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 Magazine, Variety, 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.