Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"My Brooklyn" Returns to ReRun Theater January 25 - February 3

After selling out all of their screenings at ReRun Theater in DUMBO last week, the filmmakers of "My Brooklyn: Unmasking the Takeover of American's Hippest City" will be back for a second run from January 25 - February 3. If you're interested in questions of neighborhood change and city policy, and particularly if you're one of the folks who've been discussing and debating the recent changes in Crown Heights (or on ILFA or Brooklynian), go see this film. The New York Times, Slant MagazineVariety, and Bloomberg all recommend it, and you can hear the filmmakers interviewed on WNYC here. Tickets go on sale very soon at EventBrite.

"My Brooklyn" examines the redevelopment of the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn. Though it begins with director Kelly Anderson's personal introduction, as a self-identified gentrifier who came to question the process she was a part of, the film focuses not on the personal guilt or personal choices of individual gentrifiers like Anderson (as some readers suggested it might), but on the political processes and policy decisions that drive gentrification. If the film has a single purpose, it is to demolish the false but popular notion that gentrification is part of a "natural" and "inevitable" process of change driven by individual choice. Through extensive original research from producer Allison Lirish Dean, interviews with historians and urban planning experts including MIT's Craig Wilder and Hunter College's Tom Angotti, and a fruitful partnership with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), "My Brooklyn" skillfully explores the ways in which developers and their partners in city government devise and implement plans for redevelopment that rely on government support, from massive tax breaks to major rezoning to sales of city-owned land (see also: Yards, Atlantic).  Along the Fulton Mall, the films argues, such state interventions have served to further stratify Brooklyn by class and race, destroying a profitable and thriving retail strip (according to the film, Fulton Mall ranked 3rd in the city in profit, behind only 5th and Madison Avenues, when redevelompent planning began in 2002) that catered to low and middle-income (and largely nonwhite) Brooklynites, as well as significant units of affordable housing, in favor of luxury condo developments (job-creating offices were originally promised, but this film is a reminder that such promises are rarely worth the paper they're printed on, if indeed they're committed to writing at all) in which residents of glittering penthouses pay no property taxes for ten years. 

To be clear, this is not a film that opposes or rejects change or development. What it opposes is the narrow politics that make such a disclaimer necessary, the limited vision that believes plans proposed by developers and made possible through massive outlays of city resources are the only option, and that those who oppose them are clueless relics, fools who stand athwart history yelling "stop!" The question is not whether "change" should take place, but who has the right to give imaginative shape to that change. If taxpayer dollars, public land, and city codes are involved, it seems reasonable to expect that transparent, democratic public debate should precede such interventions, and equally reasonable to demand that the city spend public money and dole out favors in ways that benefit more than the very wealthiest of its citizens. 

Brooklyn native Craig Wilder, the film's lead historian, adds much-needed perspective. Several decades ago, a pernicious collaboration of government and private real-estate capital devised a system for urban and suburban development that "redlined" inner-city neighborhoods (including any neighborhood where African-American or Latino residents comprised more than 5% of the population). Their subsequent decline was blamed on the very people whom these policies had systematically marginalized and impoverished, while those who built the towers and Levittowns that comprised postwar suburbanization and "urban renewal" made money hand over fist. Today, such policies are rightfully (if too infrequently) remembered as unjust, and their legacy should make us wary of any assertion that policies promoting a new flavor of stratification and segregation are the best (or only) course of action. As Wilder puts it, the suggestion that the city government is powerless to influence the nature and direction of change "is obscene."

Watching a much lower-rise, less overtly corporate version of gentrification play out in Crown Heights, a reader could be forgiven for asking how this film pertains to our own corner of Brooklyn. The first answer is that these places are not so very far apart, policy-wise: at least one of the neighborhood's most talked-about new developments will benefit from tax credits similar to those discussed in the movie, while discussions of new zoning regimes for local blocks, including an upzoning of Franklin Avenue and a rezoning of the area ILFA likes to call "four corners," have been floated before and will doubtless be discussed again. Many of the credits and benefits that new homebuyers in Crown Heights enjoy are products of earlier policy struggles, as well (Suleiman Osman's  The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn has a good overview of many of them). The larger answer is that even the choices that seem to be "private" - the new homeowner buying their brownstone, the landlord raising rents, the business owner upscaling their operation - take place in a world structured by public money, state law (and its enforcement) and government decisions. The "free" market is a product of everything from tax code to transit policy, and these policies are the product of decisions made by (putatively) public servants. 

You don't have to read far on this blog or many other local message boards or comment threads to find frustration (to say the least) about gentrification, even among its supposed beneficiaries. "My Brooklyn" is a reminder that the ever-changing urban fabric is the product of specific decisions made by specific actors - including our elected officials - and not a natural phenomenon. If these changes are felt to be negative, the response need not be one of individual choice or guilt, but of collective action. 


  1. You are seeing part of the picture.

    This article may help you see more: http://narrative.ly/2013/01/the-ins-and-the-outs/

  2. This is a pretty well balanced piece versus the fluff and hyperbole parading around as 'journalism' on other blogs and newspapers. Sadly its not a surprise that there are people in the neighborhood who want to blame whites and Jews for everything, versus general business practices or the march of capitalism. Phillip has a pretty good head and view.

  3. Mike, I'm reviewing an 80-minute documentary. Do I really need a disclaimer that reads "this blog post review of a movie about one neighborhood is only part of the complicated story of neighborhood change?" Of course this is a big, complex picture - I assume you read the piece you linked, in which I'm quoted saying pretty much exactly that.

    This documentary covers one important part of that picture, one that I think is under-reported and often misunderstood. I'm sympathetic to their argument, which is that public policy is an essential component of change. You've written similar things here and on your own site, so what's the gripe?

    1. Brooklynian is now MikeF's "own site" - the death knell!

  4. Ha! MikeF, you are a piece of work.

  5. I guess I don't think that the "use of government to pursue change" is either under-reported or misunderstood.

    Let's step back a little:

    I suspect that you have been involved in a discussion wherein gentrification of a neighborhood is compared to transnational immigration, or migration within a country.

    A central part of the conversation involved "pushes and pulls", at both the individual and macro levels.


    The pushes and pulls sometimes take the form of little carrots or little sticks, but -lets not kid ourselves- they will pretty quickly escalate into physical force and death if not adhered to.

    We all play a role.

    In terms of government, you can look at "it" as pursuing policies it believes are in the best interests of those who have power, OR, merely that it is the entity with the power and it acts in ways to advance its own goals and strength.

    In terms of ourselves, change is only remembered when it is big and/or painful, but it is happening all of the time.

  6. I think you'll find all these concerns and complexities addressed in the film. A few thoughts:

    The bike-parking issue, which gets a sidelong mention in the article you cited originally and has been a flashpoint for all manner of tensions both online (Brooklynian) and in-person (CHCA meeting last night) is a good example of how the specifics of public policy (transit, in this case) and its relation to private citizens are often misunderstood or not communicated clearly. There are dozens of other examples (many of which you've been on the explaining end of on Brooklynian or here, which is why I find this line of argument puzzling coming from you).

    Government interventions affect both individuals (individual tax credits, etc) and macroeconomics (monetary policy, regulatory regimes, etc). They don't DETERMINE them, if that's what you're tilting against, but they're a key part of any story about economic behavior or economic change.

    Most of the scholars cited in that Wikipedia article emphasize that migration (both internal and international) cannot be understood purely by examining migrants, but must be studied in its structural context. (see Douglass Massey's work on the US-Mexico border or Aristide Zollberg's book on US immigration policy, among many others). Ditto for urban migrations as they relate to gentrification.

    Government has many branches - some are easily captured by those who wield political power (which often, but not always, runs parallel to economic power), others are remarkably independent and act in a path-dependent way to further their own existence and power. Compare the Council and the EDC at the city level, or the House and HUD at the federal level. Interaction between these many agencies (and outside actors) produces policy outcomes, and tracing out the processes by which this happens is complicated.

    You know what does a great job of tracing these things out? The film! You should go see it (as should anyone else still reading these comments). You may find, as you say, that it helps you see more of the picture.

  7. I can't say I'm real interested in the film. It sounds as if it is a big polemic on how people who have been in a neighborhood should get to stay.

    But thanks.

  8. If you're basing that purely on my review, then ignore me and check out their site: www.mybrooklynmovie.com

    I think you'll find that most of the people they interview aren't arguing that at all. Many of them are merchants with clear-eyed assessments of real estate markets and the like (one owner, in particular, says something almost identical to Kevin's comments about "business 101" in the article you cited). What these folks (and the movie itself) argue is not "people who have been in a neighborhood should get to stay." They're arguing that the political processes and public policies affecting neighborhood change should be more transparent and democratic, and those public officials who make these policies should be held more accountable to New Yorkers of all economic strata.

    There's a big difference there. Those who critique change as it currently takes place are not arguing for stasis.

  9. Perhaps me stating that "I don't share their level of desire for accountability, transparency, accountability or democracy", will make my desire to walk my dog over attending this film clearer.

  10. I'm going (long-time ILFA fan here) - thanks, Nick; I wasn't able to get there the first time, so I appreciate the heads up! Heard through other sources that it's very thought-provoking.

  11. Let us know what you think after you go. They've announced some speakers, too, including MIT historian Craig Wilder (ILFA's a big fan of historians) on February 2. The discussion after the screening I went to was a good one.

  12. It's an excellent documentary that does, as Nick says, offer an intelligent analysis of the urban development process that played out here in Brooklyn. It's not a celebration of nostalgia for the "way things were," as it's portrayed in earlier comments here. The film acknowledges the inevitability of change in communities while frankly supporting involving all stakeholders, not just the wealthy and powerful. Through interviews with activists, small business owners, developers, and developers' P.R. folks, it criticizes a development process that, under Bloomberg and historically, has excluded so many citizens.

    I learned a lot (even though I've been thinking about issues of gentrification for a long time), especially about the shocking lack of transparency of local city bodies that ultimately decide on laws and regulations effecting neighborhoods. For example, how is it possible that a plan for downtown Brooklyn which originally floated support for small businesses and thousands of jobs for Brooklynites at all economic strata was highjacked by a scenario in which entrepreneurs were forced out and scores of luxury residential condos were built? Shouldn't the city's tax payers have some say over how their money is spent?

    It did make me wonder about our own neighborhood's gentrification process. Superficially, gentrification here seems to be working on a smaller, market-driven level, where small businesses are simply replacing other small business as the demographics here shift. However, one of the big impetuses for change in this neighborhood was the conversion of the old Jewish Hospital Buildings, which subsequently brought in hundreds of new, middle-class residents. What kind of tax breaks/subsidies were the owners/developers of this complex given, if any? Nick, I'd be grateful if you could answer this, since it's a big topic of discussion now in our house after seeing "My Brooklyn".

    In any case, excellent film and highly recommended for any Brooklyn resident.