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Gentrifying Brooklyn: Two Documentaries

There is little resemblance between the New York I grew up in, and the New York of 2013. My South Bronx neighborhood has over the decades gone through cataclysmic changes from a solid working-class area teeming with small stores and a vital street life, to a burned-out wasteland of empty lots filled with rubble and abandoned tenements whose only inhabitants were cat decals. By 2013 it has become a functioning world of generally lifeless streets filled with Section 8 rental-assisted and public housing that replaced most of the tenements, red brick walk-ups, and art deco apartment houses of my adolescence.   Other parts of the city have gone through vast shifts of a different nature. We are a city, for better or worse, where flux is the norm.

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I suppose no borough has gone through more changes in the last sixty years than Brooklyn. The Brooklyn of the last decade differs radically from its 30s and 40s Hollywood version, that viewed it as a place solely inhabited by kind-hearted, gum-chewing, and fast talking urban ethnic men and women played by William Bendix, James Gleason, and Thelma Ritter -“the salt of the earth”-who loved their Dodgers, and were free of pretension. That image was echoed in a rhapsodic, Whitmanesque 1939 essay by James Agee depicting a Brooklyn of ordinary people-“a profoundly docile, and stable population.” His Brooklyn was a horizontal, featureless, static place that “Manhattan’s mad manic energy” sucks dry and makes “provincial,” at the same time he sensed that people, by living their everyday lives there created something vital and stirring. That from “the wood tenements, bare lots and broken vistas” of Williamsburg and Bushwick to the “seas of lawn” where “the sloped light is turning gold” in Prospect Park, there is a world worth paying homage to.

By the 60s and 70s Brooklyn had lost jobs and people to the suburbs and the Sunbelt, and during the 1977 blackout, rioters burned entire blocks of one Brooklyn neighborhood-Bushwick-to the ground. The city was at its nadir, and drugs, crime, and a sense of hopelessness overwhelmed Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, among others.

However, since the 90s sections of Brooklyn have been transformed-though large pockets of poverty continue to exist: some neighborhoods, despite the reduction of crime, remain dangerous, and a number of its public schools continue to fail. Brooklyn’s evolution into an iconic hipster and artist haven has achieved a worldwide brand in television series, and magazine and newspaper pieces.  The Brooklyn of 2013 is where the hit series about young slackers/hipsters, Girls, is shot. This Brooklyn has writers, a couple of independent bookshops, literary readings, the Brooklyn Book Festival (the largest free literary event in New York City), and of course, BAM, which is committed to cutting-edge dance, theater, and music. Obviously, to see it as a reincarnation of the Paris of the 20s is a skewed Chamber of Commerce’s view of Brooklyn, but a real “scene” does exist there and even flourishes.

But along with the artists there has been a migration to Brooklyn of the moneyed and fashionable young whose impact has much less aesthetic appeal, and who inhabit sterile luxury buildings, and have begun to turn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope into islands of glossy homogeneity. Two recent documentaries, My Brooklyn directed by Kelley Anderson and Gut Renovation directed by avant-garde filmmaker Su Friedrich, deal respectively with the gentrification by the moneyed of Downtown Brooklyn and of Williamsburg.

The film by Anderson’s (who identifies herself as a gentrifier) depicts the dramatic transformation of Downtown Brooklyn and the Fulton Street Mall, where government policies and corporate development joined to displace small businesses and longtime neighborhood residents with 40 story luxury apartment towers, office buildings and hotels. The whole feel of the area is in the process of being transformed.

For years the Mall and its environs successfully served low income, working class and minority consumers-mostly Caribbean and African-American- with discount stores, fast food restaurants, barbershops, wig and music stores, Afro-centric bookshops, and street vendors. (Fulton Mall, serving 100,000 people a day, ranked 3rd in the city in profit, behind only 5th and Madison Avenues, when redevelopment planning began in 2002.) The new version of the Fulton Mall may not contain an upscale Barney’s or a Bloomingdale’s, but it’s now stocked with major national retailers- H&M, T.J. Maxx and Starbucks- replacing the mom-and-pops.

In interviews with community residents and storeowners, the film makes clear that their voices went unheard as the pressure of high rents and new construction mounted leading many of them to feel despair about being unceremoniously pushed out. And it was rezoning and tax breaks, not the mere workings of the free market that were used to promote development in Downtown Brooklyn. In fact, public land was used for one luxury housing and retail project, City Point, and Anderson pointedly asks: “Why are we building a private development on public land with no public benefit? Some of that benefit should go to the public.”

My Brooklyn is never strident. Anderson makes her points in an even tone, and is in no way reflexively opposed to change or development. She is ably assisted by urban historian Craig S. Wilder, who comments that it “is obscene” to suggest that the city government is powerless to influence the nature and direction of change. Anderson’s film charts just how the government colluded with speculative development (the city planners tend to be uncaring, complacent, and unwilling to criticize the developers) without trying to garner any significant concessions-jobs for locals, more inclusionary zoning- from the overheated real estate market.

Anderson feels that we must connect the dots between city policy and neighborhood change, and advocates challenging government officials when they come before the community. She also ends her film on an affirmative note with a brief montage of a heterogeneous group of Brooklynites expressing what they like about the borough.

Su Friedrich’s Gut Renovation is an angrier more personal film. Friedrich lived in a large Williamsburg loft for 20 years before being displaced in 2009 by a deluge of rising rents and new condominiums. She made the film while her block was being demolished around her.

Williamsburg is one Brooklyn neighborhood that has gone through much flux in the post WW11 era.  After WW11 refugees from Europe- the most conservative and socially isolated Hasidic sect, the Satmars-streamed into the area. Opposed to both secular culture and political Zionism, they established a large enclave in South Williamsburg that has continued to grow (now over 60,000 people). Puerto Ricans and Dominicans also began to put down roots, and some of the earlier immigrant groups, like Poles and Italians, stayed on in smaller numbers and maintained a strong communal identity linked to the Catholic Church. But with the decline of industry by the 70s, poverty, crime and illegal drugs began to dominate the area.

However, as the city became more secure and prosperous in the nineties, gentrification intensified and Williamsburg became a destination for mostly white artists like Su Friedrich, musicians, and hipsters with some family money, who were attracted to the factory lofts, the relatively cheap rents, and the ten-minute ride by subway to the East Village.

Friedrich isn’t interested in the history and demographics of the area, but in the fact that her block of artist lofts and small industrial businesses has been overwhelmed by new development, and so much of what she loved about the area has been demolished. She rages against the new glass boxes, and the chic well-dressed people with their coddled designer dogs, and nannies with custom-made strollers who have moved in. Shouting out from her window: ”you may think it’s funny, but you’re the people who are coming and ruining our neighborhood,” she runs the danger of a repetitive quality to her denunciations. Some of her footage of the demolition process also can be tedious, despite being deeply felt. Still, she is a more imaginative filmmaker than Anderson-using a map of Williamsburg, Friedrich strikingly colors in the more than 100 lots where development has occurred since the rezoning. Also, her editing is jazzier, and her camera more alive.

Williamsburg became a hot commodity when much of its zoning was changed from commercial to residential in 2005.  The artists were then displaced by the fashionable, moneyed young with disposable incomes, and the loft buildings were transformed into condos whose promised percentage of affordable housing turned out to be extremely limited, and beyond the reach of the community’s poorest families. Friedrich does not analyze in depth what occurred or give defenders of development a voice. The film is basically a passionate screed, and I wish it were more then that.

After being pushed out of Williamsburg Su Friedrich and her partner moved to Bedford Stuyvesant, where she and people like her could be considered gentrifiers. However, gentrification in itself is not an evil, just as no one wants to rule out all development-no city can be preserved in amber. Artists moving into Bushwick lofts and raising the neighborhood’s property values-all that is part of the city’s natural cycle, and is a matter of individual choice. City neighborhoods have always been characterized by change, with one ethnic group replacing another or one neighborhood rising because of an infusion of new people, money, and housing, or declining when people and capital flee, and only the most marginal are left.

But the development depicted in these two films is of another more pernicious order. There is nothing inevitable about the city’s becoming Bloomberg’s luxury enclave–a zone of privilege which also often exhibits little sensitivity for the preservation of the architectural past, that gives the city much of its character. All that “upzoning,” and those tax breaks to developers, while only 8% of new housing is affordable, leads to a city of glitz and glamour that is an unconscionable surrender to real estate interests and a betrayal of its middle and working class.  So, if taxpayer dollars, public land, and city codes are involved, it seems we should expect that open public debate should precede such interventions. It also seems reasonable that the city- in the words of Professor of Urban affairs and Planning Tom Angotti: “Demand an end to the public giveaways to developers, and recapture the value created by the city’s upzonings by heavily taxing developers, and use the money to help improve the public domain throughout the city where the needs are greatest.”

I share much of Angotti’s vision. But because real estate is one of the prime engines of the municipal economy, it’s hard to imagine that any of the Democratic candidates running in the mayoralty primary, no matter how liberal and pro-tenant they purport to be, taking the developers on. But one can always fantasize.

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