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Battle for Brooklyn debuts in Toronto, mostly to kudos, will open in Brooklyn in June

The documentary Battle for Brooklyn debuted this past weekend at Toronto's Hot Docs festivals, garnering mostly positive reviews from local critics and, according to the filmmakers, standing ovations for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein, the film's most prominent character, who was in attendance.

It will be the opening night film at the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 3rd (at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema).

Having seen a near-finished version, my shorthand take is that it's quite compelling--and for reasons not fully fleshed out in the initial reviews cited below.

At the same time, for those of us who know the sweep of the story, Battle for Brooklyn, at about 90 minutes, is both understandably and troublingly limited.

I'll say more about the film at a later date, but for now will compile the initial reactions.

A debate begins

The most provocative review, generating some heated comments, came from SpacingToronto, 4/30/11, Hot Docs: Battle for Brooklyn:
It was once said of Robert Moses that, “He loves the public, but not as people.” Moses was of course the modernist “master-builder” of 20th -century New York City who, in his own words, “took a meat axe to the Bronx” and bulldozed whole neighbourhoods to build massive expressways and other large-scale urban infrastructure. In Battle for Brooklyn, directors Michael Galinksy and Suki Hawley provide a 21st century addendum to the troubling modern history of eminent domain use. Their film shows, up close and dirty, just how large a role developers play in defining the forms and functions of the urban landscape.

Battle for Brooklyn follows the seven-year fight of Brooklyn resident Daniel Goldstein and a group of community activists coalesced under the banner “Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” against the massive Atlantic Yards mega-project. In 2003 billionaire developer Bruce Ratner and his firm, Forest City Ratner, announced a plan to buy the New Jersey Nets basketball team and relocate it to Brooklyn....

The better part of Battle for Brooklyn documents the good fight of Daniel Goldstein and his activist allies against the greed of Ratner and his political and financial backers - and it is indeed a good fight, one well told and suspensefully structured. But the question that really animates the film - lurking at times a little too quietly beneath its narrative - is about this relationship between the public and the people. It is precisely those tensions that threaten to disrupt the veneer of a united neighbourhood community that are the really interesting ones. These tensions play out along line of race and class, local vs. gentrifier, tenant vs. homeowner - and pose hard questions about whose interests truly constitute the “public interest.” While the community organization most actively trumpeting the development project’s social benefits may or may not be paid Ratner stooges, the issues they at least pretended to champion (jobs and affordable housing) are still essential ones, issues which in many cities facing large development projects threaten to be drowned out by gentrifiers' concerns with brownstone property values and cityscape vistas.

We never doubt for a minute the commitment of Goldstein and the other anti-Yards activists. Indeed the film is at its best when it touches on the issues that really underlie the fight they wage against the expropriation of people’s homes for private profit, such as the health of local children, networks of mutual aid forged between neighbors over decades: social rather than individual concerns, all of them; public precisely because they are peopled.
The comments

See the comments section for a spirited back-and-forth, in which one reader says he's "not sold that it's a completely 'good fight'--how much Park Slope NIMBYism was there?"

One response:
NYC development is never simple, and this fight was a classic. I'm not a fan of these activists, but I also know the developer side is pretty self-interested.
That original commenter, Shawn Micallef, added:
I should emphasize that the legal, eminent domain, political side of all this is interesting -- just the sheen of making equally self-interested activists look like saints vs $Goliath$, uncritically, is my worry.
Another local commenter, Jacqueline Whyte Appleby, offered:
The film is a bit of a "package"...a very un-messy story of good vs. evil. There is a deeper story in the desperate way that pro-Ratner neighbours chant "jobs! jobs! jobs!" at each hearing.

To a certain extent this cleanliness of storytelling worked against the very strong case the activists had for the underhandedness and just terrible injustice and UNFAIRNESS of the project's scope and execution.

Some of the local activists weighed in. Wrote Raul Rothblatt:
As one of the DDDb activists, I can assure you we all know that this is a complex issue. For years, we have been blogging, YouTubing, going to public hearings, and active in every manner of civic participation. We have explained our argument is detail... in waaaaay too much detail. I'm glad the movie distills the story, and I welcome people to read more for themselves. You can always visit:
Daniel Goldstein responded, with some hasty typos:
As for the earlier rhetoric, "How much Park Slope NIMBYism was there?"

How about his for an answer: none. This was not a NIMBY fight (really, a senior editor of this publication is using the pejorative of choice of the real estate lobby?), this was a fight, at its core (and like so many other development battles) about political corruption and the abdication of responsible government to the monied power brokers. That is what it was about. It was not about "oh, i don't like that tall building." It was also about thoughtless, or the complete lack of, urban design.

As just 2 examples. The argument for the project's extreme density (it would be the densest residential complex in N. America, if built) and the location of the arena was because of the subway hub and train terminal nearby. But they had a funny way of proposing a transit-oriented project—by including well over 3,000 parking spaces.

NYC zoning regulations were completely overridden. One zoning law prohibits arenas w/in 100 feet of residential streets. That regulation, like all of the rest, were thrown out the window. And now, what this has lead to and will lead to, are other non-residential uses popping up within residential areas and the backlash that is (and will) create. Zoning regulations, such as this one, actually make sense by the state decided to override it because Bruce Ratner asked for them to do so.

If fighting for a democratic voice and process in the way our cities are developed is NIMBYism then label me that now. If fighting against naked land grabs, naked corruption, subversion of zoning laws, the theft of public space and private property is NIMBYism, then label me that now.

Well, it's a little more complicated. Goldstein's points are valid (though the zoning law is 200 feet, not 100 feet), but some of the anti-project rhetoric, especially early on, focused on scale.

Consider this quote from Jon Crow of the Brooklyn Bear's Community Garden, from the New York Times, 7/5/05: "Office towers, high-rise towers, sports arenas, that's not a community. Brooklyn doesn't want to be Manhattan. If we wanted Manhattan, we'd live there."

Consider this Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn poster, part of the visual history I compiled last year.

Criticizing outsize scale isn't necessarily NIMBY; however, DDDB and allies eventually supported a significant increase in scale, in a much more nuanced way.

They developed and backed the UNITY plan, which would bring significant density--though not nearly as much as Atlantic Yards, and confined to the Vanderbilt Yard. It also would involve better urban design: new streets, not demapping of streets.

Now an update to UNITY is planned, with a meeting June 15.

An urban studies tale

From the Canadian movie site Criticize This, Hot Docs 2011 Preview Pt. 7, 4/24/11:
Battle for Brooklyn chronicles a seven year fight in the life of Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer turned unlikely community advocate, who fought against the displacement of thousands of people due to a suspect claim of Eminent Domain made by the Forest City Ratner development group in a bid to bring the New Jersey Nets NBA squad to town with a new stadium. The film is an interesting look at a community at war with itself. Despite all the suspect deals on the part of the developers and the state of New York, just as many people believe the building of the stadium and the new community surrounding it (championed by such luminaries as architect Frank Gehry and Nets co-owner Jay-Z) will create much needed jobs. While Goldstein is a devoted advocate who finds himself repeatedly silenced, he is also a deeply flawed and possibly even somewhat broken mad [sic] driven to near madness. A David and Goliath tale where David is booed as often as he is cheered, Battle for Brooklyn is a great portrait of how all politics truly are local. A must see for urban studies junkies.

Rating (out of five stars): ****
As No Land Grab's Eric McClure pointed out, many of those booing--I'd point to construction workers outside the May 2009 oversight hearing--were doing so out of some self-interest.

Too preachy?

The most tepid review came from the news/blog Toronto Update, Get reeled in: Hot Docs mini reviews, 4/24/11:
Galinsky and Hawley’s sometimes exhilarating, occasionally frustrating doc tackles the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a massive complex of skyscrapers anchored to the new home of the New Jersey Nets. Focusing on one lone graphic designer who refuses to bow down to developer Bruce Ratner, the film is expertly paced, but too often falls victim to a preachy “damn the man” tone. 2.5 stars [out of 4, apparently--AYR]
Resistance to gentrification?

From the online publication Art Threat, 4/28/11, Hot Docs begins tonight:
Battle for Brooklyn — Another documentary chronicling the greedy appetite of global corporations, BFB follows one person’s resistance to gentrification over the span of seven long, tiring years.
Actually, Atlantic Yards has been portrayed as both "instant gentrification" and a solution to gentrification. Goldstein, who could be considered a gentrifier (moving into a fallow warehouse converted to housing), certainly doesn't portray gentrification as the main ill he was fighting.

Tish will love it

From the alternative weekly Now Toronto, 4/28/11, HOT DOCS 2011:
...Superb storytelling and great characters, especially charismatic city councillor Laetitia James, make this a must-see.
A split community

From CanCulture 4/30/11, Battle for Brooklyn:
...Even then, struggle splits the community as it promises to bring more jobs, money and affordable housing to the area, dividing people into two camps: those who want to preserve the community as it is and those who want to see more economic opportunities open up.

...In many ways, Goldstein is the perfect person to follow during this ordeal because he has the same sentiments as the rest of the anti-development group. His engagement crumbles and it has him briefly questioning his motives after his mother dies unexpectantly. Although his story line brings a personal element to documentary, Goldstein’s viewpoint as a middle class white man living in a diverse Brooklyn is not the most objective.

In the end, we only see what happens to Goldstein, not where displaced residents and businesses end up. However the perspective Galinsky and Hawley present does show the importance of transparency by calling attention to the media coverage. The lack of information and understanding leaves the residents of New York City, and the development company with disappointing results. Viewers are also left wondering if things would have been different if all the information was put out in the open.
Atlantic Yards raises issues well beyond displacement of residents and businesses; rather the development threatens something that is hard to quantify--a "sense of place," as historic preservation scholar Shirley Morillo suggested.

And it raises lingering questions--ones answered differently, even with other megaprojects like Hudson Yards and Willets Point--about the right way to pursue development.

Q&A with director Galinsky

Here's a 5/2/11 Q&A, from CanCulture, in which Galinsky explains some directorial choices, such as why the film features a lot more of BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development) than fellow Community Benefits Agreement signatory ACORN:
CanCulture: You started this project in 2003. What has the time commitment been like?

Michael Galinsky: Well we shot a lot for the first year, and then after that it was just sporadically, so it wasn’t a full-time occupation. And then once it got to the end, we knew we had a great film, so we spent two years editing. Like two solid years, because that’s what it took to kind of nuance it and turn it into a movie rather than this kind of series of talking heads. In fact we had a bunch of talking heads at one point, it’s one way we work. We put talking heads with cards to tell us what the scenes need to do and then when we found a way to show it we were able to get rid of them.

CC: In terms of the film’s artistic direction, how did you decide which sources to cut or limit their exposure?

MG: It was like when you watch it with the flow it would be like, ‘That scene’s great, that scene’s great,’ but it would really bog down. We actually did literally 20 small screenings over the last eight months in our house with six or eight people, and you could see when people start checking their phones or when they shift — they lose their focus. Part of my theory is that a film is like a river and if you get out of the flow of the river, you go off to a story that doesn’t really fit, it’s really hard to get people back in the flow. And so you just have to grab ‘em and it’s got to be straight ahead and if they start to lose focus you’ve lost them. So the scene with ACORN was great, but it was too similar to the one where B.U.I.L.D. gets paid, it did the same thing, and you can’t do the same thing twice emotionally and narratively.
More from the directors

An interview today in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Patch addressed some of those issues:
“We didn’t want this to be an activist film, which is tough because you do become involved to a certain extent,” said Galinsky. “Our approach as directors is to follow characters and not facts. We want to show people under pressure and how they react to that pressure.”

...Hawley says a main goal of the film was to take an issue related to Brooklyn and make it relatable to audiences worldwide.

"What was great for us is when audience members would tell us about overriding political forces for similar projects that related to them, whether it was the construction of Texas Stadium in Dallas or development in Toronto," said Hawley. "It’s a universal story because politics is local.”
Narrowing the focus

Recognizing concerns about comprehensiveness, the directors have tried to pre-empt such criticisms, stating on Kickstarter:
Battle for Brooklyn follows Daniel Goldstein and his family very closely. Our goal was to use their story as a way to get audiences to connect personally with the issues that affected the larger community. It's important for us to make it clear to people that the film won't detail all of the nefarious doings, or the various legal decisions (in fact the 4 year legal fight is condensed down to a few minutes in the film). In the end we want people to understand the emotional impact of top-down decision making as much as they do the factual aspects of it.

In early June we will have two very big Brooklyn event screenings.... We will then open the film in theaters in late June.

As you likely know, the rest of the country watches how a film does in New York before they decide whether or not to book it. With your help we can make a big splash when Battle for Brooklyn opens. That buzz will carry over and get the film and the issues discussed on the national stage.