Monday, Feb. 11, 2013

Battle for Brooklyn

By David Luhrssen
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Eminent domain, the power of government to seize private property for the public good, has traditionally been used to widen roads, lay new highways or provide for public parks. But eminent domain is often controversial and can mask the greed of private interests. According to the documentary Battle for Brooklyn, that’s what happened when billionaire developer Bruce Ratner called on highly placed political friends to seize a section of Brooklyn for the Atlantic Yards, a project crowned by a stadium housing his dream of moving the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn but including other commercial properties.

Ratner’s project was unveiled—with no input from or warning to the people whose homes and businesses occupied the Atlantic Yards site—by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer, with Jay-Z looking on as if to provide street cred. Star architect Frank Gehry announced he was “excited to build a whole new neighborhood from scratch.” In his abstract, computer model world, there was no thought for the existing, thriving neighborhood he would help scratch out.

Enter Daniel Goldstein, a young condo owner whose building was marked for Ratner’s wrecking ball. He would embark on an obsessive, quixotic crusade to stop Ratner and fight City Hall.

Battle for Brooklyn’s directors, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, hear out Ratner’s representatives, yet clearly come down on Goldstein’s side as they document his romance and eventual marriage to a fellow activist. The position of Ratner and his political allies was that Atlantic Yards would create jobs, draw tourism and, by the way, buildings were knocked down to make way for Rockefeller Center. Change can be tough, but it happens. And besides, the property owners in the Atlantic Yard’s way will be compensated. They can move.

None of these are irrelevant arguments, yet there was something bullying and underhanded about the process. Once Goldstein and fellow refuseniks began drawing attention to the long-running businesses and the old people to be pried from their homes, Ratner funded “citizens groups” to counter-protest. An African-American politician in Ratner’s corner even played the race card against Goldstein.

Regardless of whether Ratner was playing nice, he was using eminent domain as a way to occupy land for himself. Was the public good served by redeveloping that stretch of Brooklyn and installing a sports arena? Perhaps. Was Ratner likely the largest beneficiary? Probably.

In a Hollywood movie, Goldstein (played by Zach Galifiankis?) would eventually triumph over his adversaries; the public would be swayed, the press would seize upon revelations of corporate irregularities and the politicians—feeling the winds of change at their backs—would shift course. But Battle for Brooklyn is a documentary, and happy endings aren’t inevitable in real life. The film’s postscript claims that of the 15,000 jobs promised by the opening of Atlantic Yards, only 400 were created.

The Battle for Brooklyn is out on DVD.

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