There's a moment towards the end of Battle for Brooklyn when Prospect Heights resident Daniel Goldstein peers through a fence at a construction site teeming with workers and cranes. The area was recently home to dozens of small businesses and hundreds of homes, one of which belonged to Goldstein.
The scene marks the end of an eight-year war between the graphic-designer-turned-activist and Forest City Ratner, the development company that employed the power of eminent domain to bulldoze his neighborhood to make way for a basketball arena.
It's a sad story, but not an uncommon one. In fact, documentarian Michael Galinsky tells the LA Weekly, the same thing is about to happen here.
“Given L.A.'s rubber stamping of the stadium deal, this film is incredibly relevant,” Galinsky tells the LA Weekly, referring to the $1.5 billion NFL stadium recently approved for construction in downtown Los Angeles.
Galinksy and his wife, Suki Hawley, decided to make a film about Goldstein and the Atlantic Yards project after reading a New York Times article on the project that Galinksy says “just sounded like a press release.” The directors' investigation led them to Patti Hagan, a former journalist who became a spokeswoman for the anti-Atlantic Yards faction, a group called Develop Don't Destroy.
Battle For Brooklyn presents Hagan, Goldstein, activist Shabnam Merchant and New York City council woman Letitia James as heroes, fighting against apathetic politicians, corrupt bureaurocrats and a neighborhood coalition called B.U.I.L.D. whose staunch support of Ratner comes as a result of a $5 million dollar bribe. Over the course of their almost decade-long battle, Goldstein and Merchant marry and have a child, a little girl named Sita, whose large brown eyes sometimes express a clear sense of worry over the world the grown-ups plan to leave her with.
Is this manipulative? Sure. Galinsky's film is unapologetically biased. Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner, Vice President Bruce Bender and Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz exist here mainly as a series of grinning talking heads at heavily scripted press conferences. Still, with its multimillion-dollar publicity budget and lobbying for public support based on claims that have yet to come true, Forest City Ratner didn't exactly wage a fair fight, either.
Besides, it's the focus on Goldstein, president of Develop Don't Destroy, and his family that makes this documentary work. Dig beneath the paperwork and the corporate intrigue and the Atlantic Yards controversy is, essentially, a story about people. We meet the owners of a local watering hole, a young man who just signed a 10-year lease and invested $450,000 in his own business and families who have been living in their apartments for generations. All of them are caught in the shadow of the proposed arena. All of them must move after the city declares their small pocket of Prospect Heights “blighted”.
Galinsky says his focus on the human aspects of the project was a calculated attempt to “retake the narrative for the community.” He hopes to present information to the public in a way that newspapers, hampered by the economy, no longer can. “No publications have the resources to deal with complex issues. The developer sends out a press release. The opposition — when it finally forms sends out a press release — and they treat them as equals.”
Ultimately, he says, he wants to force people to think more deeply about what they read. He hopes Battle for Brooklyn will raise awareness of the downsides of development and the danger of eminent domain abuse, which allowed Ratner to build in Prospect Heights without community input. Although the L.A. stadium project doesn't involve eminent domain, he says, it does stand to pose environmental and economic risks to residents of downtown Los Angeles. By publicizing the project as a source of revenue for the city and for tax payers, Phil Anschutz and his company are being purposely disingenuous.
“People are protesting at the [Atlantic Yards] site saying 'where are our jobs?' Many of them took training from these groups and there were no jobs,” Galinsky says.
After the economic downturn derailed Ratner's original plans, part of the construction site was repurposed to build prefabricated affordable housing units. Prefab housing calls for significantly less labor than standard construction, and many of Ratner's original supporters — who expected to receive construction jobs — have said they feel betrayed.
“This is what's happening in L.A. with the stadium right now. They're making these sham promises.” Galinsky added, “I just worry for Los Angeles. They're going to go, 'Okay, let's do this.' Then we're going to take on all this debt. And who knows? You may not even get an NFL team. Meanwhile, the government is pitting communities against each other.”
The director tells the Weekly he's been dismissed as a raving crackpot by some of New York's top journalists. It's true that his passion can sometimes sound like mania, but in light of Los Angeles' perpetual budget woes, it's hard not to wonder if he has a point. Anschutz and co. say they'll build the stadium without taxpayer money, but the millions of dollars in government bonds they'll receive seem ludicrous in a city sorely lacking in cash. The development company has promised the stadium will provide much-needed revenue for Los Angeles, but, as has been reported here and elsewhere, a lot of residents have their doubts.
Battle for Brooklyn opens at the Laemmle Music Hall tonight. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley will discuss the film after the opening night screening.
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