Drawing from nearly 500 hours of footage shot over 7 years, veteran documentary team Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's Battle For Brooklyn focuses on the controversial development of Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards, in which residents of the Prospect Heights neighborhood were offered compensation for homes seized under eminent domain law, making way for a new stadium and affordable housing. The opposition is represented by Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer determined not to leave his newly purchased apartment, and while the film makes a solid case that the legal maneuvers behind the project were less than above-board, it fails to prove a community was ruthlessly decimated by corporate forces. The film primarily consists of footage of press conferences, community and city meetings and Goldstein moping in his apartment. While that's routine activist doc fodder, Battle For Brooklyn fails to transform the rituals of municipal protest into meaningful drama, overlooking key questions in the process. Audience will be limited to citizens of New York City familiar with the controversy and activism-inclined documentary fans not fussy about their aesthetics.
The film begins in 2004, when Goldstein is disturbed to find that the beloved, new home he shares with his fiancé—featuring a terra cotta wall he's especially fond of—may soon have to be abandoned. Forest City Ratner, a real estate developer, wants to purchase residential blocks and train yards owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). To get the rights to the buildings, Forest City Ratner gets the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, garrulous borough president Marty Markowitz, Jay-Z and Beyoncé (silently gliding into the many commemoration ceremonies) and other prominent figures. The prize is an arena to welcome the New Jersey Nets, giving Brooklyn Markowitz's dream: its very own NBA team. The project promises affordable housing as well, to be designed by Frank Gehry. To get the property, Ratner claims the area is blighted (after spending time buying and dismantling some extant structures), allowing the government to seize the land.
Disgruntled, Goldstein throws an increasing amount of his time and energy into protesting the development, in the process driving away his fiancé. His entire building takes buy-out offers and leaves, leaving Goldstein and new girlfriend Shabnam Merchant to devote themselves to their organization, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). But not everyone in the neighborhood is opposed to the project: though one group that vigorously supports the prospect of new jobs and housing is revealed to have received a $5 million donation from Forest Ratner, it's clear that some residents genuinely support the project.
Racial undertones are ever-present but not addressed head-on: "I walked these streets before some people got here," black New York State Assembly representative Ralph Green pointedly tells a crowd of development supporters, and it's hard not to notice how often debate over the area seems to come down to relatively new white citizens opposing the project and black neighborhood residents supporting it. For all Goldstein's talk of supporting less affluent residents, the film itself shuts out almost all outside voices in the last 30 minutes, concentrating on Goldstein, Merchant and their lawyers.
While the depiction of the minutiae of local government is novel, the sketchy attempts to present Goldstein and Merchant in a multi-dimensional fashion never amount to much more than a wedding sequence on par with a home movie for family and friends. When, at last, Goldstein is bought out, receiving what's described as an "ample" settlement, it's hard not to notice that no one can be found to angrily protest how little they were offered —even if, as the end credits remind viewers, the recession has slowed development, leading to almost no new jobs for local residents and stalled construction on the still-promised but nowhere in sight affordable housing.
Distributor: Rumur Releasing
Director: Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley
Producers: David Bellinson
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: June 17 NY