Most viewers should find the documentary Battle For Brooklyn gripping and provocative, no matter their opinions about eminent domain, historic preservation, or public dollars going to support private development. But there’s no doubt what side co-directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley are on. They spent eight years following a group of Brooklynites who were trying to thwart—or at least modify—plans to displace longtime residents and businesses to build a basketball arena and skyscrapers. Throughout those eight years, Galinsky and Hawley focused on Daniel Goldstein, an apartment-dweller who joined the organization Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and became a committed, self-taught activist. The directors also talked to some of the politicians and businessmen advocating for the Atlantic Yards project, and to some of the community members stumping for “jobs, housing, and hoops.” But for the most part, this is Goldstein’s and Develop Don’t Destroy’s story.
It’s a fascinating, significant story too, though it proves a little too big for Galinsky and Hawley to wrangle. This is a movie about the state of grassroots organizing in the 21st century, and how politicians and the media have stopped even pretending to stick up for the little guy; instead, they make sweetheart deals with overly optimistic businessmen, then let those businessmen control how the deal gets explained. It’s also about how Goldstein develops as a spokesman for his cause, learning to throw numbers around and hit his talking points as forcefully as the developers do, while realizing that because of the laziness of the local media, he’s going to have to explain the opposition to Atlantic Yards over and over. (The fact that this movie takes place before, during, and after the real-estate crash only underscores how a lack of diligence by our watchdogs can screw the average citizen.)
But Battle For Brooklyn fumbles a bit though the “battle” itself. Goldstein claims that the developers have tried to depict the borough as more divided than it actually is, cynically and inaccurately trying to make the Atlantic Yards fight about well-off white folks clinging to their fashionable homes at the expense of working-class minorities. Galinsky and Hawley show that demographically at least, Goldstein is right. But filmmakers working less in advocacy mode might’ve explored this conflict more thoroughly, and would’ve maybe shown how these kinds of fights over the soul of a city keep coming up, decade after decade. Because these are tough but important questions: Who is “the community?” And what does it mean to love New York?