The Honolulu Star-Advertiser published my movie review of "Battle For Brooklyn," the documentary about the Atlantic Yards eminent domain fight, on the op-ed page. Check it out here or below. More importantly, if you are in Honolulu next week, come to one of the four screenings (details and link to ticket purchase below).
'Battle for Brooklyn' coming to rail project near you
How would you react if the government ordered you to give up your home or business so a developer could build an arena for his basketball team? Accept what money is offered, or dig in your heels and fight?
"Battle for Brooklyn," the Oscar-contending documentary premiering in Hawaii next week, chronicles one homeowner's fight against the city's taking of his property. But the film leaves open the question of whether he did the right thing, for the right reasons.
The film compresses seven years of events into 93 minutes, but here's a short summary: The NBA's New Jersey Nets want to move to Brooklyn, but there's no arena. So the city and the team's owner, a politically connected developer, design "Atlantic Yards," a 22-acre "affordable housing" project the crown jewel of which, not surprisingly, is the Nets' new arena.
Despite their claim the project will "start from scratch," the developer does not own 22 vacant acres in New York. Instead, homes and businesses located where he wants his arena will have to be destroyed. Owners who can't be convinced to sell will have their properties taken by eminent domain.
When these landowners object, their properties are declared legally "blighted" and thus ripe for forced acquisition, although nothing is truly blighted about them. What of their lives, their dreams, and their properties?
"Change is hard for everybody," the developer's public relations man smoothly counsels.
"Battle for Brooklyn" details a New York eminent domain controversy, but it is particularly relevant to Hawaii audiences. Honolulu has launched its largest-ever public works project, the $5.1 billion-plus rail development, which will envelop homes and businesses currently in the way.
This film is a crash course in how decisions to take property really get made, and how a single citizen can galvanize a community. Although the city and the developer pitch the project as fueled by "jobs, jobs, jobs" and affordable housing, neither materialize. The New York City Council hearing and redevelopment agency meeting suggest the neighborhood was not condemned for the public good, but because someone else had greater influence at City Hall. There is much here for Hawaii audiences to learn.
However, the film does not fall into the trap of becoming a political screed. Instead, it tells an emotional story that will appeal to even those unfamiliar with the machinations of eminent domain. Its heart is a character study of Daniel Goldstein, the property owner who reluctantly becomes the sole holdout among his 130 neighbors. He doesn't intend to become a community organizer, and is clearly not a professional activist. At his initial press conference, what at first appears to be the wind moving his notes is revealed as his hands shaking. He evolves from bewildered homeowner to sophisticated spokesman and property rights activist, and over the course of the film becomes more articulate, more committed, and increasingly angry with what he decries as a "failure of democracy."
Goldstein's battle does not come without a price, however. Late in the film, self-awareness flashes across his face as he admits his fight has not really been about protecting his modest condo, but more about his neighborhood's collective loss of control and the lack of respect shown by the city and the developers.
"This is not about this apartment. That would be insane," he admits.
Is it insanity to resist being dispossessed of your property, even when your struggle proves uphill, and may ultimately be hopeless? See "Battle for Brooklyn" and decide for yourself.
'BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN' VIEW DATES
"Battle For Brooklyn," directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, will show on Jan. 3 and 4 at 1 and 7:30 p.m. at the Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts. A question-and-answer session will follow each showing. Purchase tickets here.
Robert H. Thomas is a lawyer with Honolulu's Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert, where he practices eminent domain and land use law. An author and speaker on property law issues nationwide, he also chairs the Condemnation Law group at the American Bar Association's Section of State & Local Government Law.