Monday, February 4, 2013

My Brooklyn

My Brooklyn
seen @ reRun @ reBar, DUMBO, Brooklyn

The first time I worked in Brooklyn was in 2004. It was in Park Slope. For those of you who are unaware, this is one of the most popular, and heavily coveted, neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn, in large measure because of the beautiful brownstone buildings lying amidst tree-lined streets, next to Prospect Park. I had passed through it before when I was younger, but only fleetingly. Now, I would work there and experience everyday life there.

Eventually I learned that Park Slope underwent a gradual process of gentrification that began in the 80s. Because I didn't recall what the neighborhood looked like back then, however, I had no basis for comparison. I only saw it as it was in the present, in 2004, and I liked the results: quality bookstores (new and used), record shops, bagel shops (to a New Yorker, a good bagel shop means everything), coffee shops, etc. Some of it was, and is, corporate businesses, but many more were and are independently owned.

The entrance to the Fulton Street Mall. Note the dedicated lane
for buses only, as well as the reduced speed limit.

Much of this stands in marked contrast to my neighborhood in Queens - a black neighborhood, which, while it doesn't lack for shopping options by any means, often doesn't have what I want or prefer. At this stage, I should make something plain: ever since junior high school, I've been exposed to diverse crowds of people. My friends were from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds, and as a result, I've come to crave that kind of atmosphere. When it's all-white or all-black, I tend to feel less at ease. I need to be in a mixture. That's the way it's been for me for almost all my life and I make no apologies for it.

My neighborhood, a black one, has been going down the tubes lately because of the increased violence, some of which has made front-page newspaper headlines. Police regularly patrol the streets and even the buses now, and while I am no fan of the cops in this city by any stretch, I kind of have to admit that they've become necessary here because, to put it bluntly, niggas don't know how ta act!

So yeah, I prefer hanging out in Park Slope and Fort Greene and Prospect Heights (and Astoria and Long Island City and Jackson Heights in Queens). If that's a result of gentrification, well then, so be it - though Queens, to its credit, still has lots of areas that continue to hang on to its distinct character and ethnicity. (This blog does a great job of showcasing that character.) Still, those fast-food restaurants, 99-cent shops, barber shops, hair salons, and hip-hop boutiques in my neighborhood (and similar ones across the city) cater to most black folks, and that counts for something - or it should.

A sampling of the types of small businesses
found on Fulton Street, as well as their clientele.

So when I see places in Brooklyn deal with issues of gentrification, as in the documentary My Brooklyn, it does make me wonder how Queens will deal with it. Indeed, it's already happening in LIC and Astoria. Every time the 7 train passes into Queens Plaza, one can see the mammoth high-rise office buildings that have radically altered the landscape of the neighborhood.

My Brooklyn deals primarily with downtown Brooklyn in general and the bustling Fulton Street Mall shopping district in particular. Director Kelly Anderson moved to Park Slope in the 80s and considers herself a gentrifier, but as she saw the people of color in her neighborhood get replaced by more and more white people, she decided to ask some hard questions about the nature of gentrification. Her doc examines the history of neighborhood rezoning and city planning in NYC from the Depression onward, and in interviews with city officials, scholars, activists and ordinary people, we see how the gentrification process is a very deliberate one, putting small businesses at risk and upsetting the balance of the people who live and work in these affected areas.

The shape of things to come: one of the forthcoming
big-box department stores coming to the Fulton Mall.

One aspect of city planning that has always irked me, and is addressed in the doc, is the need to replace older buildings with newer, bigger ones that alter a neighborhood's feel, like what I mentioned about LIC and also like what has happened to Williamsburg. In her remarkable and still-very-relevant book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs proposes that reusing older buildings is one of the best things a city can do to maintain its vitality:
... Even the enterprises that can support new construction in cities need old construction in their immediate vicinity. Otherwise they are part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited - and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting and convenient. Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no-yield enterprises.
One of the doc's co-producers, a black woman, appeared at the reBar screening on Saturday and in her post-show comments, said that although she doesn't shop on Fulton Street, an area that caters strongly to black and Latino shoppers and was a popular spot for up-and-coming rappers in the 80s, she would not want to see it succumb to a wave of corporate big-box shops. 

At this point, I should mention that among the new developments coming to the Fulton Mall area is a new Alamo Drafthouse theater, and this is obviously something that I, as a film blogger, can't help but be excited about. This article, by noted online film journalist Devin Faraci, actually pays lip service to the development taking place, though he dismisses the businesses currently there. In fact, My Brooklyn cites that the Fulton Mall is the third most profitable shopping district in NYC, which is what attracted this new wave of development in the first place. Perhaps Faraci has never bought a beeper there?

Shake Shack is one of the new, thriving businesses already in
the Fulton Mall area, and in this blogger's opinion, is one of the most overrated.

My Brooklyn obviously has much in common with Battle for Brooklyn, which focuses on the Atlantic Yards development that brought us, for better or for worse, the Barclays Center. The focus is different here, however, because as we see in the film, the small businesses being displaced in the wake of city rezoning plans are not getting compensated by the city. 

And here is where I should also mention, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have benefited from the new businesses popping up. This post is being written from a new Potbelly restaurant just off of the Fulton Mall that has wi-fi. On the same street, there's a new Panera Bread restaurant which I've also gone to for their wi-fi as well as their food. Maybe that makes me part of the problem. I'm not sure. I patronize small and big businesses alike and I try to support the little guys whenever I can. I figure that by seeing films like My Brooklyn and writing about it, I can at least help make more people aware of what's going on.

The former Albee Square Mall, which has gotten plenty of shout-outs
in rap songs from a variety of rappers from the area.

I got to reBar late - I had lunch before coming there and by the time I arrived, the small screening room was packed with people. reBar had had a ton of screenings of My Brooklyn throughout the past couple of months and apparently they've all been like this. The dude at the front door had to get an extra chair for me, which was great because I thought I would've had to wait for a later show. One of the interviewees from the film, an MIT scholar and Brooklyn native (I'm afraid I'm blanking on his name right now), appeared afterward with the co-producer and had a big Q-and-A session in which they continued the discussion begun in the film.

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