Interview: Kelly Anderson (Director) & Allison Lirish Dean (Producer) – ‘My Brooklyn’

My Brooklyn‘ is a documentary about Director Kelly Anderson’s personal journey, as a Brooklyn “gentrifier,” to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood along lines of race and class. The story begins when Anderson moves to Brooklyn in 1988, lured by cheap rents and bohemian culture. By Michael Bloomberg’s election as mayor in 2001, a massive speculative real estate boom is rapidly altering the neighborhoods she has come to call home. She watches as an explosion of luxury housing and chain store development spurs bitter conflict over who has a right to live in the city and to determine its future. While some people view these development patterns as ultimately revitalizing the city, to others, they are erasing the eclectic urban fabric, economic and racial diversity, creative alternative culture, and unique local economies that drew them to Brooklyn in the first place. It seems that no less than the city’s soul is at stake.

We talked to Kelly Anderson and ‘My Brooklyn‘ Producer Allison Lirish Dean about the film, Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center development project, The Fulton Street Mall and gentrification as it relates to NYC history.  ‘My Brooklyn‘ will begin a week long screening in Brooklyn at reRun Theater on Friday, January 4th with Filmmaker Q&A’s following each showing.

My Brooklyn trailer from Kelly Anderson on Vimeo.

When you first moved into Brooklyn, how much mind did you pay to gentrification?
Kelly Anderson:  Not very much.  I moved to Park Slope in ’88 and it was pretty far from my mind.  I was mostly interested in the neighborhood as it had a reputation for being bohemian, arty and political.  At that time there were aspects of Brooklyn life which were more difficult, but the politics around gentrification didn’t cross my mind until I moved into Ft. Greene in the late 90s.  This was where I felt there was a deeply rooted African American community and it was obvious that there was also this newcomer community.  It felt awkward at times.  I didn’t know how to think about it.  I was just moving to a place where I could afford, but on the other hand there was this unspoken tension there.  When I moved into my building I was one of two apartments with Caucasian residents.  By the time I left 4 years later there were one or two apartments with people of color living in them. I wanted to make this film so that I could understand the changes going on around me and to what role the ethics and politics of the situation played in the change.

While watching the documentary, you did a good job in explaining the history of the Brooklyn neighborhoods, where essentially whole areas were marked off and graded as either being investable or not.  Ft. Greene and Bed-Stuy were the two most prevalent areas which were deemed difficult for investment.  I wonder, now that Ft. Greene has turned into a neighborhood of distinct priviledge but Bed-Stuy has not yet (despite being neighboring communities) can you see and reasons for the rapid development of Ft. Greene as opposed to Bed-Stuy?
Allison Lirish Dean:  What do you mean by development?

I suppose development is the wrong word.  I see that Ft. Greene seems to be a much more appealing neighborhood to privileged gentrifiers then Bed-Stuy is at the moment.  Do you think this has to do with geographic factors, aesthetics or intangible reasons?
A:  It is closer to the city and is closer to mass transit lines.  Mostly I would say that.  It is a complicated question because it depends on how one measures gentrification.  Are you measuring it by rent rates or the number of expensive shops?

I think there is something to be said in the size of the neighborhood.  Since Bed-Stuy is larger the population of Ft. Greene is able to be more concentrated into one area and therefore look more appealing.  I think Ft. Greene appeals beyond the creative and artistic types moving into areas like Bed-Stuy due to the lower rents, therefore appealing to the more professional or family oriented.
A:  Since Bed-Stuy is a larger area the housing in Ft. Greene can afford to be more selective and therefore feature higher rents.  To get back to the focus of what we did in our film, what I can say is that we focused on the large rezoning that the city did.  The film focuses on the impact of these city policies on the process of gentrification.  Gentrification can obviously happen without city policy intervening too much and that may be the case with Bed-Stuy, but what we are focused on is the policy behind the real large scale changes that have gone on in Brooklyn over the past decade.  Not that gentrification started with Bloomberg, but the process has really accelerated during his administration.  Regardless of his other policies like public health which may be positive, his agenda has largely been off the radar for progressive people since they don’t understand how policy plays a role in the process.  What we were trying to do with ‘My Brooklyn‘ is unpack gentrification as a process that is mysterious to most people.  It is not exclusively a natural, organic process.  There is a policy context that this happens in and a lot of it is accelerated by deliberate interventions from city government with business and corporate interests in mind.

K:  In the film, when we talked about the 4th Ave rezoning in Park Slope, the same thing happened on Fulton St.  When you go into Bed-Stuy and you see those luxury condo’s popping up, that has an impact on the whole neighborhood.  As long as there is money to be made by reinvesting in the city it will move from central Brooklyn outward.  We will see a similar change in Bed-Stuy over the next five years or so.

Where do projects like the Barclay’s Center fit into this debate?  The film talks about a Downtown Brooklyn plan which had gradually changed from business centric to residential, however the Barclay’s Center is a project that will bring jobs into the community.
A:  The zoning is not just residential in Downtown Brooklyn.  The commercial development as a result of the rezoning is just as significant as the residential development.  They are both examples of scaling the neighborhood both commercially and residentially.  I think the way in which the rezoning is connected to the Barclays Center is in the ultimate vision of the city.  Maybe the specific means of accomplishing that vision are different now.  There will be businesses that appear, but you have to weigh that against the displacement, the jobs lost and the existence of “living wage” jobs coming in.  If they are not “living wage” jobs, then will the city supplement incomes with food stamp programs or not?  These are the questions which arise from these type of developmental issues.

Ultimately, whether it is commercial or residential zoning, projects big or small, they cater to a vision that the Bloomberg administration has for the city.  This vision caters to the affluent, corporate crowd.  If huge projects like Barclay’s Center or Atlantic Yard aims to improve upon the situation, then all peripheral aspects of Brooklyn need to gradually change as well.

K:  There are two excellent films that address the Barclay’s Center issue.  One is ‘The Battle for Brooklyn‘  and the other is ‘Brooklyn Matters‘.  What those films point out is the incredible manipulation of the public process by corporate interests.   In the case of the Barclay’s Center it was all about eminent domain and about subsidies.  There is this corruption of a process that is supposed to have some kind of public involvement in both the Barclay’s Center and Downtown Brooklyn.

Allison, when you started putting this project together what was your research strategy?
A:  First, I want to reiterate that what Kelly said about the corruption behind the projects is very important.  To answer the question though, I had done a fair amount of research on this topic before we had even thought about making the film.  I am an urban planner and had worked for the Pratt Center for Community Development before I even had the film idea in my head.  I did a few years worth of research on Downtown Brooklyn for the Pratt Center.  They knew that there would be a lot of change and displacement in the neighborhood with a large racial component.  The film was motivated by the research.  I feel like a lot of filmmakers know what they want to do and go out and research it so that they can get to the point to make a film, but it was the other way around for me.  We had all this research and we needed to develop a way to get it out there so it was not sitting in some non-profit office somewhere.

One of the main reasons I ended up deciding on a film is because so many people who were going to be affected by the Downtown Brooklyn plan had no idea about it in the least.  They had no idea it was happening.  No idea it would affect them or the extent of that affect.  I found it amazing that there were so many plans developing and being acted upon while those affected were largely in the dark.

K:  For me, having made films before, we didn’t really know what the final message was going to be until very close to the end.  We kept asking the question, “Why did the city rezone Downtown Brooklyn?” and just never got an answer.  Despite the figures we sought out, whether they were journalists or activists, no one really knew why.  Only close to the end of production did we find the development plans of the corporate figures involved.

What did you find to be the most interesting piece of information you learned from developing the documentary?
K:  The first thing was that we found a way to talk about gentrification without having to feel guilty about it.  This was very important to me, personally.  The most surprising thing was the discovery that a group of business people came up with the Downtown Brooklyn plan, approached the city and made a huge amount of money off of it.  I wasn’t naive but this bold profit making right under the cities nose was very shocking.

A:  I don’t think anything was really shocking, but the most interesting (and frustrating) was the level of difficulty in getting information from the Downtown Brooklyn partnership.  What was surprising was how difficult it was to have a conversation with them as journalists, just to find out what they were doing.  I found it disturbing that these people have such an influence over development and very few other people understand what type of entity they are.  This whole issue of quasi-governmental agencies is very critical.  What you start to see is that the line between what the government is doing and what private enterprise is doing is blurring.  This has been the case for a long time, but what is new about this is that it is so “official”.  It is not done under cover or on the side.  High School civics courses should be talking about this new type of government which is now popping up all around the country.

When you went down to the Fulton Mall to do the interviews for the documentary, how were you met my the shop owners and patrons?  Were they open to discussing the topics?
:  Some of them were.  I had been talking to them for over a year already.  The amount of research we had done made them feel much more comfortable since hey trusted me.  The one’s who we talked to that did not know us that well were a little more apprehensive, but it was mostly a trust issue.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to talk about the situation, but they are running a business and they don’t have time to talk to a bunch of filmmakers.  On the whole though, everyone was keen to participate, especially the one’s who felt they were getting screwed.  It allowed them an outlet to voice their frustrations.

K:  It was much more difficult to talk to the figures in the partnership then the community.  The business owners knew that we were on their side.

That definitely says something, usually those who are less accessible tend to have the most to hide.
A:  I wanted to say one more thing in relation to the question about what surprised us.  It was very surprising how incestuous the whole operation was.  For example, we found out about Paul Travis who is involved with the City Point project as a member of an organization called Washington Square Partners, who essentially advises corporations on how to get around the cities land use guidelines.  Paul Travis was the president of what was called the Public Development Corporation which is now Economic Development Corporation, which created Washington Square Partners and is now consulting with Acadia Realty who is there partner.  Essentially he is making money from all aspects of a plan that he has had his hand in at all stages regardless of direct involvement or not.  I’m not saying he is doing anything wrong or illegal but the fact that there is so little transparency there makes you wonder.  This is just one example but these kind of affiliations pop up all over the place.  You kind of have to wonder about these board members who are developers as well as having been involved in government.  At the very least we are concerned with how the average person just does not understand the intricacy or these projects and the people involved so how can they engage in the debate in a meaningful way?

To wrap this up I wanted to ask a filmmaking question.  Now that the documentary is finished, what is your strategy to get a niche topic of New York City interests out to the largest audiences?
K:  The first thing is to acknowledge that this is a national problem.  For example, the film will be screened in Oakland on January 8th as part of a series called ‘Broakland’, since the issues facing Oakland are so similar to those facing Brooklyn.  I think forging these local connections is really important.  We also screened the film in Vienna and the discussion was “Could this happen in Europe?”.  The experts that were there said that all cities are under the same pressures that we see in Brooklyn, its just that New York City being New York City things tend to happen here first.  Since we have less consumer protection on things like rent it may take a city like Vienna longer to experience these issues but eventually they will. What we are seeing is a global phenomenon where cities are able to provide high real estate profits.  

Purchase TicketsHERE

Friday, January 4 – Thursday, January 13, 2013
Filmmaker Magazine, IFP & reRun Theater Present
@ reRun Theater
147 Front St. Brooklyn, NY

1/4: 7:30pm & 10:15pm
1/5: 4:45pm & 7:45pm
1/6: 1:30pm
1/7: 7:30pm &10:15pm
1/11: 7:30pm & 10:15pm
1/12: 7:30pm & 10:15pm
1/13: 7:30pm & 10:15pm
Facebook: /MyBrooklyn


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