Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Battle for Brooklyn

Battle for Brooklyn
seen @ the Dean Street playground, Brooklyn, NY

Even if you're not a sports fan, chances are you've heard by now of the new sports arena that has been built in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center, at the nexus of several major thoroughfares in the heart of the borough. The one-percenters responsible for its creation would have you believe that it'll elevate the borough's cultural profile in the eyes of the world, as well as restore Brooklyn's glory and pride because a spectacularly mediocre pro basketball team will play there, the first major league sports franchise in Brooklyn since the Dodgers.

As a Queens native, I find this idea dubious, because I never realized that Brooklyn ever lost its pride. Yeah, it sucks that the Dodgers don't play there anymore, but as any Brooklynite - hell, any New Yorker - will tell you, Brooklyn is about a helluva lot more than a baseball team that moved away over fifty years ago. Its identity has changed considerably over the years, but one thing I've never doubted that Brooklynites lacked was pride.

Atlantic Yards, the site where the Barclays Center was built
Now, of course, Brooklyn is cooler than ever. You can't walk fifty paces in Brooklyn without seeing somebody wearing something Brooklyn-related, or see the borough represented in some fashion somehow. Many pixels have been employed to chart the rise of this phenomenon; this article is a particularly noteworthy example. The Barclays is at the center of this renaissance, literally and metaphysically, and its corporate overlords appear to be reaching for the moon and stars themselves when it comes to expectations.

There's another side to this story, however, one ably presented in the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn. In true underground cinema fashion, it played for free on the same night as the grand opening of the Barclays at a playground only a couple of blocks away. The Barclays occupies an area atop a commuter train yard in a wedge shape, pointing in the direction of the landmark Williamsburg Bank Tower. 

Traffic in the surrounding area was a major issue during the arena's development, which is why both the Barclays and the city have aggressively promoted the use of public transportation to and from the arena (eleven subway trains, plus the commuter rail, lead there). As I made my way to the park Friday, the night of the opening concert at the Barclays by Jay-Z, I noticed the increased police presence on the streets, the traffic cops directing cars and buses, and of course, the laser lights shining from atop the Barclays in multiple directions. Traffic didn't seem that troublesome to me on Friday night, and as it turned out, it wasn't.

Daniel Goldstein
Battle centers mostly around one guy, Daniel Goldstein, who was the last holdout in a neighborhood building where all the other tenants were bought out by Barclays developer Bruce Ratner in order to make room for the arena. Goldstein was the only one who refused to vacate, not only because he didn't want to leave his home, but because he believed that Ratner, not to mention the city and state, was abusing the eminent domain law. That's when the state can seize property for public use.

The doc shows that Goldstein had a case, and he, along with activists, local officials, and others in the area, fought the Barclays development tooth and nail. He faced long odds. To pick one example from the film: we see Goldstein and his allies at a public hearing attended by city officials. Representatives of the Barclays and their allies dominate the proceedings throughout much of the morning and then leave before Goldstein has his say, and he winds up getting much less time to speak by comparison. His anger at being slighted is keenly felt.

Bruce Ratner
The important thing to remember about this case is that no matter how one spins it, people - black, white, Latino - were removed from their homes in order to make way for this arena. And while Ratner promised that affordable housing would be built in conjunction with the arena, as of this writing, there's no immediate sign of any. Indeed, while on my way to the park to see the film, I passed by a couple of dudes who were discussing this very point.

It was a damp night. The rain had stopped, but the artificial turf in the park was still somewhat wet, so garbage bags were provided for people to sit on. The crowd looked somewhat small at the film's outset (which was preceded by a performance by an actual, honest-to-god protest singer), but by the end the audience was much bigger. It was somewhat surreal to see a film about the development of the Barclays while one could easily see the finished product down the street. Also, it should be noted, one-way Dean Street had double parking as far as the eye could see, and while cars and buses were reduced to a single lane, the bike lane was blocked.

Goldstein (center) at a demonstration outside of Borough Hall
Afterwards, some of the filmmakers answered a few questions from the crowd. As they spoke, some guy walked through the park towards the sidewalk. He looked like a blue-collar worker, wearing a uniform of some sort (I think; it was hard to tell in the darkness) and he was putting down the movie and the speakers, saying, "Everything that guy's saying is bullshit" over and over. It was hard to tell whether he really believed what he was saying, or if he was just trying to make trouble. No one paid him any mind.

Regardless, this is a powerful movie. The drama of Goldstein's struggle to keep his home is tempered by the "sub-plot" of seeing him fall in love with a fellow activist he meets after breaking up with his previous girlfriend as a result of his struggle. Even though Battle doesn't end on a happy note, there's still an element of hope.

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