively trumpeting the development project’s social benefits may or may not be paid Ratner stooges, the issues they at least pretended to champion (jobs and affordable housing) are still essential ones, issues which in many cities facing large development projects threaten to be drowned out by gentrifiers’ concerns with brownstone property values and cityscape vistas.

We never doubt for a minute the commitment of Goldstein and the other anti-Yards activists. Indeed the film is at its best when it touches on the issues that really underlie the fight they wage against the expropriation of people’s homes for private profit, such as the health of local children, networks of mutual aid forged between neighbors over decades: social rather than individual concerns, all of them; public precisely because they are peopled.

Battle for Brooklyn screens today, Saturday April 30 (7:00 PM) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 and Sunday May 1 (1:30 PM) at the Cumberland Theatre 2.

17 comments

  1. Am not sold that it’s a completely “good fight” — how much Park Slope NIMBYism was there? How much anti-yards sentiment is like the anti-condo sentiment in Toronto? “OH, more condos”….intensification is good. Condo’s are people. Often this is just misanthropy.

  2. I don’t know what condos are like in Toronto but here in NY they are pretty much schlock.  You can not have a nimby situation, when something is being built ON TOP OF YOUR PROPERTY.   In this case a rich connected, developer decided he wanted something that belonged to other people so he could create a neighborhood that already existed.  Today, literally today, a horrific, dangerous looking structure stands, causing hour long traffic delays, dangerous construction sites – where people once lived, met, laughed and WORKED.  This guy destroyed our neighborhood. Glad you know Park Slope but no amount of “nimby” calling accounts for taking someone’s property, pretending you are a man of the people, bribing them with the promise of jobs and affordable housing ( hey I’ll sell you a bridge too) and subsequently destroying a neighborhood- all the while portraying the victims as the bullies?  Nimby is not an ism.  This had nothing to do with “anit-condo.” Nonsense. It’s the same corporate greed bs that has gone on for decades in the US – and their broken promises have been broken faster than even we opponents could have ever imagined. A complete transparent disaster.

  3. NYC development is never simple, and this fight was a classic.  I’m not a fan of these activists, but I also know the developer side is pretty self-interested.  

    It’s certainly a relevant topic for Torontonians as Ford gears up to sell off the city and arms-length agencies who are supposed to look out for the public good fall by the wayside.

  4. This sort of high density is what the Ford brothers want to bring to Sheppard East to pay for their HRT subway, instead of medium, public friendly low-rises and mid-rise development that comes with an LRT.

  5. I should emphasize that the legal, eminent domain, political side of all this is interesting — just the sheen of making equally self-interested activists look like saints vs $Goliath$, uncritically, is my worry.

    WK> High rise can be public friendly too. Medium and low rise can be “unfriendly” too.

  6. The film is a bit of a “package”…a very un-messy story of good vs. evil. There is a deeper story in the desperate way that pro-Ratner neighbours chant “jobs! jobs! jobs!” at each hearing. 

    To a certain extent this cleanliness of storytelling worked against the very strong case the activists had for the underhandedness and just terrible injustice and UNFAIRNESS of the project’s scope and execution.

  7. What I learned from my son Daniel is about leadership and having the courage of your conviction, persistence, dedication, fairness, standing up against all odds no matter what when you are doing what is right and just and reasonable and having the willingness to take personal risks for the common good.

    I also learned about politicians caring about real estate interests more than people. About looking politicians looking the other way, overlook or bending the rules and regulations for their patrons and to serve those private commercial interests at the expense of the public good. I learned about the widespread and eager misuse of Eminent Domain by politicians. I learned too that blight is a convenient term used to paint over that which clearly is not in order to satisfy private R.E. interest land grabs. I learned too you or I could hear a knock on our door one day a person say “I am from the government. You must leave the premises in three weeks as we are taking over your home and giving it to a developer who says he will construct a high rise building here which will earn a lot of money. We are giving the developer many financial incentives including tax abatement, low interest rate loans, and other goodies to do this. And oh yes we are also doing this of course because your new home and your neighborhood is blighted.

  8. Shawn what exactly is your worry?  That some powerless folks might actually have a chance to be mildly heard? Come to Brooklyn, see the damage done – by “praising” the group that fought it, don’t worry, politics is still good ole greedy corrupt here in NY. 

  9. As one of the DDDb activists, I can assure you we all know that this is a complex issue. For years, we have been blogging, YouTubing, going to public hearings, and active in every manner of civic participation. We have explained our argument is detail… in waaaaay too much detail. I’m glad the movie distills the story, and I welcome people to read more for themselves. You can always visit:
    NoLandGrab.org
    DDDb.net
    AtlanticYardsReport.com

    By comparison, please visit the website of one of the signatories to the Community Benefits Agreement:
    http://buildbrooklyn.org/

    DDDb’s take on Ratner’s Community Development Agreement is here:
    http://www.developdontdestroy.org/php/reading/agreements.php

  10. Mr. Micallef, you wrote:

    “just the sheen of making equally self-interested activists look like saints vs $Goliath$, uncritically, is my worry.”

    you are making a joke, right? The activists, myself included, in this film are self-interested? Can you explain how so?

    As for the earlier rhetoric, “How much Park Slope NIMBYism was there?”

    How about his for an answer: none. This was not a NIMBY fight (really, a senior editor of this publication is using the pejorative of choice of the real estate lobby?), this was a fight, at its core (and like so many other development battles) about political corruption and the abdication of responsible government to the monied power brokers. That is what it was about. It was not about “oh, i don’t like that tall building.” It was also about thoughtless, or the complete lack of, urban design.

    As just 2 examples. The argument for the project’s extreme density (it would be the densest residential complex in N. America, if built) and the location of the arena was because of the subway hub and train terminal nearby. But they had a funny way of proposing a transit-oriented project—by including well over 3,000 parking spaces.

    NYC zoning regulations were completely overridden. One zoning law prohibits arenas w/in 100 feet of residential streets. That regulation, like all of the rest, were thrown out the window. And now, what this has lead to and will lead to, are other non-residential uses popping up within residential areas and the backlash that is (and will) create. Zoning regulations, such as this one, actually make sense by the state decided to override it because Bruce Ratner asked for them to do so.

    If fighting for a democratic voice and process in the way our cities are developed is NIMBYism then label me that now. If fighting against naked land grabs, naked corruption, subversion of zoning laws, the theft of public space and private property is NIMBYism, then label me that now.

  11. Shawn
    I saw the film this afternoon and nimbyism never crossed my mind about the DDDers . Their courage, decency and the justice of their cause came to mind , not nimbyism.
    Are you should you saw the battle for Brooklyn?

    To Mr. Goldstein,
    You fought a good fight. Keep it up and good luck

  12. Daniel> Thanks for your response. Perhaps I should have elaborated more — there’s often, at least in Toronto — a reduction of these things to big=bad small=good (size, $, people, etc). As you point out above, there’s much more complexity to things (and many specifics w the Atlantic Yards project).

    NIMBY though, as a term: it may be used by the real estate lobby, but it’s still a phenomenon, and sometimes a bad one, so it’s a legitimate term and concern. The structures we all live in now may have displaced somebody/something/some look or feel and/or somebody’s view — cities are always changing and never static. If the fight is to get that change done right — not based on “I don’t want more people here” or “I just don’t like tall buildings” then it isn’t NIBMYism.

  13. yup, and usually the NIMBYs are the ones doing the deal. For example, Mayor Bloomberg, one of the true villains of the film and the single politician responsible for jamming the project through, was in Fort Greene to shoot a campaign commercial back in 2005. Fort Greene abuts the project and will bear the biggest brunt of the project’s negative impacts.

    My colleague Lucy happened upon him and said, “Mr. Mayor you know, this is where Atlantic Yards would be built.”

    His response was , “I wouldn’t want it either if I lived here.”

    That’s a NIMBY, and that is why you don’t find projects like this happening on the Upper East Side where people such as Bloomberg, Ratner, Spitzer live. Those NIMBYs would never allow such a thing in their backyard.

    and while NIMBY may be a phenomenon it is more often than not used by vested interests to paint reasonable, complicated and nuanced opposition as unreasonable, simpleminded and selfish. that’s why I hate the term. it is tired and hollow.

    I’m wondering if you saw the film because the Atlantic Yards fight, and it is displayed in the film, was about what is the right/best way to develop our city, not whether or not to develop it. agains, most development fights i’m aware of are about that, but the vested interests always want to turn it into a change vs. no change, development vs. no development. There are in reality very few people who believe there should be no change and no development. I’ve yet to meet one, actually.

  14. Daniel, your examples don’t sound very compelling.

    3000 parking spots may or many not be a lot. If there are going to be 2000 units in the development that is too many. If there are going to be 10,000 it is very reasonable.

    Toronto has residential buildings right across from the Air Canada Centre and the Rogers Centre. There was also residential very close to Maple Leaf Gardens. I would expect nothing less in New York.

    The zoning regulations keeping commercial and residential separate are considered a failed relic of the past and are rejected by the New Urbanism.

  15. oh, they are rejected by the New Urbanism. Pardon me.

    those are two examples. I can give many more. (just to note, there are 6,000 units planned, doubtful most will be built and the arena, but the justification for the project is the 10 subway lines and the LIRR terminal that run at the project site. so why have any parking spaces at all. Or does new Urbanism say that that transit-oriented development around public transportation hubs should have massive parking lots?)

    but if you think city zoning laws and regulations passed by elected officials should be overridden simply because a developer wants them to be overriden, and w/o any vote by those same elected officials and that New Urbanism says that is a-okay, well just call me an old urbanist.

  16. Darwin – come to NY then talk about it.  Go visit Madison Square garden, see how desirable a place to live that is.  We have no “New Urbanism” in this city, we only have draconian laws, or all out lawlessness. Count your blessings over there in Toronto.
    3,000 parking spots in a city with over 38000 homeless people, is not a very compelling argument either.

  17. There is a qualitative difference in using eminent domain laws for a public purpose that will not directly produce income (like a freeway) and a project like a stadium or housing that will produce a cash flow that will go to owners. It has always seemed to me that in the latter case, in addition to the fair market value of the property as it is now, a certain percentage of the development ought to be given to the displaced home owners and renters. That won’t bring back the neighborhood, but it would offer ongoing compensation and some consolation, and depending on the numbers involved, give a real estate developer pause to think it over before forging ahead. 

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