So the New Jersey Nets want to move to Brooklyn, finally returning a pro sports team to the borough that lost the Dodgers back in 1957. Frank Gehry designs a beautiful stadium complex, surrounding the arena with residential and commercial towers that twist and sparkle with his trademark titanium façades.
Deals are made, contracts drawn up and the project is set to go forward—all that stands in the way is a handful of people in the buildings slated for demolition, 864 residents and businesses in all. If they take their buyouts and leave quietly, Brooklyn gets an NBA team and a new stadium, and a shabby swath of land near downtown is transformed into a spiffy office/ condo park. Simple, right?
Only some of them didn't want to leave. And it's a good thing, because as they dug in their heels, and as the developer used his political connections and hardball tactics to get his way, documentary filmmakers Michael Galinsky, a Chapel Hill native, and Suki Hawley, who's from Dallas, were on hand to record all the shady goings-on. The incendiary film they ended up with, Battle for Brooklyn, unmasks an ugly, undemocratic abuse of power for all to see.
It's especially resonant now, in the wake of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement, as an example of a wealthy corporation running roughshod over the rights of the people. And since the corporation in question, Forest City Ratner, achieved its ends through backroom deals with local and state officials, the film also speaks to the big government complaints of libertarians and the Tea Party crowd.
"What's funny is that conservatives love the movie and liberals love the movie, because everybody hates kleptocracy," says Hawley. "They hate corruption. And that's what this movie tells."
The project began back in 2003. Hawley and Galinsky, married and raising two kids in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, live less than a mile from the site of the proposed stadium. Having made previous films about the life cycle of news stories in the mainstream media, their bullshit detectors went off when they read a New York Times article about the project that "just sounded like a press release," said Hawley on the phone from Brooklyn.
One day in January of 2004, they saw a flyer on their block advertising a community meeting to oppose the project. "I called the number on the flyer and got connected to Patti Hagan, who you see in the movie, and she started talking my ear off," said Galinsky on the phone from the Pittsburgh airport, having just flown there for a screening the next day (he and Hawley are distributing the movie themselves). "So I drove over the next morning and started shooting."
It wasn't long before they met the man who would become their protagonist, Daniel Goldstein, a rumpled 30-something graphic designer. Early in the film he becomes not just a leader of the resistance but a symbol, as every one of his neighbors in a converted industrial building take their buyout offers and leave. Goldstein stays, by his own admission obsessed, doggedly co-founding and leading the grassroots coalition "Develop—Don't Destroy Brooklyn" at the expense of his professional and personal life (his fiancée dumps him).
The filmmakers focus on Goldstein to personalize the narrative, but the film is much more than one man's battle to save his apartment. For Goldstein, it's not even so much his love for his apartment, which he'd only recently moved into, that drives him (though anyone who's tried to find housing in New York knows what a relief it is to stay put—"I spent literally five years looking for an apartment," he says). It's his love for his neighborhood, and for him it's clearly also a question of principle.
The principle is eminent domain, a power that was drastically expanded by a momentous 2005 Supreme Court decision. Whereas before, government was entitled to take private land for a compelling public interest, like a highway or railroad, the Kelo v. City of New London decision allowed private land to be seized and given to another private entity, even if the only public benefit is increased tax revenues.
For the Atlantic Yards stadium project, developer Bruce Ratner made a sweetheart deal with New York State that not only gave him public land far below market value, it let him take adjacent private land to build luxury highrises. Perfectly habitable apartment buildings and solvent businesses would be condemned as "blighted" to make way for his grand design.
Battle for Brooklyn clearly shows the favoritism Ratner, who was a law school roommate of Gov. George Pataki and who served as Consumer Affairs Commissioner under New York City Mayor Ed Koch, received from state and local government. He'd trod the familiar path from public service to private enrichment, a popular choice for urban planners-turned-developers, as well as federal officials-turned-lobbyists.
The filmmakers don't spend much time going after Ratner, however, choosing instead to show the fight at ground level, in city council meetings, in public gatherings and on the streets. It's there that they make their most damning discovery, about halfway through the film, catching the developers out as they deploy a despicable tactic (which I won't reveal here) to divide the community, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
This tableau shows the arrogance of a ruling class accustomed to buying its way. Which one might be tempted to call a subversion of our form of government, except that it's probably more accurate to say it is our form of government. "It's a kind of corruption that's at the core of our political system, which is why we're having Occupy Wall Street," says Galinsky.
"Everybody has a stake in these issues—[the film] is in Brooklyn, but it's not about Brooklyn. It's not even about this project. It's about media, and it's about the way government and developers and businesses interact in a way that disadvantages everybody else. That's what kleptocracy is, and 'corptocracy.' And that's why I think people have really been responding to the movie."
Editor's note (Nov. 21, 2011): Battle for Brooklyn was just shortlisted for a best documentary Oscar.