WMC News & Features

"My Brooklyn"—Prejudice, Policy and Gentrification

Back In The Days 03

In discussing two women who document a culturally and commercially vibrant community at risk, the author explores the racist policy and politics behind the onslaught of gentrification.

In the beginning of March 2013, Mashable posted a viral video exposing the extent of U.S. economic inequality. The narrator, Mashable senior editor Charlie White, recreates a chart by a Harvard Business School professor and economist that exposed a staggering revelation of what 5,000 respondents idealize, perceive and know about wealth distribution. White’s video runs about six and a half minutes and follows the research of Professor Michael I. Norton on how both ideals and perception of inequality lag far behind the shocking reality. The vast preponderance of American wealth—40 percent—is in the hands of the top one percent while “the bottom 80 percent [only] has seven percent [of wealth] between them,” White laments. 

In a city like New York, if you have your eyes open and headphones tucked away, you can easily observe deepening inequality. Generally, New Yorkers perceive these changes as part of rampant gentrification—where rents and real estate prices rise as gentry who can afford more move into a neighborhood. But the reality reflects a combination of public cuts, biased development policy and shifting investment citywide. Essentially, our perception of gentrification is out of step with the reality of gentrification.

A new film called "My Brooklyn" (2012) by director Kelly Anderson and producer Allison Lirish Dean offers a broader analysis of the many factors behind gentrification. The film focuses on how exploitative real estate policy radically altered the cultural and physical landscape of the Fulton Mall area of Downtown Brooklyn and how community organizers struggle for representation among a web of government and development agencies conspiring to “improve” New York City.

Brooklyn—the star of "My Brooklyn"—is home to some of the most rapidly gentrifying areas in the United States. According to a recent study, Brooklyn is  also the second most expensive place to live in the United States, with Manhattan at number one, and even formerly less fashionable Queens at number five.  Skyrocketing rents throughout the New York City have had a disproportionate effect on native New Yorkers and particularly people of color and women.  Although Anderson and Dean’s film does not explicitly address the relationship between housing development and women, the film features a number of women advocates in front and behind the scenes dealing with the fall out of gentrification. The fact is that changing policy in the New York City housing market—skillfully addressed in the film—in favor of luxury housing development and the gradual dissolution of affordable housing are driving gentrification. In a rare article exclusively on the subject of women and housing in NYC, Angeli R. Rasbury in Forbes magazine, of all places (“New York City is Making Women and Children Homeless,” 2012), presents the connection between increasing homelessness among women, eliminated local subsidy programs and limited city and state funding towards low-income housing.  New York City currently leads the nation in a disturbing trend of unprecedented rates of homelessness, and it stands to reason that women and children of color, especially black families, are disproportionately affected.

"My Brooklyn" engages this intersection of race, class and gender in housing policy in a palatable yet bold manner.  As a resident of New York City for 25 years director Kelly Anderson has worked, lived, and loved in the borough. For Anderson, narrator of the documentary, the shock of rapidly escalating rent hits close to home as a single woman and professional raising a young daughter—though she acknowledges being a white woman of some means offers distinct privilege. Anderson began her career as an activist interested in social justice then gravitated from journalism to documentary film.

Anderson first teamed up with Allison Lirish Dean, also a white woman of some means, when Dean decided to make a small film called "Someplace Like Home" (2008) about strident and successful community organizing in Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Green.  Dean, who holds a masters in urban/regional planning coupled with a background in journalism and public radio, decided to make "Someplace" in response to the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan. The plan covertly rezoned a traditionally commercial area for residential use and purported job creation—jobs that generally never came to fruition.

"Someplace" was funded by the community organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) and follows its successful struggle to protect an abolitionist residence and prevent three families from homeless ordinance by eminent domain. According to FUREE senior organizer Lucas Shapiro, the organization was originally founded by “fifteen women who were living on public assistance [as] a welfare rights organization to expand opportunity for people to escape poverty through job training, career advancement [and the like].” Gradually their work included affordable childcare and youth programming, then spilled over into economic and racial justice issues. The organization is made up almost entirely of women of color living in Downtown Brooklyn and surrounding areas. While "Someplace" highlights FUREE's persistent fight for a seat at the table at city development meetings and challenge to specific housing cases, "My Brooklyn" is intended as a follow up to examine the 2004 plan that allowed for rezoning of 60 square blocks of Downtown Brooklyn for luxury high-rises and the changing face of Fulton Mall.

Arguably the two most compelling and infuriating segments of "My Brooklyn" are in  a  Fort Green farmer’s market and a sobering lesson from MIT Professor Craig Wilder. Before its systematic destruction, Fulton Mall, as Anderson reveals, was the third most lucrative shopping area in New York City behind Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. However, Fulton Mall served predominantly African American, African and Caribbean patrons plus other people of color. In the farmer’s market segment, Anderson films responses from a number of seemingly well healed white liberals on the ‘value’ of Fulton Mall. Their responses are typical of contemporary colorblind representations of racism in America today, in which race is all but omitted from the discussion and yet the bias of racial prejudice permeates all rationalizations of perceived ‘value.’ One interview subject actually says, “I think it’s a really weird space and I don’t know how to interact with it and I think they should just make it go away”—other interviews are even more denigrating.

MIT Professor Craig Wilder then comes to the screen providing a compelling juxtaposition to the colorblind racism exposed moments earlier. Wilder was born and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant and still owns a home in the community. He calmly explains the historical and systemic dimensions of housing in America that was racially biased from the start, with the most definitive factor dividing post-New Deal communities that would receive federal subsidies for home ownership from those that would not as relative to the presence of black residents.  If five percent or more black people lived in a neighborhood they would be “red lined” and barred from receiving financial investment like mortgages; so by the 1970s, half a million whites moved out of Brooklyn into the suburbs where they could receive subsidies for home ownership and build wealth. Subsequently public services were withdrawn and black communities were left to fend for themselves. As Wilder emphasizes, to their credit black communities survived and even thrived with hardly any social safety net and souring crime—see Fulton Mall. Accordingly, Wilder argues that current and past housing policy is a deliberate and systemic action to isolate or arbitrarily uproot communities of color for the benefit of developers and a prejudiced social order.

Through solid storytelling and investigation by Anderson and Dean (with a wonderful ad hoc community of social justice advocates), "My Brooklyn" provides a succinct and engaging means to understand the systemic factors behind gentrification. The revelation of an incestuous network of private and public investment driving development allows the viewer to push past liberal fatigue, lingering guilt, or inert anger. Observing the work of FUREE also provides a glimpse of the necessary and painstaking work of community action to challenge policy. Indeed, the filmmakers have plans to use the film as a social justice tool in the city. However, "My Brooklyn" is also a stirring love letter to the borough of Brooklyn replete with vintage photography by Jamel Shabazz of Back in the Days fame, a lively soundtrack, and enriching oral testimony from Brooklyn residents. Anderson and Dean strive to convey the vibrant culture once enshrined in the bustling streets of Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall from store owners to the loyal patrons who supported a successful local economy. Downtown Brooklyn today is a shell of its former self dwarfed by a huddle of luxury high-rise buildings after 12 years of the Bloomberg era development has broken the beautiful and still beating heart of a city.

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