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.