Skip to main content

Some Place Like Home: FUREE's new film takes on Downtown Brooklyn rezoning

As luxury condos rise in Downtown Brooklyn, working-class and poor people in the neighborhood are having it rough. Those in housing projects along Myrtle Avenue have seen a supermarket and drugstore disappear, with no replacement imminent. The Ingersoll Community Center--a crucial outlet for kids--remains yet unopened.

And residents and businesses have been displaced, as property owners pursue new profits from the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, as the activist organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) has documented.

While a libertarian might say tough luck, it’s not simply the market at work. The city increased the value of land with the rezoning, but, as a tradeoff, didn’t require any affordable housing nor, apparently, effective relocation assistance to small business. And it’s contributing $2 million to the nonprofit Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DPB) to foster upscale development.

So that distorted market is the backdrop to the new film Some Place Like Home, produced by FUREE, whose premiere was held Friday night at Medgar Evers College. The film, directed by Kelly Anderson and produced by Allison Lirish Dean, puts a face on the grievances and shows city officials clearly unsympathetic to the complaints. (Here’s the trailer.)

“This is our community... that we fought for when no one wanted it,” FUREE board member Lilllian Hamilton said introducing the film. That’s a common plaint around the city--that those who stuck with neighborhoods during the bad old days deserve some recompense when the neighborhood gentrifies. And those who are not property owners or residents of rent-regulated housing often lose out.

Presumably those in public housing will get the benefit, for example, of improved public safety and street amenities. But, as the film shows, they also feel quite alienated.

“We’re not opposed to development,” declared narrator Kevin Powell, former candidate for Congress. “We don’t want irresponsible and inhumane development.”

City promises

No city or DBP officials agreed to be interviewed, but the documentary uses video from some CUNY-TV appearances to capture city officials’ promises. The rezoning, declares former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, is “creating the basic public infrastructure that allows the private sector to flourish.”

City Planning Commission (CPC) Chair Amanda Burden enthuses how (at the time) 55 rezonings had been achieved: "That means for 55 neighborhoods we have built consensus with the communities, with the elected officials, and gotten these passed by the City Council."

Not quite.

Unmentioned in the film, by Burden or the FUREE folks, is that the main goal of the Downtown Brooklyn was to bring office jobs to Brooklyn--with, presumably, some building service jobs, at least, for locals--but the combination of lowered demand and a hot housing market instead created luxury housing towers.

Also unmentioned is that, while some people opposed the scale of the plan and the inclusion of eminent domain, nobody sussed out that the plan could create such an influx of housing. And groups like FUREE and ACORN that have been quite critical of the rezoning’s effects actually sat out the debate, as the New York Observer pointed out.

Bright future?

Still, the documentary shows us how Downtown Brooklyn is being recreated. An over-the-top video by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, portraying expected changes in thd downtown skyline, is narrated by that old Brooklynite, British actor Ian MacKellan.

The documentary captures a TV appearance by Joe Chan, president of the DBP, talking carefully about how the challenge of the Fulton Mall is “retail diversity,” citing, for example, that “there’s no place like a Bed, Bath, & Beyond.”

However, as the film shows us, there is in fact a (more plebeian) Bed, Bath, and Linens on Fulton Street.

Business displacement

Left-wing academic Neil Smith offers a soundbite about how a “retail strategy” is being used to change the city.

More effective would have been a clear explanation about how public funds support the DBP, which is doing too little for the displaced businesses.

Indeed, perhaps the most devastating section of the documentary excerpts a meeting of the City Planning Commission, which shows Brooklyn CPC representative Dolly Williams--she of the Porsche and the resignation under fire--in a refreshingly populist mode.

Williams asks Robert Walsh, the city’s Commissioner of Small Business Services, what the city will do for such businesses. His answer is palpably insincere, as is the body language and inflection of Josh Sirefman of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The film quotes merchants saying there’s been no assistance.

The changes at Albee Square

The Albee Square Mall may be an icon of the hip-hop generation, but is it a “community landmark,” as the film suggests? It’s a building.

More effective is the comment by Dan Steinberg of Good Jobs New York that public ownership (of the land) be leveraged for public benefit--more protection for displaced businesses (one business owner is quite compelling) and more affordable housing.
(FUREE’s holding a protest tomorrow.)

“They got an incredibly sweet deal,” Steinberg said of the current developers.

Public housing dismantled?

The film airs the observation that, with many units in the Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut public housing complexes left vacant, many residents fear the city is trying to dismantle public housing.

That may be what people say, but the film should include the firm denials by New York City Housing Authority officials that no such plan is in the works.

Duffield Street

Activists have won one battle, preserving Duffield Street houses believed to be part of the Underground Railroad.

The documentary shows City Council Member Charles Barron dressing down representatives from the ubiquitous consulting firm AKRF, which did not find Underground Railroad links, and two peer reviewer historians also criticize the consultant.

(Clarification: I initially wrote that most peer reviewers on the panel agreed with AKRF about the absence of evidence regarding Underground Railroad activity. Activist Raul Rothblatt clarifies that 11 of 12 peer reviewers said, contra AKRF, the houses should be preserved, and the city eventually backed down.)

What next?

A scene in the film shows FUREE members with a map, compiling a wish list of what they’d like to see, including a supermarket that offers affordable prices.

If the market is out of whack, shouldn’t it respond? (There may be a supermarket coming at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.) But the market is distorted.

FUREE members’ wish lists include: restoration of services, real affordable housing, a displacement fund, community input on development, and an abolitionist museum.

For most of that, given the fact that the rezoning is in the past, not future, it’s an uphill battle, but the film surely will be an aid to advocacy.

Theme song

The film features an ominous and catchy original theme song by Jersey City-based rapper Hasan Salaam. The song is featured at the end of the trailer. Some excerpts:

It's like coming home
and finding out
the locks been changed
the mailbox got new names
the block's rearranged
mom-and-pop stores replaced
by Old Navy and Starbucks

Urban renewal only means
unaffordable housing
Tenements becoming condos
worth hundreds of thousands

It's overcrowded at the bottom
Swept under the rug
Gentrification claiming more turf
than Crips and the Bloods


As with the genre, it’s more impressionistic than precise, but it’s sure the right song for this film.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…

Former ESDC CEO Lago returns to NYC to head City Planning Commission

Carl Weisbrod, Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Planning Commission Chairman and Director of the Department of City Planning, is resigning,

And he's being replaced by Marisa Lago, currently a federal official, but who Atlantic Yards-ologists remember as the short-term Empire State Development Corporation CEO who, in an impolitic but candid 2009 statement, acknowledged that the project would take "decades."

Still, Lago not long after that played the good soldier at a May 2009 Senate oversight hearing, justifying changes in the project but claiming the public benefits remained the same.

By returning to City Planning, Lago will join former ESDC General Counsel Anita Laremont, who after retiring from the state (and taking a pension) got the job with the city.

Back at planning

Lago, a lawyer, in 1983 began work as an aide to City Planning Chairman Herb Sturz, and later served as the General Counsel to the president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Weisbrod himself.