battle for brooklyn poster-1

Can this film be rented through Netflix Instant and/or Apple’s iTunes Store? This film is not available for rental on either service, but it can be purchased for $5.99 at the iTunes store.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Eminent Domain is defined as “[T]he inherent power of a governmental entity to take privately owned property, esp. land, and convert it to public use, subject to reasonable compensation for the taking.” Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, your government now has wide latitude to basically take your home and give it to a private developer so that he/she can build a shopping center. The justification given is that a shopping center provides economic growth (i.e. jobs) and the community benefits from that economic growth and that in turn qualifies as a “public use.” What the U.S. Supreme Court basically did was take the term “public use” and expand its definition to include just about any reason a government can make up to take your private property. If someone were to put a face to the Occupy Movement’s 99% v. 1% theme, then they wouldn’t have to go any further than the David v. Goliath personalities featured in the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn.

Directed by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, Battle for Brooklyn was shot between 2003 and 2011. The ‘Goliath’ in this story is Bruce Ratner, the CEO and President of Forest City Enterprises, a real estate development company that is the largest publicly traded developer in the U.S. In 2003, Ratner unveiled plans to build the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. The project was envisioned as a mixed-use commercial and residential development project containing 16 high-rise buildings and the Barclays Center, a sports arena that is the home of the Brooklyn Nets (whose 1st season is currently ongoing). Designed by famous architect Frank Gehry, Atlantic Yards received the full backing and support of such powerful figures as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and rapper Jay-Z, co-owner of the then-New Jersey Nets.

In order to build this project, Ratner needed the state of New York to use its Eminent Domain power to condemn 10 acres of land in Prospect Heights so that Ratner could then build his project on the land. Standing in his way is our ‘David,’ a graphic designer named Daniel Goldstein. After 5 years of searching for a place to live, Daniel and his ex-fiancé finally found a home they could see themselves raising a family in. However, a few short months after Daniel moved into his new home, the Atlantic Yards project was announced and his home was in the project’s path of destruction. Rather than go away quietly, David took up a crusade to fight back against Ratner and the government. Battle for Brooklyn chronicles this fight.

Battle for Brooklyn does not have the polished feel and look of the bigger budgeted Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011), both of which I reviewed just previous to this film. This film has a more of a meat and potatoes approach in presenting its story. Battle for Brooklyn is also not as even-handed as the previously named documentaries. This film strongly and intentionally takes the perspective of Daniel Goldstein and the other Brooklynites being displaced by Ratner (it should be noted that Galinsky and Hawley reside near the Atlantic Yards project). Unlike the other two films, Battle for Brooklyn is a message film and that might turn some viewers off if they approach this film with the expectation that both sides of the issue will be evenly presented. Although this is not the case, I also do not believe that the filmmakers refused to allow the developer and government officials to present their side of the story. They do in fact interview these people and what you hear from them is nothing more than thinly veiled excuses to make the city and the developer a lot of money. What little of what the city and developer said and did to win over the community is presented in the film, but as you will see, those efforts are crap and no amount of fancy editing and shooting will turn crap into gold.

Battle for Brooklyn does not contain strong, magnetic personalities like David Carr in Page One or dramatic, intense actions by radical environmental activists committing arson and property damage in If a Tree Falls. Throughout much of this film, you see a lot of press conferences given by the community, the developer, the government and a lot of interviews with the various players in this saga. Unfortunately, a community’s legal battle against a developer does not lend itself to cinematic imagery despite what you have seen in similar film adaptations like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action. Directors Galinsky and Hawley make up for this by smartly interweaving the personal life of Daniel Goldstein with his crusade against Ratner. During the course of this battle, Daniel breaks up with his fiancé, deals with the unexpected death of his mother, meets and marries his future wife (an activist equally dedicated to saving Daniel’s neighborhood), and having a baby with her. Adding to this drama is the 2008 economic fallout, which severely affected Ratner and almost killed the Atlantic Yards project entirely.

Once you become invested in Daniel’s struggle against Ratner in trying to save his home and you learn who the key players in the film are, you quickly become engrossed in the sequence of events that transpire. It is difficult to not get raging mad at how seemingly easy it was for Ratner to get his project approved and even subsidized by the city and how nonchalantly the government used its power to illegally remove every obstacle from Ratner’s path. As the film moves along, you begin to feel helpless that all the efforts put forth by Daniel and his wife are for naught and they merely register as a blip on Ratner’s radar. Not once do we even see Ratner acknowledge the existence of Daniel and the other Brooklyn residents. Although you probably know the eventual outcome of this battle way before the film ends, you are still impatiently waiting to see how everything ends up, especially for Daniel and his family.

One of the most surprising revelations in Battle for Brooklyn is the ineptitude of the media in covering the Atlantic Yards project. Some of the journalists shown, such as one Newsweek writer who was shown interviewing both Ratner’s camp and Brooklyn community members, were professional enough to cover this story from all sides and get all the information necessary. However, many times in this film, the media is portrayed as either heavily biased in favor of Ratner and the city or it is completely unaware of important developments that it should have known. In one shocking instance, Daniel, other Brooklynites, and the community’s lawyer appear at a city council hearing where an alternative, more community-friendly development plan designed by members of the community is presented. At the hearing are also members of the press. Proponents of Ratner’s development speak first and they take up the vast majority of the time (specifically from 10:00 AM to 2:15 PM). By the time Daniel and the community can be heard, almost the entire press (and even most of the city council members) have gone home! So what the media ends up reporting later that day is only what Ratner and his people presented to the city council. The community’s voice is not reported on.

Battle for Brooklyn does not hold back in tearing apart all the reasons Ratner gives to justify the Atlantic Yards project. Ratner promised that the project would create local jobs, low-cost housing, and that the local community was totally behind his project. The film convincingly and very clearly shows that all these promises were empty. The one local community supporter behind Ratner, which was called B.U.I.L.D., turned out to be on Ratner’s payroll.

The film covers a lot, which is commendable when you consider the 8 year time period it took to chronicle this story. However, there are a few missed opportunities that I wish the film explored. For one, after you see Battle for Brooklyn, you have to wonder whether Ratner had any financial connections with Mayor Bloomberg and Markowitz. Second, I wanted to see more of what prompted architect Frank Gehry to be fired from the project and how that caused the project to be reshaped.

Battle for Brooklyn is a Frank Capra-esque drama, but instead of the little guy winning this time, he unfortunately loses. Daniel and his wife are relentless in fighting the politicians and developers to the point where they have absolutely no social life. It is undeniably inspirational seeing this level of passion in our citizenry and it makes us wish that more people in this country acted liked this when the powerful conspire to do whatever they can to make a buck. This film is a message film that advocates for preservation of communities. Like I stated before, this approach might turn off many viewers, but nevertheless, it is a message that should be voiced loud and clear and I applaud Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley for doing just that.