“And there’s always construction work bothering you in the neeeeiiiiighborhood.”
The neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn was for decades an industrial district that also served as a home to some of Brooklyn’s artists. Gut Renovation is a documentary by Su Friedrich detailing the gentrification of her beloved Williamsburg between the years 2005 and 2009. In 2005, it was designated a residential district and promptly invaded by speculators who, over the course of the next few years, turned it into an upscale residential neighborhood.
Friedrich decided to document the transformation. She began filming around the district; shooting the demolition of existing buildings and the construction of new ones, interviewing the neighborhood’s inhabitants, and even secretly recording her interactions with real estate agents. Some of these moments are great (the interviews with the butcher and mechanic being evicted after decades of occupancy come to mind), while others might give you secondhand embarrassment (Friedrich harassing residents on the street). Those latter moments reveal Friedrich’s crankiness, which is only reinforced when she begins taking issue with the breeds of dog entering the neighborhood. This leads to a misguided and weird scene later in the film in which Friedrich juxtaposes footage of the destruction of the building across from her loft with footage of people walking their dogs.
The film works best as a historical record of the gentrification process. It’s fascinating to see the battered commercial district become a pristine neighborhood full of towering developments bearing names like “The Belvedere” and “The Modern” (LOL). One of Friedrich’s friends brings up a good point — and one that Friedrich can’t seem to wrap her head around — that gentrification is an evolutionary process, a natural thing. This interpretation paints Friedrich as an organism unwilling to adapt, her sarcasm and hostility now the ramblings of an old woman.
There is a bizarre scene late in the film in which Friedrich stumbles upon some construction workers spending an undue amount of time figuring out what to do with a giant rock. When they can’t move it, they decide to drill it into smaller pieces. In a way, Friedrich is a lot like the rock: obstinate, immovable, seemingly antagonistic, and just generally in the way. But you can’t stop evolution (or men with machinery for that matter) and despite her best efforts, Friedrich fails. Perhaps the way to beat extinction would have been to make Gut Renovation a memorial to the neighborhood she loved. And while it is partly that, the rest just seems like a drawn-out complaint.