The Battle of Brooklyn : coming soon

For the past 5 and a half years we have been working on a documentary about a controversial development project in Brooklyn. So far, we have kept a very low profile with this film, largely because we didn’t want the film to become part of the story itself. However, it seems that our process is wrapping up, so I feel a bit more comfortable talking about it.

In December 2003, I read an article in the NY Times about a major development that would bring the NJ Nets to Brooklyn. As I read the article, I immediately felt like it was more of a press release than a news piece. A few years earlier, we had been inspired to make a film about an underground publisher as he attempted to re-publish a biography of GW Bush. That book, “Fortunate Son,” had been pulled from the shelves when the author was revealed to be a convicted felon. We first read about the book being pulled in a short article in the International Herald Tribune(the link here is from the longer version from the NY Times). Both my film-making partner and I were a bit freaked out about how little information we could find about the story at the time. When we heard that someone else was going to re-publish the book, we jumped at the opportunity to film and follow the story.

A similar process happened this time. Over then next couple of days after first reading about the Atlantic Yards, I brought up the project with my neighbors. No one seemed to know much about it, or really care. To all of them it seemed like a done deal and there wasn’t too much to be gained from wasting energy thinking about it. After about a week, I saw a flier that screamed, “Stop the Atlantic Yards Project!!!!” There was a number on the flier so I called to get more information.

Patti Hagan, from the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, picked up the phone and started talking my ear off. She had all of the information that I had been looking for and she sounded like a great person to follow the story through. I put down the phone, grabbed my camera, and headed over to Patti’s. Over the course of the next week I spent almost all day, every day, following Patti as she worked the streets like a modern day chicken little.

Patti confirmed my suspicions about the original articles about the project. I had read about a basketball arena and new neighborhood that would be built over rail yards. It turned out that the rail yards only made up about half of the project site. In all fairness if I were to go back and put in a great deal of effort to understand the details I would probably find a lot of them in there. However, I’m very interested in now we as a culture consume media. People come away from articles and news pieces with less facts than impressions. The impression created by the early articles was that an arena and a basketball team would be coming to downtown Brooklyn. The reality of the situation was startlingly more complex. One of the things that we are struggling with as filmmakers is how to balance complexity with clarity while telling this story.

At the time, I found out that the rest of the land needed for the project would be taken from the owners using eminent domain. Patti explained, to anyone that would listen, that according to the Bill of Rights, eminent domain is only to be used for a public use or purpose. For at least 150 years, that was seen as a highway, hospital, library, or public building. While I only had a cursory knowledge of eminent domain at the time, this was what I assumed to be true as well. However, at some point public use started to mean public “benefit.” In this case, the government was stating that the area – actually gentrifying organically – was blighted, and it wouldn’t improve without direct government action. They further were arguing that a privately controlled arena would be a benefit to the public.

In the area directly affected by the project, there was a lot of confusion and fear. Patti spent days on the streets talking to rent-controlled tenants, business owners, journalists, and new condo owners. No one really knew what was going on. Directly across the street from and within the proposed site, several industrial buildings had been recently converted to condos. One building, 636 Pacific St, had only opened to residents 6 months before the announcement of the project.. Patti had her doubts about the new condos. In some ways these owners had the most to lose financially, and they had the shallowest roots in the community. However, she told me that there was one owner who she thought had some fight in him. His name was Daniel Goldstein.

She was right, and it turned out that he was an old friend of mine. I called up Dan and came by with my camera. He was flabbergasted by the situation. Having looked for a home for 5 years he had finally found the perfect place. He couldn’t believe that the government would take it from him to give to a private developer. As the shock of the situation began to wear off, he started to actively fight the project and we followed him with our cameras.

Over the course of these five years the world has changed a great deal and the project is now in serious doubt. Dan is still fighting.

We have put together a trailer that gives a sense of what the film will feel like. As I mentioned earlier, there is no way that a single 90-120 minute film could do justice to the complex issues that have been raised by this project and this story. We’ll leave that task to Norman Oder and his blog, The Atlantic Yards Report.

Instead of working on an all encompassing journalist tour de force- we have narrowed our focus to a few of the characters who are fighting the project, and how it has affected them personally. At the same time, we are trying to create a story that does deal with some of these complex issues in more than a cursory way. So far, we have already been editing for over a year. As time goes on, we will likely post different versions of the trailer as well as selected scenes. In addition, I will continue to write about the process of shooting this film and turning mountains of footage into a story that can be watched in one sitting.


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