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Just Because It's My Brooklyn Doesn't Mean It Can't Be Yours

Fulton Street Mall
Fulton Street Mall
David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday afternoon, Rerun Theater at Rebar was full. It seemed only fitting that even the name of the place is a do-over, its chairs the back seats from old minivans--and not just because Rerun is a venue for post-film festival movies that don't yet have distributors. Today the theater was screening Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean's My Brooklyn, a documentary about gentrification, public policy, and community in and around Downtown Brooklyn. In the film, Anderson unearths the political catalysts and private interests behind the gentrification of the borough she now calls home. It's worth noting that Rebar is in DUMBO, a neighborhood whose name is short for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass," and which was adopted in the late 1970s by residents of the area, hoping that its ugliness would deter developers. It didn't.

There's that saying about New York being made by the people who move there. Anderson, a Montreal transplant, has no patience for that idea, because it conveniently dismisses the contributions and legitimacy of the people who were born in the city. When she moved to a mostly black and Puerto Rican Brooklyn in 1988, Anderson lived blocks away from the now-demolished Albee Square Mall, where hip-hop got its start. So what happened to the Albee (now the site of City Point, the mixed-use mega shopping hub), where venerable Jewish department store Abraham and Strauss used to carry Fubu clothing and gold chains, where Snoop Dogg and Funkmaster Flex used to shoot music videos in the 1980s? It was a casualty of the eternal search for cheap rent.

Was the borough of the 1970s and '80s the real Brooklyn? Photographs taken by Jamel Shabazz, which open the film, seem to say so. Sometimes in color and sometimes a wistful black-and-white, they mostly depict African-Americans in and around Downtown Brooklyn--a little girl drinking from a hydrant, lanky young men in tiny shorts carrying a boom box. Anderson underscores that feeling of nostalgia with interviews from local residents and business owners in what's left of the Fulton Mall. What's Downtown Brooklyn?, she asks them. "It's got an urban feel," says one young black man. "It's free." Rahsun Houston, a social worker who grew up selling flowers on a corner in Downtown, remembers the mall as an icon. Then he walks Anderson down a shuttered Duffield Street. "To be honest, I don't come down here much anymore, because there's nothing left for me to come down to."

 

In the Q&A following the screening, Bed-Stuy-raised MIT history professor Craig Wilder, featured in the film, dismissed nostalgia as an "unreasonable" wishing-away of change. But he was also very clear about the difference between gentrification and the natural shifting of neighborhood character. "The process of gentrification in New York," Wilder says in the film, "is not about people moving into a neighborhood and other people moving out. It's about corporations."

One such corporation is the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a public-private entity founded by Mayor Bloomberg. Its former president, Joe Chan, contends in the film that his friends moved to Brooklyn to be somewhere "a little less mainstream, a little more creative...off the beaten path." But Joe Chan and New York City policy-makers are beating that path into a road with high tolls. Discussing a planned luxury health food market near Downtown Brooklyn, a representative from the Department of City Planning asks, "Do minorities not deserve a better range of food options?" Only if they can afford it. Anderson features a number of locals whose families left New York because the cost was too high.

Joe Chan would argue that those families left by choice. Gentrification is not eviction; it is not eminent domain. But because the Fifth Amendment forbids the confiscation of property "without just compensation," under eminent domain, some reparation is guaranteed. Gentrification, as Anderson details, occurs through a partnership between public policy makers and private developers, and coalitions like the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. To simplify, gentrification involves the identification by developers of promising neighborhoods, rezoning for residence by the city, and the acquisition of properties by gentrifying agents, who raise rents to levels unaffordable by the original tenants, which forces them out thanks to the democratic institution of the free market, opening up the spaces for higher-end retail and residence. About halfway through My Brooklyn, there's a great interview with a barber shop owner who jokes that, in order to stay, "maybe we should get a cappuccino machine." These processes are unmissable if you bother to look.

And it seems like people are looking. During the Q&A session, the unusually diverse audience kept asking what they should be doing to change things. All three speakers--Anderson, Wilder, and co-producer Lisa Willis--insisted that we have a moral obligation to get involved in our neighborhoods and communities, to join organizations even if "they don't look like us," as Wilder put it.

The filmmakers themselves are their own proof. Anderson and Willis met because their children attend the same neighborhood school in Clinton Hill, and when they discovered that they were both being priced out of Fort Greene and were interested in issues of gentrification and community, they started collaborating. Their film drew the attention of Adam Schartoff, another parent at the school, who'd been noticing a surge of documentaries about change and gentrification in different Brooklyn neighborhoods. As someone who'd never found much community in Manhattan, Schartoff felt very tied to Brooklyn, and decided to connect the people who cared as much as he did. The result was Brooklyn Reconstructed, a documentary film series "about gentrification and development in our borough."

Calling it "ours" is pretty ballsy--and frankly more helpful than Anderson marking her personal ownership in the film's title. "Ours" acknowledges everyone else's right to the place, alongside your own--whoever you are, and whoever everyone else happens to be. During the movie, Anderson discusses redlining, a public policy which in the 1950s ghettoized black populations in urban areas and devalued their property. Among its results, she says, was that Brooklyn became home to the largest black population in America. "Yesss!" whispered the little black girl next to me, noting the fact in her phone. It turned out that she was the daughter of Lisa Willis, the co-producer. At the end of the Q&A, when the lights went up and the house cleared out, the little girl tucked her phone in her pocket and darted away to play with the other kids, just like kids do anywhere.

The Brooklyn Reconstructed series concludes later this month, with a secret documentary screening at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, 53 Prospect Park West, on February 27th at 7 p.m. The filmmaker will be in attendance.

[Diana Clarke can be reached at diana.s.clarke@gmail.com.]


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