Film Review: My Brooklyn

An intriguing depiction of urban gentrification in action, marred somewhat by an unnecessary dip into the first person.

For a case study in why it can be risky for documentary filmmakers to insert themselves into their own films, just take a look at My Brooklyn, an on-the-ground portrait of the enormous changes occurring in the downtown area of New York’s most populous borough. To be fair, it’s understandable why director Kelly Anderson felt compelled to make herself part of the film’s narrative. After all, she is, in a very real sense, a major reason why the face of Brooklyn has been so radically transformed in the past two decades; not her specifically, of course, but the white, upwardly mobile demographic she’s part of.

After migrating to New York in the late ’80s, Anderson settled in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood well before it was a haven for coffee-fueled writers and young families pushing giant strollers. At that time, like much of the borough, Park Slope was predominantly populated by minorities—particularly African-Americans—who had worked hard to foster a sense of community in an area that had largely been neglected by the city at large during the lean years of the ’70s and early ’80s. They maintained homes, opened businesses and, in general, did their best to keep the lights on in difficult times. In the process, they created vibrant if problem-plagued neighborhoods that strived to make up in spirit what they often lacked in resources.

Lured to Brooklyn by the promise of low rents and that feeling of community, the influx of new residents like Anderson (who would move into several other gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods in the ensuing years after being priced out of Park Slope) began as a trickle, but steadily turned into a flood over the next decade. And the borough's steady demographic shift didn’t escape the attention of real estate developers, corporations and City Hall. By the early aughts, a wave of development projects was sweeping through Brooklyn, aimed at attracting upper-middle-class residents with disposable income and the high-end apartments and stores they supposedly covet. My Brooklyn zeroes in on one specific proposal to redevelop downtown Brooklyn, specifically the Fulton Mall area then populated by locally owned shops aimed at a more “urban” (i.e., black) population.

The plan that was put forth and quickly approved by Brooklyn’s City Planning Commission in 2004 called for the extensive rezoning of Fulton Mall to allow for the construction of high-rise office and residential buildings that would, in theory, inject a steady stream of money and jobs into the neighborhood. Flash-forward three years later and those office buildings mostly fell by the wayside, with luxury condo skyscrapers going up in their place. To make way for these new behemoths, the majority of the small businesses in the area were either priced out of their existing locations or forced to relocate, frequently with little or no aid from the city. Those that had managed to hang on were pessimistic about their long-term chances of survival, particularly with big chain stores moving in.

Perhaps the most blatant sign of the changing times was what happened to the Albee Street Mall; a neighborhood hot spot (as well as a formative place for hip-hop culture) in the ’80s, the mall was later purchased by the omnipresent Brooklyn real estate group Thor Equities, which successfully lobbied the city to rezone the site for the development of a 60-story tower. At that point, Thor promptly sold Albee Square for $125 million to developers that tore it down outright to build…another mall, albeit one filled with far more expensive shops.

Although Anderson is careful to sit down with representatives from various real estate and commercial development firms (none of whom do their cause any favor by answering questions about the impact rezoning will have on small businesses in vague, non-specific terms), her sympathies explicitly lie with the community that's being displaced by Fulton Mall's transformation. With the aid of her co-producer and chief researcher Allison Lirish Dean, Anderson clearly outlines the intricate web of business and political interests that backed the Fulton Mall plan and saw to its swift passage through the borough's various governing boards, which held a few perfunctory public hearings where they half-listened to complaints and concerns before voting "Aye."

Drawing on insightful commentary from historian (and Brooklyn native) Craig Wilder, My Brooklyn also reveals how this scenario was just business as usual for the borough—a present-day outgrowth of historical practices like "redlining" (when developers delineated on a map which areas of the city were to be denied services like banking and markets), which were aimed at dictating how a neighborhood would develop…and who would live there. Although Anderson attempts to end the film on a hopeful note with spirited testimonials from Brooklyn residents about the borough's legacy, the overall mood of the movie is hugely dispiriting, as we watch stores shut down one after one and even the most energetic efforts of community activists fail in the face of the entrenched, well-financed redevelopment campaign. It's a depressing but all too timely story about a scrappy underdog going up against the champion…and being soundly defeated.

If only Anderson would keep herself out of it! In a running voiceover that is, at best, willfully naïve and, at worst, painfully self-absorbed, the director ponders her own culpability in Brooklyn's transformation and feigns ignorance about the motivating factors behind large-scale developments like the Fulton Mall project. (Money is the obvious answer, but she can't bring herself to baldly state that, most likely out of an understandable desire to maintain some kind of objectivity.) The narration causes Anderson to come off as something of a cultural tourist, an outsider chronicling another community's story out of a sense of obligation and latent guilt. (While Anderson at least owns up to the fact that she rarely shopped at Fulton Mall, she also goes out of her way to include clueless commentary from other new Brooklynites—all of whom are white—expressing their distaste for the area, as if to say, "Sure, I'm part of the problem…but at least I’m not as bad as these people!") The larger narrative being told in My Brooklyn is compelling enough—the film doesn't need a first-person account on top of it.