Sunday, December 07, 2008

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.

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