At the 2012 Brooklyn Film Festival, two documentaries on the gentrification and development of Brooklyn shared the Audience Award for Best Documentary. This hardly seems coincidental. The past decade has seen the borough go from merely hip to full-blown branded commercial product with national recognition. As it has been marketed, “Brooklyn” implies a lifestyle: anti-corporate but not anti-commerce, bespoke, artisanal, organic, a kind of vague white-washing that’s more obviously about class than race or ethnicity. In fact, the exotic is fetishized, as long as it can be co-opted or repackaged, ideally for consumption. It’s easy to mock Brooklyn as a cultural phenomenon, but the borough has undergone the kind of bewildering and rapid change that has had serious repercussions for its residents, and for the civic life of New York City as a whole.
Driven by their personal experiences with gentrification, and, eventually, displacement, filmmakers Su Friedrich and Kelly Anderson both decided to capture what was happening to their long-time neighborhoods on video. The titles say a lot about the respective films (and filmmakers). Friedrich’s Gut Renovation is an angry, highly personal (and at times myopic) look at the transformation of Williamsburg into what she calls “Condoburg.” In contrast, Kelly Anderson’s My Brooklyn is a more objective look at the process by which downtown Brooklyn, specifically the Fulton Mall, has been rezoned and developed. While both films are driven by passion, Anderson dedicates less screen time to emotional reactions. She focuses instead on the political and economic forces and urban planning policies that incentivized the displacement of established residents and businesses in favor of corporate retailers and luxury real estate.
An interview with photographer Jamel Shabazz bookends My Brooklyn. Shabazz is from Red Hook, and has been documenting Brooklyn, particularly African-American life in the borough, since the 1970s. I love his work, and it’s as vital a record of Brooklyn’s past as I can think of. Along with archival photographs and footage of contemporary downtown Brooklyn, Anderson uses Shabazz’s photos to make a compelling case for the vibrancy and diversity of the community, and for Fulton’s claim to being New York City’s third most successful shopping district. But the seemingly new, affluent people she interviews at the farmer’s market express distaste and disinterest in the Fulton Mall. One man flatly states, “I don’t know how to interact with it.” It’s a telling turn of phrase, in which the undercurrents of class are implicit.
As with Williamsburg, in the early 2000s downtown Brooklyn was targeted for development with a focus on luxury real estate. In the film, Joe Chan, head of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, unveils the Downtown Brooklyn Plan with a rhetoric of creating jobs and revitalizing the neighborhood. That veil, of course, is rather thin: Chan speaks chirpily of the business opportunity that presents itself now that the creative Brooklyn lifestyle is desirable enough for “his friends” and insists “that’s something we’ve got to capitalize on.” Purnima Kapur, director of the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning, talks about expanding the “limited range of uses” of the Fulton Mall. The way she sees it, “change is always difficult,” but “smart businesses learn how to adapt.” As a director, Anderson helps viewers connect the dots — or, more accurately, track the flow of money — between real estate developers, the city council and other policy makers, and property owners. Historian Craig Wilder provides valuable context on the borough’s history of urban policy masking institutionalized racism. He also accurately identifies gentrification not as the inevitable and vague “change” pro-development forces claim it is, but as “a set of real decisions” with specific consequences.
Anderson also does a nice job balancing the personal with the political, tracing the evolving fortunes of small businesses affected by the upzoning of downtown Brooklyn. The rhetoric of revitalization has failed the small business owners who, in the film, are given eviction notices and a month to vacate after decades of personal and financial investment in their businesses and their community. The city doles out millions of dollars in tax abatements to the condo owners, but provides no relocation assistance to the business owners who kept downtown Brooklyn vital during the leaner decades of white flight. Beyond that, idiosyncratic businesses like Cuzin’s Duzin bakery and Jack’s Barbershop give a neighborhood specificity and a sense of individual expression. In contrast, the big box retailers and glass condos of the “new” downtown Brooklyn (and Williamsburg) have a way of flattening and draining vitality from the very spaces they were meant to revitalize.
Anderson’s film ends on a positive note, interviewing various Brooklyn residents about “their Brooklyn.” They don’t define Brooklyn as a brand or a lifestyle, but as a strong community of middle and working-class people, ethnically and racially diverse, and affordable. She closes her film with a plea for activism and involvement in the urban planning initiatives that alter New York’s physical and economic landscape. Anderson features the organization Families United For Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) in My Brooklyn, and is channeling that activist spirit in her successful self-distribution of the film. It’s good to see films like My Brooklyn and Gut Renovation tackle the complicated issue of gentrification, heeding Craig Wilder’s plea to address “these kinds of wars about space” with more honesty.