posted 2012-11-21 21:47:50

My Brooklyn

Hunter professor explores gentrification in award-winning film    

Amal Abass

Staff Writer

When I told Kelly Anderson, Hunter Media Studies professor and award- winning documentarian, about the day I moved to Brooklyn a few months ago after being priced out of Manhattan, she nodded knowingly. A New Yorker for twenty- plus years, Anderson wasn’t surprised by the scene I described: my boyfriend and I pulled up to our new street in Crown Heights, where a packed Caribbean restaurant stood on one end of the block, and a newly opened juice and raw foods bar was on the other end. We joined a procession of U-Haul vans, each one being unloaded by a young, white couple—just like us.

Was that trendy new juice bar, with its liquid blends of kale and “filtered alkalized water,” there to serve the neighborhood’s old guard or its new clientele? Perhaps both, but there was no denying that my adopted neighborhood was becoming gentrified, that complex word that Oxford English Dictionary innocuously terms “to renovate or convert housing [...] so that it conforms to middle- class taste.”

Or, as UrbanDictionary.com says, “When a bunch of white people move to the hood and open up cup cake [sic] shops.”

Anderson takes a stab at defining gentrification in her newest film, My Brooklyn, which won Best Documentary and Best Director at this year’s Red Hook International Film Festival. Her film focuses on the evolution of Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall, a busy retail district largely patronized by black shoppers. That is, until sleek luxury buildings and big-box stores started to move in, displacing long-standing local businesses and their customers.
The film doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. “What was Brooklyn becoming? Who was it for? And who was calling the shots?” she asks six minutes in. In search of an answer, Anderson consults everyone from academics to corporate bigwigs to Fulton Mall shoppers, business owners and activists.

Anderson says that her films typically look at “large social issues through the lens of individual characters,” an apt description of My Brooklyn. Though it delves into politics and policy, the movie is ultimately about people. One walks away from it wondering if our city is built on community or division. The people who reside in Downtown Brooklyn’s newly minted penthouses certainly live in a different world than many of the borough’s longtime residents, and Anderson investigates who creates these divisions.

Though the (notably white) Brooklynites who are shown saying things like “You can’t polish a turd” and “I wouldn’t want to be there at night” about Fulton Mall certainly aren’t helping, My Brooklyn is truly an indictment of the developers and government entities who conspire to take down areas like Fulton Mall.

Anderson unearths a tangled web of connections between corporate developers who worked to “develop” Fulton Mall with government agencies like the Department of City Planning and the public-private corporation Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Some made millions in the process.
According to Anderson, discovering the “deep collusion of government and real estate” was one of the most shocking elements of the research and filming process. “I think even I was shocked at the incredible failure of the city to represent the interests of the public,” she said.

For Anderson, gentrification shouldn’t mean alienating whole swaths of Brooklyn. “We’ve gone from a city where generations of different ethnic groups came to the city but could find some opportunity there, and some affordability to put down roots there, to a city that’s really difficult for anybody without a lot of money to survive in.”

Some would argue that Brooklyn owns a rags-to-riches legacy. After all, one of its most notable alums went from bragging about being a “Marcy projects hallway loiterer” to designing the spiffy logo for the the basketball team he partly owns, which play in the Brooklyn arena he helped to build (displacing many a resident along the way). If Jay-Z is any indication, lower class to luxury is a natural progression for this borough.

Anderson disputes that notion. “People always say that about gentrification; ‘Oh, cities change. Cities are dynamic.’[...] I feel that when people say that, they are not understanding the extent to which policy shapes change in cities,” she says. “No change is organic. Change is shaped.”

This doesn’t mean that words like “change” or “gentrification” should be pejorative terms. My Brooklyn proposes a solution, a synergy between New Brooklyn and Old Brooklyn, if you will. In one scene, journalist Alyssa Katz proposes that investments in Downtown Brooklyn focus on “integrating the strengths of the neighborhood that existed, rather than seeing the existing community and the existing clientele of the retail as an obstacle.”
The film cites a plan developed by the Pratt Center that proposed a marriage between the existing and new communities, but was ignored by city agencies and developers.

Anderson’s illuminating take on the corporations that drive gentrification is refreshing, but it doesn’t absolve new residents of responsibility. According to Anderson, gentrifiers have “an obligation to get involved and help preserve what’s there. Saying it’s not about individuals is kind of a relief in a way, but I don’t want people to use it as an excuse because I think we all have an obligation to the communities we’re living in.”

“Community” is the operative word, for if My Brooklyn teaches us anything, it’s that the city’s most populous borough doesn’t belong to the developers who seek to make it another branch of the luxury city, nor does it fully belong to

the gentrifiers or the old-timers. It’s our Brooklyn—a group effort—a concept that, to paraphrase Mr. Carter, may take some getting used to.

For more information on the film and upcoming screenings, visit www.mybrooklynmovie.com.