Tomorrow night, with My Brooklyn, Filmwax kicks off its documentary screening series Brooklyn Reconstructed, featuring seven films about development and gentrification that will be screened one a month through January at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope. We spoke to Filmwax’s Adam Schartoff about development in Brooklyn, and why there are so many documentaries about our borough.
Why put on a series like this now?
The films are all movies that were made over many years, and documented a changing city in ways that the “media” has been unable to. In large part I think they were inspired by a wave of “development without representation.” In each case the filmmakers observed a government/business effort to push through zoning changes that brought massive revenue to developers in ways that denied any real input to those citizens most affected by the plans. Gentrification and development are nothing new. But what’s taken place in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn, to name just two, are the results of a very different phenomena. While being floated as normal change, in fact what we’ve seen in the past decade is not organic gentrification, but a remarkably calculated land grab designed by our mayor, the City Planning Committee and a few greedy developers. These folks are owning both sides of the argument. It’s rather impressive, really.
What’s at stake?
What’s at stake is that the same people we are electing into office are swiping away our neighborhoods and manipulating laws to do so. For example, a number of the films go into great details about the abuses of eminent domain. The good news is that while what’s happened in Williamsburg and Downtown is a fait accompli, there are still many other neighborhoods that are under scrutiny. If the residents of those neighborhoods get involved now, there’s much that can be done to protect their communities. By the way, the documentaries in this series are as personal as they are political. And though they are political, they are rarely polemical.
Who do you hope to reach?
Another unique dimension to the series is that I wanted to approach it as a cooperative effort. So I am inviting all the filmmakers, their films’ subjects, and various other activists, politicians, neighbors, and business owners to take part in the overall series, not just in their own film. By the way, I welcome any developers, planners or others who feel that the development that’s taken place is a good thing to join us.
Why is “gentrfication” conflated with “development” and why the fear in “criticizing gentrification”? My question is somewhat rhetorical because I can fathom a guess: if “development” was in fact equivalent to “gentrification” then the lexical development of the word “gentrification” would be superfluous. But it is not. Gentrfication represents a stage in development, not the other way around. It is about displacement, so it is an ironic and truly tragic persistent error in premises that the two continue to be equated. If I can continue fathoming it’s because the concern about “displacement” in gentrification, especially as it appears in “half the documentarians in America” (good grief) and in the new Brooklyn media documenting the documents of half America’s documentarians is not about the displacement coincident to the subjects and producers in these documentaries–in other words, it’ll be about the gentrfication “they suffer” not the one “they inflict.” The one “they suffer” is “illegitimate displacement” but the one “they inflict” is “organic gentrification” (dear God). Let’s get it straight: the very word “gentrification” is etymologically and philologically rooted to DISPLACEMENT. Claiming it is “organic” is like when Brooklyn Magazine used, by proxy, the analogy that gentrification is lichen upon rocks–dear God. DISCLOSURE: I appear in one of the films: the Domino Effect by Paul, Sperry and Phelps. A fine and fantastic film but a perfect example of the problems repeated herein: whereas it is, ultimately about a Southside parcel, the film’s subjects are overwhelmingly from the Northside and Greenpoint. Those subjects represent themselves and other interests not as “the first wave of gentrification” (because then that would be confusing and bad) but “the first wave displaced by gentrification.”
I forgot I add what was most important about the development of the word “gentrification” in public discourse. The error in premises, “gentrification” means “development,” while being a late stage in the word’s history is not unique to “half of America’s documentarians.” In the rest of public discourse the word remains true to its academic origins except in one crucial domain: REAL ESTATE. It is the Real Estate industry that recently conflated the word “gentrification” with “development” so as to remove the impetus for critical inquiry wrought by its use. When “half the documentarians in America” confuse and conflate “gentrification” with “development” they are repeating Real Estate on its terms and not examining it with the appropriate lack of prejudice.
Here, maybe a dictionary can shed light where perchance “half of America’s documentarians” darken. Check the latest Merriam-Webster definition for “gentrification”, albeit problematic, with my emphasis in caps: “the process of renewal and rebuilding ACCOMPANYING THE INFLUX OF MIDDLE-CLASS OR AFFLUENT PEOPLE INTO deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
Do we also need definitions, or pray tell some hermeneutics, for the words “INFLUX” and “INTO”? They mean NOT ORGANIC, in that “gentrification” involves the preeminence of that which is absent over that which is present, that which is alien to that which is familiar, transient to resident, ephemera to permanence. Nothing about gentrification is organic–the exact opposite in fact.
Gentrification is “organic” the way this is an “organism” and oddly enough it has the same phallomorphism and phallomorphic compulsions: