This morning on my way to work, I walked a few blocks through Downtown Brooklyn. On the surface, it looked the same as it always had — bustling and gritty — but I saw it differently. I noticed the vacant storefronts, the newly arrived chain stores, the towering, high-rise condos a few blocks away, and the fancy supermarket just across from the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station. These are things I had never given much thought to until today, and the reason my vision shifted is a film I saw last night: Kelly Anderson’s fantastic documentary My Brooklyn.
My Brooklyn was born out of Anderson’s attempt to understand the realities of gentrification. “What was the impact of my presence in my neighborhood?” she asks in a narrative voiceover. Like so many white, creative, middle-income Brooklynites, Anderson could be seen as both a gentrifier and someone who loses when neighborhoods change. In her 25 years in the borough, she’s lived in six different areas, including Park Slope and Fort Greene, and she’s watched them all turn largely white and more expensive, to the exclusion of the black, Hispanic, and other non-white residents and families that lived there before.
It’s a familiar story, and one that neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy — as well as areas in other cities and town all across the country — are playing out at this very moment. But Anderson decided not to dig into the well-worn territory. Instead, she focused her lens on an area that probably doesn’t leap to mind when you hear the word “gentrification,” but is, it turns out, a neighborhood in dire need of our attention (although it may already be too late): Downtown Brooklyn and the Fulton Mall.
As Anderson tells it, the Fulton Mall area has been, for years, the third most profitable shopping district in New York, after Fifth and Madison Avenues. For decades, the place was filled with small, local businesses and street vendors, and it was the shopping mecca for a large urban community. The Fulton Mall and nearby Albee Square Mall were also landmark sites for the birth of hip-hop and hip-hop culture in New York City; Biz Markie even wrote a song about the latter. But in the early aughts, the Bloomberg administration for some reason decided that the area needed to be “revitalized,” and embarked on the Downtown Brooklyn plan, which entailed rezoning of the neighborhood for high rises, the construction of roughly a dozen luxury condo buildings, and the consequent jacking up of rents to insanely high prices that local business owners obviously couldn’t afford. The Downtown Brooklyn plan essentially gutted and killed Downtown Brooklyn.
The movie doesn’t just mourn the loss of a place that represented a true community for Brooklynites, though; it exposes the absurd corruption, connections, and complete and utter lack of transparency that backed the deal. The Downtown Brooklyn plan was put forth by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which multiple speakers in the film make clear is an arm of the mayor. You basically get the sense that a handful of white men and corporations basically worked hand-in-hand with the city to push the plan through, while getting rich in the process. The movie shows a hearing where local residents come to speak against the plan; members of the NYCEDC don’t even pretend to listen. Development companies are given huge subsidies to build condos, and new residents receive deals that allow them to not pay property taxes for the next 10 years! Meanwhile, small-business owners who’ve owned pizza places and wig stores and bookstores in the area for decades are evicted without notice, and without a dollar of compensation.
“The process of gentrifying Brooklyn is not necessarily making Brooklyn a better place to live,” says MIT professor Craig Wilder at one point during the movie. Later he adds, “The process of gentrification in New York is not about people moving into a neighborhood and other people moving out of a neighborhood. The process of gentrification is about corporations sectioning off large chunks of those neighborhoods and then planning out their long-term development.”
It’s more than enough to make you angry. (Appropriately, one of the community organizations most involved in protesting the plan is called FUREE, which stands for Families United for Racial and Economic Equality.) Brooklyn rapper General Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, who attended the screening and spoke briefly afterwards, summed it up well when he said, “I feel like I was robbed.”
The focus in this film isn’t quite where you’d expect it to be for a documentary about gentrification. Anderson doesn’t spend a lot of time on the white people like her moving into neighborhoods; instead, she uncovers the political machinations that encourage those moves, and the people who are displaced by them. Although this might be letting herself off the hook in some way, it’s also a welcome change (and she does have a few snippets of supremely stupid comments from obnoxious white people who dismiss the Fulton Mall as a place to buy a Scarface towel). Big picture issues like redlining and rezoning are often overlooked in more specific, neighborhood-focused discussions about gentrification. Anderson opens our eyes a little.
Plus, she has tons of wonderful scenes and interviews with shoppers and business owners along Fulton Mall, giving them a real outlet to voice their plight and feelings. “It’s a dead end … and we’re in a dead end,” says an employee of a barbershop, as the realization that they’ll actually be forced to move washes over his face with sadness. If there’s a downside to Anderson’s film, it’s that My Brooklyn leaves you feeling that way, too: galvanized, maybe, but also powerless.