Thoughts on the Williamsburg Domino-Development Documentary that Screens Tonight

08/29/2012 9:00 AM |


The Domino Effect, a 50-minute documentary, is a solid primer on the Domino development in Williamsburg—and a harsh critic. More broadly, it seeks to link the death of American industry with the maneuverings of the Bloomberg administration to lay the blame for the displacement of working peoples from neighborhoods throughout New York City—to varying degrees of success.

The problem with Domino, the film suggests, is what it represents: the triumph of real estate as the economic engine of the new New York over old New York’s manufacturing sector, which sustained the working class for generations. As one resident points out, a city needs both housing and industry to survive and thrive. Domino was once the flagship sugar refinery of the country’s largest sugar company, employing at its height 4,500 workers; when it’s finally developed, it’ll be home to 2,200 new apartments, as many as 30 percent of them “affordable,” the rest luxury.

This transition to a real estate economy, especially in Williamsburg, was precipitated by the Bloomberg administration: its 2005 rezoning, passed by the City Council, allowed for mass waterfront and inland development of previously industrial properties. (Unfortunately, the housing boom was quickly stalled by the recession, leaving hulking half-built towers where small manufacturing concerns once stood. Too often in Williamsburg, the film points out, jobs have been lost, and new housing hasn’t even been built to replace it.)

But if the Bloomberg administration can be held responsible for facilitating the transition to an unsustainable real estate economy—with everybody else working in retail, making the city just a place where the rich people buy things—I’m not as convinced, as the film argues, that the mayor was also to blame for the death of the manufacturing sector. Domino did once employ 4,500 people, as I said, but that was in 1919. By 2001, before Bloomberg took office, it had fewer than 300 employees. When the factory closed in 2004, the city promised that it would remain zoned for manufacturing, but quickly broke that promise. But would retaining those few industrial jobs have made a difference against a larger national trend toward deindustrialization? Do that many jobs substantially affect the economic health of a community?

I don’t know! But engaging with the film and asking such questions is the point. It’s being screened as part of Filmwax’s monthly Brooklyn Reconstructed documentary film series, which will include a Q&A with the filmmakers, members of the community, and anyone else who shows up. So go see it—and ask your own questions.

The film screens tonight at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope. More information here.

4 Comment

  • So true, as the garment industry left NYC in the late 1960s & 70s it made all those Soho lofts empty for artists to occupy and make valuable, was Bloomberg to blame for that? Laying blame to a single man or industry for the downfall of American industry is simply short sighted and wrong. This trend has been happening since the 1970s as industry shifted to the Southern United States and then to places like South America and Asia as globalization increaced in the 90s.

  • Nice measured review. I very much enjoy this film, and don’t think it was intended of the filmmakers to post the 2005-rezoning as the summum genus of gentrification in Williamsburg, but because the notion is so persistent in Williamsburg the film’s “suggestion,” as Stewart puts it, will add to the problem of scapegoating Bloomberg. This isn’t to say, and I certainly don’t think Stewart is also saying this, that Bloomberg doesn’t have his share of responsibility or that his share is not the greatest share [the latter requires further examination but the Form/er is doubtless]. But the forces that led to the 2005-rezoning preceded Bloomberg by many years. Indeed, one can argue that those forces were incipient as far back as when the Northside portion of the waterfront was “abandoned” and afflicted by varying degrees of landlord lightning–and that is decades. That measurement is desiderata.

  • Excuse me, not “post the 2005-rezoning,” but “*posit the 2005-rezoning”

  • The 2005 rezoning allowed residential buildings to be 50% larger than the manufacturing buildings in the manufacturing areas (it added R7A on the same sites with the M1-2), so it was clearly intended to drive out manufacturing. It was in invitation to developers to redevelop small manufacturing buildings into 50% larger buildings for residential use in a gentrifying neighborhood where rent revenues were soaring.

    There’s no evidence that all those small industries were leaving — on the contrary, that niche of manufacturing in Williamsburg had survived the 1970’s, ’80’s, ’90’s all the way up to the rezoning. And they rapidly disappeared following the rezoning. It is possible that gradual gentrification would have driven industry out of Williamsburg eventually, but the Bloomsburg rezoning effectively pushed it, sped it and ensured it. And it didn’t provide any alternative. It’s not unlike Willets Point in that regard — the auto shops will disappear because of the Bloomberg redevelopment, not for any other reason.