Inside D.C. entertainment

'Battle for Brooklyn': It's not just a New York story

January 12, 2012 - 06:00 AM
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Battle for Brooklyn
The footprint for the Atlantic Yards project. Goldstein's building is in the foreground. (Photograph by Kai Simonsen.)

Battle for Brooklyn is a documentary film about the Atlantic Yards project, which attempted to parachute a new neighborhood, including a basketball arena, into downtown Brooklyn. The only problem? There was already a neighborhood there.

So why should we care about it here? You can't swing a Twitter client in Washington without hitting some nimrod who'll tell you New York's got better food, better coffee, and a better arts scene. Now we have to hear about how much more cinematic their civic problems are than ours?

But: the city of Alexandria has floated the idea of using eminent domain to get its waterfront-redevelopment plan going. Maryland considered using eminent domain to keep the Preakness in Baltimore. And the District recently argued that it could strong-arm tenants out of the Skyland shopping mall whether or not the plan to replace them was viable.

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley's film begins with a press conference in 2003 where the famous architect Frank Gehry enthuses about the possibility to "build a whole neighborhood practically from scratch," demonstrating a hubristic tenor that carries through the movie, as the developer Forest City Ratner steamrolls community opposition groups, city government, the courts, and not least the New York press.

Hawley says this film, which deals with eminent domain abuse, is really a critique of media. Every piece about the project, she says, "followed the same format: You quote the developer, and it was five paragraphs about what the developer was going to do, and then they'd interview Dan for one line."

"Dan" is Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who quickly becomes the heart of the film. His apartment on Pacific Street was in Forest City Ratner's cross-hairs.

"I'm not much of a patriot, but it is un-American," Goldstein says at the beginning of the film. "Or maybe it is American. You know what? It is American. What [Ratner is] doing seems to be the American way."

"I knew when he said that that this guy was not going anywhere," Galinsky says. He and Hawley live in Clinton Hill, close to the proposed project, and had seen a flier opposing it. Patti Hagan answered the phone number on the flier and suggested Goldstein as an interview subject.

As the film covers the next seven years, Goldstein's engagement crumbles, his hair turns gray, and he becomes the only tenant in his building. He meets, marries, and has a daughter with another protester, Shabnam Merchant. And he becomes very good at talking to the media.

"You see him throughout the film discovering the talents he didn't know he had," says Hawley.

"He obsessed about" the project, Galinsky says of Goldstein. "For him it's an intellectual puzzle and a conundrum."

Adding to the weirdness: The parade of celebrities who get involved as the controversy drags on, both pro (Jay-Z and Beyoncé) and con (Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Rosie Perez). And just when you think the story can't get more surreal, George Will shows up in Goldstein's apartment.

Goldstiein and Shabnam
Goldstein and Merchant (photograph by Michael Galinsky).

The good guys lose, of course. But now Goldstein's a full-time activist with a family, a rather nice payout from Forest City Ratner, and a house near his old one. "This film scholar in Italy said it's like a Frank Capra film except the hero loses," Galinsky says. "I said it's exactly like a Frank Capra film. At the end, he is profoundly whole."

Battle for Brooklyn has been shortlisted for an Academy Award, but Hawley and Galinsky are financing the film's tour themselves. They haven't had much luck getting it into film festivals, though they say they did great business at Cinema Village in New York, where the film ran for three weeks. They've been working on theaters around the country, trying to show their movie. "Almost every place we were able to do it was, frankly, old music connections," says Galinsky (see disclosure, below). "It goes back to human relationships. Not so much business relationships but art relationships."

Hawley and Galinsky both feel the Occupy movement represents a major upgrade to how issues like Atlantic Yards get hashed out, and that they've since become much more interested in how their city works themselves. "We didn't know what a community board was," Hawley says. "Our whole way of how we see things is just different. Seeing how things work has just opened our eyes."

Battle for Brooklyn shows at Artisphere on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; tickets are $7 and Hawley, Galinsky, and Goldstein will do Q&As at each showing.

DISCLOSURE: Many years ago, a band I played with shared many bills and punk-house floors with Galinsky's old band Sleepyhead.

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