In the works is a new documentary called My Brooklyn, written and directed by Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean. It tells the story of gentrification in Brooklyn as it follows filmmaker Kelly Anderson's journey from 1988, when she first moved to the borough, to today, when luxury housing and chain stores have taken over, killing the soul of BK.
Check out the film's trailer and support the film by kicking over some cash on Kickstarter. In the meantime, I asked Kelly some questions about the film and she answered...
Q: Your title is, in a quiet way, a provocative one. To say "my" Brooklyn implies ownership, just as many New Yorkers have a proprietary sense about the city, and the neighborhoods, in which they live. Today more than ever that sense bumps up against gentrification in the fiercest way. How have the past 10 years of major changes impacted your sense of "your" Brooklyn?
A: The easiest answer to your question is that the film is told through my eyes, and follows my particular journey to understand the dramatic changes I see happening to my neighborhoods and to New York City in general. But I think your question is actually more complex than that. It raises important questions that the film is trying to get at, like: Who owns a neighborhood? Does being there longer give someone more of a claim to it? Who gets to decide what's valuable and what retail and services a neighborhood should have?
A concrete example: to many newer arrivals (especially white ones, but not exclusively), Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn is a "crappy space with B-grade stores that I wouldn't want to visit at night." To Brooklyn's longer-term residents who frequent the mall (mostly African American and Caribbean immigrants), the space is "home base," "exciting," a place to run into people you know and find products you can't find in other places, at affordable prices. My Brooklyn asks, “Whose values get reflected in city policy?” and “Why?”
Kelly and crew
So the title is kind of tongue-in-cheek, meant to raise exactly the question you are asking.
During the production of this film, we have repeatedly asked people of all economic backgrounds and races, "What's your Brooklyn?" Almost everybody mentions diversity as one of the things they love most about Brooklyn. The irony is that the city, and real estate developers, use the idea of Brooklyn as "happening," "interesting," and "artistic," yet at the same time they are using massive rezonings and developer subsidies to incentivize the construction of giant market-rate luxury housing towers that nobody but the wealthy can afford.
New York City's burden
Q: Your subtitle is about battling for the city's soul. How would you describe that soul?
A: It's subjective, obviously. For me, being able to walk down a street and having the possibility of being surprised by what I encounter is really important. A place where I can only shop at the same 20 stores that are in every suburban mall is a place I can't imagine living. "Soul" resides in neighborhoods where people hang out, and talk with each other, and know each other, and look after one another's children--not a place where people are forced to move every few years because housing gets too expensive.
Soul is also about artistic expression--and we all know artists can't afford the Brooklyn neighborhoods that welcomed them two decades ago. And in our film particularly, "soul" refers to black culture like the early hip-hop that developed at Fulton Mall's Albee Square Mall, the kinds of spaces that are vanishing in New York City today. Things can't always stay the same, but our planning priorities should include open and affordable spaces where cultural experiments can be nurtured and find audiences.
Q: You refer to yourself in the film's description as a gentrifier who moved to Brooklyn in 1988. How do you see yourself as similar to or different from the gentrifiers of today's Brooklyn?
A: I moved to Park Slope in 1988 looking for an activist, engaged, diverse, artistic environment that would be tolerant of difference (I was in a lesbian relationship at the time and wanted to be in a place where we would feel comfortable). As I have moved from neighborhood to neighborhood in Brooklyn (usually in search of more affordable housing), I have always been in that first (or second) wave of gentrifiers. Right now I'm in Sunset Park, and wondering how long it will take for my neighborhood to start to transform as other people like me are pushed out of the more central Brooklyn neighborhoods.
I don’t think I’m fundamentally any different than anybody else, except maybe I’ve become a little more obsessed with understanding the underlying dynamics of the change that’s happened. I would hope that everybody would be interested in understanding what we could do to make the planning process more democratic and more responsive to the needs of everybody, not just newcomers or folks who can afford to get their voices heard. I think we all need to get beyond feeling guilty or like “nothing can be done” and starting being aware of land use policy and getting involved to create a more just city.
Fulton Mall business owner