Battling the Builder
Published on July 1st, 2011 | by Sander Hicks3
It certainly appears that way from the new documentary “Battle for Brooklyn,” now playing at Cinema Village. Here, activist Daniel Goldstein and the volunteers at Develop Don’t Destroy hold up their arms against the corporate financial juggernaut that runs this City. When developer Bruce Ratner decides to develop a series of skyscrapers and a sports arena at the Atlantic Yards site (at Atlantic and Flatbush) he uses nuances in real estate law to seize buildings, and people’s homes, through eminent domain. Goldstein was the only home-owner to hold out until the last, in a battle that lasted seven years. Film-makers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley were there with camera rolling every step of the way.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Mike and Suki are friends of mine, and I have worked on a film with them. But I was a fan before I was a friend, going all the way back to their first film, the light-hearted indie rock road movie, “Half Cocked.” Cast with indie rockers and poets, I happened in on it at the old Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street, back when Ludlow had only one bar and one art gallery.
As we have grown up, we seem to have made choices to become more political. We have become more aware of larger social forces as they affect our worlds, create our wars, and mold the education of our children. We seem to have become more aware of how “reality” is created here in the media capital of America.
Rather than get pegged as being the bad guy, Ratner very smartly created a “grassroots” pseudo-activist group called B.U.I.L.D. which is staffed with vociferous Africans Americans who advocate for the project and deny they are being paid by Ratner. Years later, over the course of the film, leaked tax documents expose that B.U.I.L.D. are in fact funded by Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner (FCR). It’s almost as if FCR had appropriated the plausibile deniability tactic of the Iran/Contra operators, or the “front group” tactics of the CIA.
The film shows us the effects of the Great Recession on the fate of the project, as the economic meltdown screws the entire city. Even when FCR’s share price drops from $67 to $5, the project still bulldozes forward.
I saw an early version of this film, and have to say that the turn-around from the rough edit to now is miraculous. The film’s got rhythm. We get a better sense of Daniel Goldstien, and how the crisis affected his personal life. Political and strategic differences lead to a choice to call off an engagement. Later he finds a life partner who is committed to what matters to him most, one not afraid of the risks. This edit tells that story crisply with visual cues: we learn that new girlfriend Shabnam Merchant has moved in with a quick shot of her name added to the intercom box.
Another hero of the film is the eloquent City Councilwoman Letitia “Tish” James, who has the ability to fire up a crowd with an effortless grace. “I have staked my entire political career on this” she claims towards the end of the film, which shows her passionate commitment, even if it’s not literally true. James still serves in the City Council, even though the Battle here was not to the righteous. David doesn’t beat Goliath in this one.
Admittedly, the film could have benefited from some comic relief at some point. In the grueling sprint toward the showdown, we never get a chance to breathe, or laugh. But that’s not necessarily such a terrible thing either.
When push comes to shove, the final hold-outs are Daniel Goldstein and the local bar, Freddy’s, both of whom get “ample” compensation in last-minute deals with Ratner. The film feels it too polite to mention actual figures. Goldstein got $3 million, which to some may make the adjective “ample” seem a bit understated. A bolder move might have been to share in Goldstein’s victory, and simultaneously confront lefty stereotypes about money.
The triumph of Battle is that someone stood up to the juggernaut of financial power and reality manipulation. It has set attendance records at the independent house Cinema Village. Everyone who cares about the life of the City of New York should go see it. Make your 4th of July weekend about a real independence from domination and control.