Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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

Posted By on Tue, Sep 18, 2012 at 3:48 PM

  • Laurie Sumiye via My Brooklyn

While you can't exactly say there's any shortage of discussion about gentrification in Brooklyn, a lot of it isn't what you'd call productive —patronizing and ham-handed at best, short-sighted and destructive at worst.

All of which is to say that when the opportunity does arise to look at the changes springing up in local neighborhoods in an intelligent, thoughtful way, it's a welcome breath of fresh air. My Brooklyn, a new documentary following development in the Fulton Mall, does just that, looking at the individual project as well as the changes that have swept through the entire borough over the past three decades, many of them the result of government policy.

It doesn't hurt that director Kelly Anderson, a film professor at Hunter College (CUNY) who collaborated with Allison Lirish Dean on the film, comes to the project from a unique perspective: Anderson moved to Park Slope in 1988 for the same reasons a lot of us move to Brooklyn — lower rents, calmer streets, a thriving arts community — eventually finding herself priced out of the neighborhood while still feeling partially responsible for its drastic demographic change.

"I wanted to explore the race and class dynamics of gentrification, and figure out whether there was a political solution — a way that we could actually help stabilize the neighborhoods we move into rather than just contributing to the displacement of entire communities," explains Anderson. "I love living in Brooklyn, as do many other people, and it's my dream to find a way to live here in a way that integrates me into an existing community instead of being part of wiping that community out."

In the lead-up to a screening of the film this week at the Brooklyn Public Library, we spoke with Anderson about the Fulton Mall, the city's role in promoting sweeping changes, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

  • 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.


A few different people in the film mention that issues of gentrification and displacement are often less about new, more affluent residents moving into neighborhoods than the government-approved corporate development that inevitably follows them (whether it's wanted or not). The city obviously plays a large role in this - are there specific policies or safeguards that you think could alleviate this problem and help to keep neighborhoods affordable even as they change? Is a healthy symbiosis of old and new residents possible and realistic?

I don't know if it's realistic, but it's certainly possible to do development in ways that promote more equity and less inequality. Many planners and policy people have come up with creative ideas and plans for other cities. Certainly New York City should zone more carefully and specifically in places like Downtown Brooklyn, so that a plan that was originally intended to create offices and 18,000 jobs doesn't morph into a luxury residential boom without any oversight or accountability to those who passed the original plan. Commercial rent control is another really important tool that other cities have but that is totally opposed by the Bloomberg administration — in fact they have created a very friendly environment for big box chains, and less supportive of small business, as evidenced by the stories in the film. Residential rent control is really important also.

The are programs in place now that give developers an incentive to include 20 percent affordable units in exchange for greater height limits. The problem is that these units are generally not affordable to the population that's getting displaced — they are based on the average income for the entire metropolitan area. Also there's very little monitoring to make sure those units remain affordable — so I'm not sure that really is working to preserve neighborhood diversity and stability.

Given your own experiences, what would your advice be to newcomers to neighborhoods that are traditionally more working-class? Would you advise them against moving into the area? Do you think there are specific ways to avoid creating an unintentionally negative impact?

As Craig Wilder says in the film,"Gentrification isn't about people moving into a neighborhood, and other people moving out of a neighborhood. It's about corporations." Everybody needs housing, and people are going to go where they can find housing they can afford in neighborhoods they like. It's inevitable and part of what has given New York City its character over generations is the influx of new people. So I'm not against individuals moving into Brooklyn. What the film emphasizes is the extent to which city policies like zoning and developer subsidies have increased real estate speculation and spurred development that has had a negative impact on the communities least able to defend themselves. So the end result of government action has been, in the case of Downtown Brooklyn, massive profit for private developers (some of whom came up with the plan in the first place), the displacement of more than 100 small businesses, and the complete obliteration of a deep-rooted successful black commercial and cultural space.

My Brooklyn screens at the Brooklyn Public Library on Wednesday, September 19th, at 7 pm.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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