Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “Battle for Brooklyn” chronicles a struggle that resonates strongly with me. It pits a community group against real estate developer Bruce Ratner who intended to remove home-owners and businesses from the very spot upon which he sought to build an enormous complex. Ratner eventually used eminent domain to push through his project, just as Columbia University has done in Manhattanville, a neighborhood in West Harlem. About four years ago I moved into new offices as part of the university’s initial expansion into this area. Both Ratner and Columbia University have powerful connections in state and local government that allows them to steamroll over opposition and both like to see themselves as bastions of liberal culture and friends of the Black community.
“Battle for Brooklyn” holds Ratner’s pretensions up to close scrutiny. The documentary is directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, the same pair responsible for “Horns and Halos”, a documentary about the battle mounted by Soft Skull Press’s Sander Hicks to publish J.H. Hatfield’s scorched earth biography of George Bush after White House pressure convinced St. Martin’s Press to bail out. Sander, who would eventually become a 9/11 truther, is obviously the kind of Quixotic figure that Hawley and Galinsky are drawn to since “Battle for Brooklyn” features Daniel Goldstein in the role of David to Ratner’s Goliath. Unfortunately, in this instance Goliath prevailed.
Daniel Goldstein lives in a remodeled building on Pacific Street that is similar to many in New York City’s five boroughs. Priced out of the Manhattan market (I am only making a guess that this was the case for Goldstein, a graphic artist), they settle in working-class neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Long Island City and elsewhere to enjoy a roomy apartment or loft with the latest amenities. When Ratner offers the occupants of Goldstein’s building a million dollars each to move out, they take the money and run. Goldstein, a 30ish young man with a rebellious streak as pronounced as I have ever seen, decides to remain and fight. After joining Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), he begins to spend more time organizing people than on his career. His passion for the cause (and perhaps other incompatibilities) leads to the break-up his engagement. But all is not lost. He finally hooks up with and marries Shabnam Merchant, an Indo-American woman who is as dedicated to the cause as he is.
Arrayed against them and their neighbors are an enormously powerful and ruthless bloc consisting of Ratner, his top executives, and a rogue’s gallery of politicians, including the buffoonish Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz. They portray the project’s benefit in such glowing terms that you would think that they were on some kind of social uplift mission rather than a typical real estate boondoggle. Ratner is a truly despicable figure, who naturally enough became a member of Bard College’s Board of Trustees. Leon Botstein has a particular flair for recruiting limousine liberals such as Ratner, who will be sitting alongside Stuart Resnick at board meetings. Resnick is the owner of a number of “enlightened” New Agey type products like POM juice and Fiji water that put profits over sustainable development.
The film exposes a dirty trick used by Ratner that I had not been aware of. Formed to oppose Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a group called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) claimed to speak on behalf of the Black community. Its publicity tried to exploit racial and class differences, claiming that DDDB was a bunch of white yuppies trying to prevent Blacks from getting good-paying jobs. Eventually the film reveals that the group was funded by Ratner, as this N.Y. Daily News article by Juan Gonzalez reported on October 18, 2005:
Forest City Ratner paid BUILD $10,000 earlier this year to distribute copies of a promotional newspaper about the Atlantic Yards project called the Brooklyn Standard.
Then in August, the developer donated an additional $100,000 to the group to pay its salaries.
That was two months after BUILD and seven other Brooklyn neighborhood groups signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner that promised up to one-third of the housing built would be “affordable” and set aside jobs for local residents.
Ratner provided an entire building rent-free for BUILD headquarters on Pacific St. and supplied all of the group’s office equipment. The developer also is paying for a public relations firm to represent BUILD and the other neighborhood groups that support Atlantic Yards.
Last weekend, Ratner issued another $28,000 contract for BUILD to hire 100 neighborhood people to distribute a second copy of its promotional newspaper, said the developer’s spokesman Joe DePlasco.
The latest issue of that newspaper – 300,000 copies were printed – has a big front-page photo of Mayor Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the project, next to developer Bruce Ratner.
Although I strongly recommend this film, I wondered if there was a failure to include experts on the project who could have provided some background. For example, the film says very little about Frank Gehry’s participation in Ratner’s project (he was eventually dropped as part of a belt-tightening exercise). I think that his participation says volumes about his own questionable status as architect of our generation, being put forward as a latter-day Frank Lloyd Wright. It would have been good to hear architectural historians weigh in on the overall value of the project from an esthetic standpoint. As a long-time New Yorker, I have grown very dubious of mega-projects that lack any kind of organic link to the surrounding community. While I of course mourn the loss of innocent lives, I shed no tears for the demolition of the WTC on 9/11. Perhaps if the terrorists had waited until after midnight when the buildings were unoccupied, like the SDS Weathermen used to do, then the razing of the towers might have seemed more benign.
All that being said, “Battle for Brooklyn” has a kind of credibility that might have been undercut with the interviews of anti-Ratner experts. The goal of Hawley and Galinsky is to allow each side to make its case, obviously allowing people like Marty Markowitz to hoist themselves on their own petard. An audience will respect the directors for not tipping the scales through bias, even though their sympathy for Daniel Goldstein is obvious. In many ways their approach is similar to “Crude”, the documentary about the law suit against Chevron’s despoliation of water and soil in Ecuador. After a while, you’d like to throw a tomato at the television or movie screen when some oily (pun intended) Chevron executive pleads innocence. As is the case with “Battle for Brooklyn”, you have no doubts about who the bad guys are.
Interview with the directors: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2011/jun/09/battle-brooklyn/
My last article on Bruce Ratner is here: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/ratner-botstein-and-gehry-birds-of-a-feather/
And on the Columbia expansion: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/04/28/columbia-expansion/