By Kamaria Porter
While watching "Battle for Brooklyn", a documentary about the fight between residents and a moneyed block of developers, politicians and business people, I had the famous Gandhi quote pounding in my head, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." As a former community activist, I was solidly on the side of Daniel Goldstein and the group of residents, local politicians, activists and lawyers fighting to stop the Atlantic Yards project and reach a compromise that would bring amenities to the area without uprooting people. I realized I had been trained, through hopeful documentaries of David over Goliath triumphs, to hope for the victory Gandhi promised with the application of diligence, intelligence and perseverance. I was so longing for the catharsis of victory, that I almost missed the truly wonderful gift of the film. "Battle for Brooklyn" succeeds in illuminating the birth and tracking the growth of one person’s political conscious.
At the start, Goldstein is a miffed and idealistic homeowner in the cross-hairs of the Atlantic Yards Development. His house is located where the envisioned basketball stadium is being planned. Goldstein joins up with other neighbors, attends rallies, and makes flyers. As developers proceed with clearing the building site, Goldstein finds himself the only resident of his condominium not to take the property buy out. This shock to his system becomes the fuel for the cause. Speaking at his first press conference Goldstein smiles saying, "I think it went really well and that I like this." As his political involvement increases, his apartment becomes more of a war room for him and his new girlfriend, a fellow activist, to coordinate the campaign.
Goldstein learns about power, influence and how well money organizes people to do things that simply aren’t logical. On the side of the developers emerges BUILD, a community group praising Atlantic City Yards and touting the jobs, housing and basketball. In hearings and press conferences, BUILD's line comes out simple and quick, while Develop, Not Destroy must back-track and explain the merits of their case. Goldstein bemoans the division between residents in his community knowing that together they would have the power to beat the project.
Even after scandal, outcries from the community, alternative plans, and the credit crisis, Goldstein and company cannot break the momentum of Atlantic City Yards. As the project breaks ground in a star-studded ceremony, Goldsteins leads a protest march and must barrel through police and private guards to get to his home. The fight is over and Goldstein has to move out with the new family he's built in the intervening years. Yet, he's become a different person -- agile with the press, steadfast with private guards trying to limit his access to his home, and connected to the community he's worked to preserve.
"Battle for Brooklyn" shows that public action may not always lead to the just result; Atlantic Yards proceeded without the affordable housing and number of jobs it promised, but it can still transform the lives of the people who engage in it.
"Battle for Brooklyn" was enlightening for me. I grew up in rural Texas where building codes and allocations of space are slightly less fussed over than in major cities. The film exposed me to the process of urban development and the dire altercations they produce.
Structurally, “Battle for Brooklyn” is excellent. It’s succinct, easy to digest, never wordy, never dull and focused intently on the paper and media war between American entrepreneurs and those that live in the way of their plans. It’s shot entirely on digital film, but dodges the claustrophobia that entraps so many independent documentaries by filming over several years and investigating nearly everyone involved with the building crisis. The directors themselves, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, act as community organizers, hinging together the cheapest materials using cost-free tools (such as Google Maps) to deliver an urgent message as clearly as possible.
While I don’t have Kamaria’s experience in community organizing, I echo her admiration. The themes and storytelling are very compelling. There are heroes and villains, the stuff of any good story, whether it be documentary or drama. The audience isn’t ever encouraged to take any other side than Goldstein’s, but Bruce Ratner’s relative absence from the entire film speaks a little too loudly in favor of the film’s slanted perspective.
Throughout, the film’s protagonists consistently ask why Ratner hasn’t even bothered to talk to them. Words are exchanged between virtually every other public figure (including the mayor), but the billionaire himself is absent. Galinsky and Hawley are so careful to give every involved party their two cents’ worth, that the most prominent player’s absence speaks volumes. Ratner’s flunkies chatter away, but the man himself won’t talk.
Also in favor of the film’s perspective are the actual events that unfold. BUILD turns out to be a puppet organization hired to sway community opinion and many of the ‘good things’ promised by Ratner and his company are scrapped in order to save costs while the juggernaut of the stadium remains the top priority. All the evils of the building project are revealed and Ratner never comes out to say anything differently about it. That’s not ‘guilty until proven innocent’; it’s never showing up to court.
Despite its low budget, "Battle for Brooklyn" is a broad and critical look into the new face of Brooklyn and the dark side of urban renewal.