New York City may be more than 450 miles from Cleveland, but Battle for Brooklyn comes with its share of local ties. For one thing, the bad guy in this documentary about a New York neighborhood being taken over to make room for a $9 billion development project is Cleveland's own Forest City Enterprises. For another, as co-director Michael Galinsky points out, "It's not a local issue. It's an epidemic issue around the country."
Eight years ago, Forest City twisted an eminent-domain law to grab 22 acres of a Brooklyn neighborhood called Prospect Heights. In its place, the developer proposed the Atlantic Yards Project, which included plans to build 16 skyscrapers and a new arena to woo the New Jersey Nets across state lines.
"There's definitely a disingenuousness to what took place," says Galinsky, who lived near Prospect Heights. "They put out all these fliers promising 15,000 construction jobs. There is now about 300 jobs, and only about 30 or so go to local people."
But bureaucrats pushing papers and politicians spinning stories can be painfully boring stuff to watch, so Galinsky and his filmmaking partner, Suki Hawley, focus on young Daniel Goldstein, a man from Prospect Heights who wasn't going down without a fight.
Goldstein's story serves as the movie's center, but too often his personal life seems shoehorned into the narrative, which is more interesting when the filmmakers dissect all of the deals laid out by city officials and greedy developers. Locals had little say in the matter — besides their protests, which Battle for Brooklyn assiduously chronicles over seven years — as various powers played around with their homes.
"It's not like the developers and [city officials] were open to us following them around," says Galinsky, who shot more than 400 hours of meetings and interviews. "Especially when they started to realize that it might not be as flattering as they'd like."
Everyone seems to have an interest in the project: from city officials and lawyers to developers, activists, laborers, and even basketball stars. Galinsky says he tried to be fair to both sides.
"We went to great pains to not make it an advocacy film and beat up on people." But from the start it's obvious which side he's on. And you can guess who wins this battle.
The basketball arena is now scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. Galinsky doesn't hide his disdain for the developers who eventually got their way, as more and more residents sold their houses, packed up, and moved away to make room for the project.
"The process was so much more evil and terrible — the reality of what went on was so much worse than what we showed in the movie," he says. "Once the project was approved and everything they promised turned out to be not true, when you see it in the movie it's that much more powerful."