What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification: A Conversation With My Brooklyn Director Kelly Anderson

09/18/2012 3:48 PM |

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  • Jamel Shabazz via My Brooklyn

The film covers a really large span of time. When did you first think about putting it together, and how many years of filming were actually required?

The film began when Allison Lirish Dean, a graduate student in Urban Planning at Hunter College, where I teach documentary video production, came into my office to ask for some advice about making a film. She had been doing research about Fulton Mall, and wanted to let people know that there was a counter-narrative to the “official” story that Fulton Mall was run-down and underutilized. By the time she had left my office, we had decided to work on a film together.

Before making My Brooklyn, we made a shorter film for FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), a grassroots organization that was organizing people to try and make sure the interests of existing business owners and shoppers were reflected in the city’s plans. That film, Someplace Like Home, came out in 2008. When we finished it, we realized there was room for a longer film that would explore the historical context of the current situation in Downtown Brooklyn, as well as expose some of the hidden players behind the Plan that was implemented in 2004. That’s how My Brooklyn was born.

Changes in the Fulton Mall area serve as the centerpiece of the movie, but it’s also about gentrification in Brooklyn more generally. Did the Fulton Mall controversy inspire you to make the film, or had the project already been in the works, and this served as more of a catalyst?

The film was always centered on the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, but during the process of making the film we realized that you can’t really tell that story without looking at the change that has occured in the surrounding neighborhoods. Once the so-called “renaissance” of the surrounding brownstone communities was in full swing, and those areas had become much wealthier, it raised the stakes for downtown Brooklyn. The city had always seen Downtown Brooklyn as a kind of “failure” because it didn’t attract enough white shoppers, and that perception was strengthened as the surrounding neighborhoods became more gentrified. So the question we ask in the film, “Who is Brooklyn for?” is really central and can’t be answered without considering the larger context.

The layer of the film that is my story, as a white gentrifier, came later. The reason I was drawn to the film was that I had my own experience living in all these neighborhoods in Brooklyn, seeing them get whiter and more upscale, noticing that long-time residents were getting priced out, eventually getting priced out myself.

Throughout the film you show a lot of really incredible archival photography of Brooklyn throughout the 20th century. Where did you go to find all of it?

That was a big job and one of the things I’m most proud of in the film, so I’m glad you noticed it! We are incredibly indebted to Jamel Shabazz, who allowed us to use his photos of Fulton Mall and Brooklyn neighborhoods from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many of the other photos from that era — which is really underdocumented in the archives — are Danny Lyons’ photos from the National Archives (he shot them for the Environmental Protection Agency and so they are in the public domain). The Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection has a lot of great images too, particularly from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Others were photos we found in books, and we tracked down the rights holders and all gave us permission to use them given the film’s theme and focus.

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