Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Brooklyn Boondoggle": a short film that packs in protest, ambivalence, and AY episodes circa 2008

To me, the most interesting element of the 11-minute documentary Brooklyn Boondoggle, which debuted last night at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, was not the critique of Atlantic Yards, made by elected officials and a diverse array of residents. 

(The title apparently takes off from City Council Member Letitia James's statement calling the project "a gigantic boondoggle.")

Nor was it the general absence of political and community supporters of the project--though footage of "Build It Now" counter-protestors assembling does appear early in the film.

Ambivalence

Rather, it was the not-so-coherent ambivalence expressed by some residents around the project site, in the main working-class black Brooklynites who identify with neither the project's supporters nor opponents.

Such ambivalence represents the closing words of the film. "We just gotta be heard," utters a man pictured in the Dean Street Playground near the project site. "Go Brooklyn Nets.... Slow down, Bruce Ratner, we still here, man. That's all. That's all."

Of course, Ratner is slowing down, for reasons other than community concern, but the arena can't be decoupled from a project that grants Ratner control of 22 acres, a "great piece of real estate," in the words of his cousin Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises.

And, however much it might be convenient to walk to a game or a concert, as one interviewee suggests, the impact of indefinite interim parking lots and indefinite construction--remember, the project would take "decades," admits CEO Marisa Lago of the Empire State Development Corporation--might make life in the neighborhood not-so-pleasant. 

Overview and more

The producers of the film manage a decent mini-overview of the project via text superimposed on screen, rather than a narrator. 

Given that the film was produced mostly in 2008, including scenes of utility work that long made life on Dean Street unpleasant for residents, that sketch is more up-to-date than in Brooklyn Matters, the indictment-as-documentary that debuted in early 2007, but the latter is more substantial.

It's impossible for a film this short to fully convey the complexity of the project and the debate, but "Brooklyn Boondoggle" packs a good amount in. 

"I think Brooklyn having a sports team on the national stage will give Brooklyn a sense of pride and will focus national attention on Brooklyn," says Bill Shapiro, owner of Triangle Sports at Fifth and Flatbush avenues. (He's the only interviewee to self-identify on camera, though names of those interviewed are listed in the credits.)

"In my case, he's going to move me, and then move me back into the development at the same rent," declares Joe Pastore, a crusty Dean Street resident who once was a plaintiff challenging the project. "We're going to see if he keeps his promise."

Eminent domain and more

"I've lived here since '79," says a white woman with a distinct Brooklyn accent, as a young black man walks past, interjecting, "Let's build the stadium."

"The stadium's all right," she ripostes--in a line that drew laughs from the audience last night--and segues into criticizing the developer for forcing people to give up their homes under the threat of eminent domain. "Why should they have to move? It's their neighborhood."

"I just think he came in like a bully, and thought that he could just bulldoze over everything," says another neighbor.

Arguments for eminent domain become more credible when it proceeds from a plan developed by government, rather than presented by a developer with an inside track and, indeed, one interviewee points that out.

The man pictured above, who lives with relatives on Pacific Street within the project site, laments that the developer is trying to kick them out. Later, after another interviewee notes that Ratner is losing money, the man above says that the developer wants people to "panic and give in," but "we're not stupid."

Gentrification

There's one amusing moment in which a sincere young woman (Asian), with her male partner (white), explains, "There's definitely a lot of gentrification going on right now, which is good and bad, always. I guess you could say we're a part of it too."

Another interviewee (black) then , "Every other house, there's a new condo going up," and, indeed, we are quickly shown new construction and real estate signs.

Unexplained, however, is that Atlantic Yards supporters like ACORN's Bertha Lewis say Atlantic Yards would fight gentrification--at least compared to other new buildings in and around Downtown Brooklyn with no affordable housing--while statistics suggest that 84% of new residents would have incomes above the median. 

Moreover, the affordable housing is essentially a privately-negotiated affordable housing bonus, in which ACORN said it would support the project without considering the impact of the increased density. 

Time Out

Several elected officials are shown--while an ominous underlying soundtrack plays--speaking at the "Time Out" rally held May 3 of last year. "You were so right," declares State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. "It's not a done deal."

“We’re here not because we’re anti-progress,” asserts Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “We’re here today because we're pro-democracy.”

“There is one plain truth here," trumpets City Council Member David Yassky. "The community has never had its say in this project."

"I want the developer to respect this community," warns James. "I want to see real jobs and real affordable housing."

A year ago, perhaps, project supporters might have rebutted James by saying that, whatever the criticisms of Atlantic Yards, it would supply at least some jobs and affordable housing. Given the attenuated and still-unclear timetable, that argument is tougher to make.

What next?

What should be built? "Something a bit more natural and reasonable," says a resident of the footprint, who's also pictured--amidst Dean Street construction--how those in his building and another are in court trying to keep from losing their apartments.

"The quality of life may not be there after this project," acknowledges Triangle Sports' Shapiro. (Without seeing the complete interview, I'm not clear exactly on his stance.)

"We need jobs and we need help," says a young man. "This is not going to do anything for us." (Surely a member of the group rallying in the beginning of the film would've argued the opposite, given commitments in the Community Benefits Agreement, though others in the film warn that construction workers often come from out of town and arena jobs are seasonal.)

"For them to come and run us out of here, change it, and rearrange the neighborhood," utters another. "We welcome the stadium, but the rest of the community, don't take from us."

Then comes the final speaker, welcoming the Nets but warning about Ratner.

Bottom line

I'm not sure how much the film serves as a lesson to other communities facing development pressures, given that, for example, there's no explanation of the role of the Empire State Development Corporation, no discussion of the controversy over blight, and only brief mention of "benefits" to the community, without analysis of the controversial Community Benefits Agreement.

But it does convey some memorable sights and sounds during the course of an epic controversy.

2 comments:

  1. What's with all the black, white and asian references?

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  2. Well, if you watched the film you'd process race and class signifiers. And race and class are part of the AY story, as many others have discussed.

    ReplyDelete