Can a person claim ownership of a borough?
In New York City, a metropolis divided into five boroughs each reflecting five very distinct histories, lifestyles and cultural developments, borough ownership becomes almost part and parcel of a New Yorker's self-identification.
In the documentary, “My Brooklyn,” the film’s director Kelly Anderson explores how the intersection of race, class and culture makes the idea of borough ownership at best a mere notion of the middle-class and at worst a delusion of the poor.
As a white woman who self-identifies as a Brooklyn “gentrifier,” Anderson seeks to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood, as she watches the Brooklyn she has lived in for the past 25 years bought, sold and redefined before her very eyes.
“Brooklyn had become a hip, expensive brand,” Anderson narrates in the film. “A lot of my African-American and Puerto Rican neighbors were moving out. And I started to feel like the neighborhood character that drew me to Brooklyn was slipping away.”
The documentary -- which already is creating an enormous buzz – takes a soul-searching, contemporary and candid look at the intentional and unintentional forces reshaping Brooklyn’s identity, focusing on the changes at Fulton Street Mall, while exposing a lot of naked truths.
Famed photographer Jamel Shabazz shares a catalogue of his photos all of which poignantly capture the face of Brooklyn during the 80s-- remembered as a particularly rough time in Brooklyn's history, but also one of Brooklyn’s most soulful and creative.
“Then all of a sudden, everything just changed,” said Shabazz in the film. “I mean gentrification is real, people do need a place to live, but my whole thing is, what’s happened to the people?”
Redlining, land ownership, and the ongoing tug-of-war between community, development and identity are big themes.
Also in the film, M.I.T. professor, historian and Bed-Stuy resident Dr. Craig Wilder outlines the redevelopment trajectory of downtown Brooklyn and its surrounding neighborhoods. He and Anderson both show how Fulton Mall's transformation started with a deliberate plan carried out by a small group of corporate developers, in concert with the Bloomberg Administration and a handful of key local elected officials.
And deliberate becomes the key word. For example, Dr. Wilder pointed out how, following the Great Depression, several of Brooklyn's neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant fell victim to the practice of redlining.
Although at the time, Bed-Stuy's homeownership was only 5 percent black, banks abandoned all efforts of lending to black potential homeowners in mixed neighborhoods, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant.
At the same time, suburban development kicked into full swing, along with an aggressive lending effort by banks encouraging homeownership by whites who were willing to relocate out of the city and into the suburbs, where black people were still barred.
“And so one of the great myths of the process of ghettoization is that Blacks and Puerto Ricans destroyed [their neighborhoods],” said Wilder. “Those neighborhoods were actually targeted for destruction. The very resources that people depend upon to sustain a quality of life were withdrawn.”
The film also looks at the current practice of rezoning commercial and residential districts – the demolition of affordable housing replaced with luxury housing – and the role it continues to play today in the massive reshaping of the borough.
“The process of gentrifying is not necessarily a process of making Brooklyn a better place to live,” said Dr. Wilder. “These kinds of wars about space need to be dealt with a little more honestly."
The documentary is an eye-opener. Because no matter what you think you know about the story of Brooklyn's gentrification, the film stirs a realization there are several more moving parts to a much bigger story.
Most notably, “My Brooklyn” does more than just offer the familiar two-sides-of-the-coin anecdotes that so often define the face of gentrification, but instead presents a stark and emotional yet matter-of-fact re-telling of what has actually taken place.
Due to its popularity with NYC audiences (the film sold out every show during its first run in early February), My Brooklyn is returning to the reRun Theater in Dumbo, January 25 – February 3. Tickets are available at www.reruntheater.com and http://mybrooklynrerun.eventbrite.com.
For more information on the film and a list of scheduled guest speakers, visit www.mybrooklynmovie.com