You Can't Beat City Hall
In 1776 the first Battle of Brooklyn (aka of Long Island or of Brooklyn Heights) marked the defeat of Washington’s men by Howe’s redcoat regulars and the former’s abandonment of the hamlet. In 1958, the second, unofficial defeat was when politicians and sports magnates tore out the borough’s soul, moved out the Dodgers and eminent domained out the poor from L.A.’s Chavez Ravine. The third, also unofficial, is ably chronicled in Battle for Brooklyn, where political and real estate developer suits again bulldoze the place.
The ninety-three-minutes opens “Remaking the American City,” four films documenting heartless, profit-driven urban renewal in three metropolises, at art-space/cultural center Exit Art, which three months ago began its Digimovies. At post-screening Q&A, director Suki Hawley -- codirector-photographer husband Michael Galinsky was on the West Coast -- indicated that the project began with a New York Times piece about Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards proposal to build a New York Nets (as of 2012, still in New Jersey) basketball arena, malls and hi-rise housing to replace existent residences and small-businesses adjacent to acreage already built on by Bruce Ratner.
Covering the seven-year fight against the project, four hundred eighty hours of footage of people, street scenes, rallies, hearings, and more demolition than construction, was boiled down on the basis of “the emotion of the scene, what arc you wanted to take.” Speaking a first day on the spot with anti-project organizer and resident Patti Hagan (who appears often), the filmmakers made the decision to center on Daniel Goldstein, another resident who willy-nilly blossoms as activism’s public face.
Having spent serious time shopping around before recently purchasing a seventh-floor apartment, he is, on principle, not about to be forced or bought out. By 2009-10, every legal resource exhausted, he is the sole inhabitant left in the building and is court-ordered to vacate. He resents suggestions that he held out so as to raise the buyout and refuses to dicker: “that’s not what we’re doing this for.”
Along the way, in very personal footage, he and a fiancée break up over the struggle and stress, he later unites with and marries computer consultant-activist Shabnam Merchant, and the siege goes on long enough for their daughter Sita to blow out two birthday candles.
So much is here in this one struggle that the story does not seek to extend implications, not even a couple miles to the Times’s sweetheart West Fortieth Street real estate deal or the Columbia University landgrab just a little further north. Though there is no overt moralizing, it is clear which side the film casts its lot for.
This does not mean that equal time is denied to the opposition, which manages to come across as slick, insincere, venal and arrogant. Some are simply dazzled by money or publicity and the same promises -- “Jobs, Houses and Hoops” -- that have suckered many a city into World Cups and Fairs, Olympics and assorted stadia. The politicians, planners, money men (including those from rap music and Russia) and mouthpieces caricature themselves -- the mayor, borough president (who piously invokes the Dodgers though he was too young then to remember them now), architects, lawyers who fabricate neighborhood “blight,” city council members, state appellate court judges (with one refreshing skeptical exception), corporate partners and union leaders.
Beyond the specifics of its subject situation, BB introduces wider issues, implicating top-down actions that are so underpublicized as to illustrate the assumption that the citizenry and its elected local representatives are incapable of understanding benefits conferred from on high, policies which once executed cannot be undone.
Thus the film reveals large contributions made to project support groups (some actually created for that support); the “cash-strapped” Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rejection of an Extel purchase bid of $1.5 million in favor of Ratner’s for one-third that amount; the numbers of construction jobs mouthed as compared to those delivered (overwhelmingly non-local hire at that).
“A movie with a narrative” woven along a personal thread, Battle for Brooklyn squeezes drama even out of that person’s repeatedly clicking a monitor “refresh.” Beyond this particular battle of/for, there lie issues of vested interests that impose their will, of community rights, and of the future direction of urban centers.
(Released by Independent Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)