"Nobody's gonna remember how long it took. They're only gonna look and see that it was done."
- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the use of
eminent domain to build a basketball arena in Brooklyn
Earlier this year, at the annual ALI-ABA Eminent Domain law conference, filmmakers Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and David Beilinson screened a rough cut of their documentary about the Atlantic Yards case, Battle for Brooklyn.
At the conference, we interviewed Mr. Galinsky after the showing, but wanted to wait for the film to be finalized before releasing a review. The film is now on the festival circuit and it looks like it is heading to general release in the near future so it's time for us to actually let you know what we think about it.
If you have been following the many lawsuits and appellate opinions which the project generated you know the details. Norman Oder's indispensable Atlantic Yards Report is the starting point if you want day-to-day details and analysis, and several other blogs are produced by opponents of the project such as Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and No Land Grab, We've also devoted more than a few posts to the case. See here (video of the oral arguments in the NY Court of Appeals), here (the archive of our live blog of the arguments with eminent domain scholar Tim Sandefur), and here (our commentary on the settlement of the case).
If you haven't been following the case, Battle For Brooklyn is the crash course. Here's the very short summary: Forest City developer Bruce Ratner wanted to relocate the New Jersey Nets basketball team to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He proposed the Atlantic Yards project, a mixed use development whose crown jewel is a new arena for the team. Squarely in the 22-acre footprint of the project, however, were privately-owned homes and businesses, some of whom did not want to be bought out, especially for a basketball arena. Despite there being nothing really blighted about them, these properties were declared "blighted" and thus ripe for condemnation (one project proponent claimed that it would use "available land that's been unproductive for years").
There have been other films about eminent domain. For a fictional comedic take on the subject you can't do better than Australia's The Castle, which tells the story of a Melbourne family's challenge to a Kelo-like taking of their home. Welcome to Asbury Park is a documentary about New Jersey property owners resisting the taking of their homes. It also looks like the Kelo story will be coming to the small screen in a Little Pink House movie.
But until Battle For Brooklyn, there's never been an attempt to chronicle the massive scope of an eminent domain story -- the film takes place over seven years, itself an accomplishment -- and with such intimacy. For although the film is framed by the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project, its heart is a character study of Daniel Goldstein, the property owner who became the opposition leader, and who by the film's end remains the sole "holdout" among his 130 neighbors.
And that's where Battle For Brooklyn excels. It allows us to witness Mr. Goldstein's evolution from a bewildered property owner to sophisticated spokesman and property rights activist. In the era of reality television we have become accustomed to often-too-revealing and all-too-polished looks into the personal lives of others. Yet, Battle For Brooklyn feels different.
Look for the scene of his first press conference. What first appears to be the wind moving the notes he is clutching upon closer look is revealed to be his hands shaking. He's clearly no professional "community organizer." The film follows his development as he becomes less nervous, more articulate, more committed, and perhaps more angry with what he characterizes as a "failure of democracy." It's easy to see why he thinks so, since the fix appears to be in:
- A city council meeting devotes hours to the project's proponents, but when the time comes for the opposition to be heard, all but one or two councilmembers are nowhere to be found, prompting Norman Seigel, the opponents' attorney, to provide one of the film's more memorable moments as he loses his usual measured demeanor and thunders in the now-empty chamber.
- The opponents' competing bid -- which would not require the taking of the homes, and which would generate more money -- is summarily rejected by the MTA, which decides to negotiate exclusively with Forest City Ratner.
- The supposedly grassroots community members who support the project are revealed by tax filings to be funded by the project developer.
We sense Mr. Goldstein's powerlessness and frustration as the home he's spent years to find and acquire is treated by others who are more influential and politically connected as merely a chess piece on a board, and watch as his dreams and desires are marginalized or ignored. In one scene late in the film, we see self-awareness flash over his face as he admits the battle has not really been about his modest condo, but more about the loss of control and the lack of respect being paid to the residents of the neighborhood. "This is not about this apartment, that would be insane," he notes.
Battle For Brooklyn does not fall into the trap of becoming a political screed or the usual guerilla theater of other films which seem concerned more with making a point than documenting the facts. Apart from the eminent domain elements, it tells an emotional story that will pull in even those not familiar with the case, or the inequities of New York takings law. It vividly chronicles the ebbs-and-flows of litigation as the opponents appear to gain momentum, only to have it dashed. It captures the intensity of waiting for a court decision in the scenes where Mr. Goldstein obsessively refreshes the browser window on his computer to see if the Court of Appeals has issued an opinion.
It follows his personal losses and joys: his mother dies, and one relationship falls apart under the weight of the fight, but the cause leads him to a new relationship, complete with child. The film reveals the hucksterism of the politician-led quasi-revivals extolling the virtues of professional sports teams. It captures the outrage when one of the project's proponents claim that Atlantic Yards will "start from scratch," virtually ignoring the homes and businesses that existed in the footprint.
The film also provides a perspective that rejects the stereotypical characterization of activists, most of whom, unlike Mr. Goldstein, are concerned with telling others how to use their property. Here, it's the community organizer who is trying to protect his property, not force his vision on others. Battle For Brooklyn explains why property owners fight the taking of their homes and businesses, even when that fight is uphill.
The film also provides insight into the strategy deployed in these fights. The proponents of the project pitch it as fueled by "jobs, jobs, jobs," but the film reveals that the story is really about "sports versus homes." New York City Council member Letitita James, who becomes a champion for the property owners asks the central question: "Do you want an arena at the expense of throwing people out of their homes?"
The answer, unfortunately, is "yes." Forest City's unctuous P.R. man dismisses the project's opponents as merely fearful of change. "Change is hard for everybody," he smoothly counsels. Mayor Michael Bloomberg encourages supporters by asserting that in the future no one will care how they brought the Nets to Brooklyn, only that they got it done.
Battle For Brooklyn insures that despite Mayor Bloomberg's claim, in the future they will remember how it was done.
Battle For Brooklyn (Rumur Films 2011) Directed by Michael Galinsky & Suki Hawley. 93 minutes. The screening schedule is here, and the film makes its theatrical debut starting June 17, 2011 at Cinema Village in Manhattan.