Friday, June 17, 2011

The Times punts somewhat on Battle for Brooklyn (was film edited to make officials look bad? nah), and a review roundup

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn has mainly been reviewed by film critics, assessing it first as a narrative and the second in terms of thoroughness and accuracy.

From the perspective of the directors, that must be a double-edge sword: most reviewers have been more gentle to the film than, say, someone (like me) who'd been covering the battle steadily, while some have really missed the point. ignoring some of the gaps.

Below, a roundup of several recent reviews, and some comments.

New York Times: In Brooklyn, Pushing Back Against a Redevelopment Plan
Battle for Brooklyn,” a documentary about the unending mess that is the Atlantic Yards project, is unabashedly slanted and as a result will probably be dismissed by those it portrays unflatteringly. That’s unfortunate, because this film should be discouraging and dismaying for people on all sides of the project, for what it says about oversize expectations and missed opportunities.

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley certainly know how to edit film to make public officials sound like manipulative weasels or clueless buffoons, and that’s what they do here as they tell the story of Bruce Ratner’s billion-dollar plans for a huge Brooklyn development centered on a basketball arena, and the residents and businesses displaced by it....

The film is full of bombastic promises about jobs and other benefits from Mr. Ratner and the politicians who support him. With the project now a shell of its former self, they seem particularly outrageous. But it will be years yet before the definitive story of this exercise in urban reinvention can be told.

I dunno. I've sat through long meetings and shot video at the groundbreaking and other events. Even in friendly forums, Bruce Ratner has babbled.

Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano doublespoke himself so much on the Brian Lehrer Show (not in the film) that the mild-mannered host called it "classic political evasiveness." I was at the meeting where Empire State Development Corporation board member Charles Dorkey betrayed the fact that he didn't understand where the projectg was located.

The question though is why the reviewer thinks he knows more than Times reporter Charles Bagli, who says in the film, "Here we are, so many years later and you start scratching your head and you say, ‘Well, I see the arena going up, the steel is rising, but I don’t see any housing, the famous architect’s gone,’ it fed the notion that this was a hollow accomplishment.”

As I wrote, Bagli implicitly rebukes Mayor Bloomberg’s confident, placating assertion a year earlier at the arena groundbreaking: “Nobody’s going to remember how long it took, they’re only going to look and see that it was done.”

Yes, it will be years before the definitive story is told. But we know now that the projected benefits, premised on a ten-year project timeframe, will never arrive as promised.

Nonetheless, the Times (with a review far too short to address the parent company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner) did make the movie a "critic's pick."

NPR: Lawful Land Grab Sparks A 'Battle For Brooklyn'

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, who co-directed this incisive documentary, have a thing for cranks, die-hards and malcontents....

Goldstein's reluctance to leave his home turned into a crusade, and his doggedness may alienate some viewers... But the activist and his allies raised some significant objections, which is why their cause attracted the support of both the community-organizing left and the private property-revering right.

...Galinsky and Hawley live near the project, and their sympathies are clearly with the protesters. But they give the proposed complex's developers their say, dutifully following Bruce Ratner as he tours the neighborhood that he must — as a requirement before invoking eminent domain — get reclassified as "blighted."

The Empire State's eminent domain laws are unusually loose, but most of the rest of this story is pertinent far beyond New York. Change a few names and add the next credit bubble, and a Brooklyn-style Battle could be headed to a neighborhood near you.

Actually, they were following Forest City Ratner lieutenant Bruce Bender, not Bruce Ratner.

New York Post: Battle for Brooklyn
...Unfortunately for the film, it's clear from the outset this is a totally one-sided battle that well-connected developer Bruce Ratner is fated to win. With powerful allies like Mayor Bloomberg, (clownish) Borough President Marty Markowitz and the New York Times, Ratner gets huge economic concessions when the economy goes south.

Promising an employment bonanza and subsidized housing that have yet to materialize, Ratner holds onto his approvals even after he fires the high-profile architect (Frank Gehry) he used to sell the project in the first place.

"Battle for Brooklyn" oddly tells its story from the point of view of Daniel Goldstein, a graphic artist who's the only one of 32 tenants in his upscale condo building to turn down a $1 million-plus payout from Ratner to move. He marries a fellow activist, they raise their child in the abandoned building and he pursues a lawsuit on an arcane legal point to the State Supreme Court . . . before bowing to the inevitable. Not exactly inspiring.

Actually, eminent domain--a hot-button issue nationally, with New York standing out as a state with particularly egregious laws--is no "arcane legal point."

The Onion's A.V. Club: Battle For Brooklyn

Most viewers should find the documentary Battle For Brooklyn gripping and provocative, no matter their opinions about eminent domain, historic preservation, or public dollars going to support private development. But there’s no doubt what side co-directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley are on....

It’s a fascinating, significant story too, though it proves a little too big for Galinsky and Hawley to wrangle...

But Battle For Brooklyn fumbles a bit though the “battle” itself. Goldstein claims that the developers have tried to depict the borough as more divided than it actually is, cynically and inaccurately trying to make the Atlantic Yards fight about well-off white folks clinging to their fashionable homes at the expense of working-class minorities. Galinsky and Hawley show that demographically at least, Goldstein is right. But filmmakers working less in advocacy mode might’ve explored this conflict more thoroughly, and would’ve maybe shown how these kinds of fights over the soul of a city keep coming up, decade after decade. Because these are tough but important questions: Who is “the community?” And what does it mean to love New York?

Indeed, a broader lens, taking in the context of changing Brooklyn, would have added to the film.

The Village Voice: Memory Lane: A Look Back at the Campaign Against Atlantic Yards in Battle for Brooklyn

...Instances of project-proponent doublespeak follow: Podium-banging Nets owner/AY developer Bruce Ratner invokes “the royal ‘I’ ”; Chuck Schumer says that job creation “enervates” [sic] him; a Forest City Ratner VP appears to spin displacement as a grand American tradition. Goldstein and friends propose less invasive alternative footprints, and then contest the legality of the state seizing their “blighted” property, at seven years’ worth of rallies and hearings... Battle for Brooklyn provides a useful primer on the opposition to Atlantic Yards, but figures who might have made more compelling documentary subjects than the always on-message Goldstein—such as the often-combative leadership of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, a community group whose tax filings reveal ties to Forest City Ratner; or City Councilwoman Letitia James, seen opposing AY both off-the-cuff and in rehearsed political tear-jerking—crowd the sidelines.
In other words, there are a lot of Atlantic Yards stories, and the narrow lens, even in a 93-minute film, might have been broadened. When's the mini-series?

The IceHouse Gang, Matt Brinckerhoff and the Battle for Brooklyn:

The Times, like just about every newspaper that has reviewed The Battle For Brooklyn so far, including The Wall Street Journal, gave it a very good review—albeit objecting that it is “unabashedly slanted and as a result will probably be dismissed by those it portrays unflatteringly.”

How very Timesian! Just what is the “unslanted” side to a story where a developer convinces a city government to hand over an immensely valuable property to him, evicts all the longtime residents on that property, lies about what he’ll build there, rips off local commuters to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars…then absconds, selling the whole site off to a mysterious foreign businessman?

And “it will probably be dismissed by those it portrays unflatteringly”? Right. Like if it had all been just a little more nuanced, Bruce Ratner, and Mayor Bloomberg, and all their flunky judges and MTA apparatchiks would have been kept up at night, walking the halls, wondering, ‘Did we do the right thing?’

The Times, like so many of our elite institutions, has wandered so far from any understanding of what a true democracy should be that it really thinks convincing developer rip-off artists and the mayors who love them is what counts. It isn’t. Convincing the people is. That’s what my bro, Matt, and the filmmakers, and the people of Prospect Heights are hoping for.

The L Magazine: Atlantic Yards: The Documentary
In a doc that doubles as a 21st century Prospect Heights time capsule, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team follow the Atlantic Yards saga from its announcement in late 2003, through Forest City Ratner's backroom deals and mercenary community alliances, opposite community activism and eminent domain court battles, up to the present, with parking lots where mixed-income housing built by local labor was once promised. Hawley and Galinsky go light on the number-crunching and paper-trail-tracking provided for most of the past decade by bloggers like Norman Oder—they cover all the necessary talking points, about gentrification and the coopting of African-American community leaders and eminent domain case law and cozy relationships between pols and developers, by showing street canvassers, press conferences, and Tish James at rallies, keeping their dramatization in a register of visceral outrage. The narrative through-line is Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein, whose hair goes gray as he starts a family in the Pacific Street apartment he refuses to leave. In the name of equal time, Marty Markowitz huffs and puffs odiously, pimping the development with tourist brochure cliché.

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