The hard-hitting polemical film, Brooklyn Matters, lucidly articulates and amplifies the movement to stop Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan. Directed and produced by Isabel Hill, the film portrays the AY project as an outrageous scam to be perpetrated upon hoodwinked Brooklynites. Numerous interviews with critical residents, planners, critics, and elected officials portray a scenario in which a cynical developer and corrupt State agencies have hired gullible community allies and a star architect to conceal their true motives. The politics of the Brooklyn-based coalition, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), are evident in the film, although the work was independently created and funded by Hill, a former city planner.
Over two hundred people packed the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place for the public debut of the film last night. Released barely two weeks after the AY project received final approval from the State, the film may not be too late to catalyze a new wave of opposition. Several speakers in a post-screening discussion vowed that the AY project is "not a done deal," with two lawsuits currently pending and a host of practical uncertainties facing Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation. Stuart Pertz, former member of the NYC Planning Commission, discussed the possibility that the project could stall before reaching fruition, in the manner of other aborted NYC projects over the past 30 years such as Westway (underground highway) and the West Side Stadium. The audience's largest laugh followed the film's recorded quote from Frank Gehry: "We're trying to understand what is Brooklyn, what is the body language of Brooklyn, and trying to emulate it without copying it." The 500-ft. Miss Brooklyn batted her steel eyelashes for a moment on screen.
Brooklyn Matters lines up community-level dissidents as well as major commentators such as the New Yorker's Paul Goldberger to form a gauntlet of scathing criticism. The familiar arguments against oversized superblocks, subsidized gentrification, unconscionable traffic congestion and inept public space are augmented by novel insights from people such as Bob Law, a former Civil Rights leader and radio personality who now operates a restaurant in Prospect Heights. Law dissects the racial politics of Forest City Ratner with barbed acuity, recounting his refusal to “swoon and fall at the feet of the project” just because the developer “waved a basketball” in front of the African-American community. Questioning Ratner's commitment to providing affordable housing and jobs, Councilwoman Letitia James says the developer broke his promise to hire local workers on his previous Metrotech project and is not legally required to bankroll the celebrated Community Benefits Agreement. Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute adds, "Affordable housing is the trojan horse these days on big bad projects that shouldn't get done."
One of the more interesting allegations from the film is the charge that Ratner's own dealings created the abandoned buildings and vacant lots in Prospect Heights that were used to classify the area as "blighted" in last year's Environmental Impact Statement. Also shocking is the gag rule that residents within the development zone reportedly had to sign when they sold their apartments to Forest City Ratner. They had to agree not to criticize the developer in the press, in banners and signs, or via participation or donation to any organizations that opposed the project.
The targets of the film’s criticism are not given a chance to rebut the arguments or respond to the allegations of greed, corruption, and gullibility. But viewers should not mistake this clearly partisan perspective for a lack of "balance." Brooklyn Matters is not meant to give a fair trial--it is a last-minute counterpunch to the continual endorsements heard from Pataki, Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz, construction unions, and the non-profit groups that allegedly accept funding from Forest City Ratner. With the State Government holding the reigns instead of locally elected officials, all eyes are on the new Spitzer Administration, the courts reviewing the lawsuits, and the grassroots movement which could still rise to challenge the development and propose alternatives.
The next screening of Brooklyn Matters will be held January 18 at the Municipal Art Society.