In 2003, when the Cleveland-based developer Forest City Ratner announced its plan to build the $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards project in Prospect Heights, Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky turned on their cameras. The resulting film, “The Battle for Brooklyn,” was made over the course of seven years and is currently showing nightly at Brooklyn Heights Cinema.
It documents what the filmmakers view as a great injustice, in which eminent domain displaced hundreds of residents so that a new stadium — designed to bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn — could be built by a powerful few. And it paints an unflattering portrait of redevelopment.
The filmmakers focused on the following issues:
- Promises of affordable housing and 10,000 jobs that were allegedly scrapped in favor of extensive parking lots and predominantly non-local labor used to build them.
- The replacement of lead architect Frank Gehry by cheaper architects and less-expensive plans.
- The project’s high price tag, which was originally going to be paid for by private sources, but ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
- The feeling that the community was effectively silenced by corporate and government interests. Ratner reportedly forced residents who accepted money in exchange for their homes to sign a gag order barring them from participating in any public opposition to the project, and the project bypassed City Council and went directly to Albany. For a timeline of Atlantic yards click here.
The film’s narrative unfolds through the perspective of graphic designer turned activist Daniel Goldstein — the final resident to be removed from the Atlantic Yards site — who entered a protracted battle against what he felt was a failure of democracy.
MetroFocus spoke with the filmmakers, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, about their role as documentarians, the media’s role in what happened and the future of the Atlantic Yards project.
Q: How did you meet Daniel Goldstein?
Galinsky: We read about the project when it was announced and we thought “this sounds kind of weird.” A few days later we saw a sign that said “stop the project.” That sign was made by [activist] Patti Hagan. She let me know what was really going on and said to meet this guy Daniel Goldstein. In an odd coincidence we already knew Dan. He’d done some graphic design work for one of our films and we went to high school together.
Q: You shot the film over the course of seven years. Was the project all-consuming or were there times that it took a backseat to other projects?
Hawley: In the beginning it was very intensive. Michael was shooting everyday for three weeks when we started. Patti Hagan was walking us around the footprint and there were very many meetings. It all seemed very confusing and everyone was in a state of shock. Then the project really went into the trenches and it wasn’t as all-consuming.
Q: In the film, the press is presented as having failed in their duty to accurately report on the project. Do you see the media as complicit in the creation of the Atlantic Yards project, or was it more that the press was confused and mislead?
Galinsky: I think the latter. It’s just how disjointed the process was, and in many ways the movie is as much about media as it is about government and the community. The media system we have is so event-lead that there’s not much space to report on complicated situations.
Hawley: I understand to a degree why the media was lacking in this situation, but at same time I feel it is their responsibility to accurately report on situations as big as this. It was their responsibility to inform us, which they didn’t do very well.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from your film?
Hawley: We hope people will feel more informed and be inspired by Dan’s ability to retain his soul throughout this ordeal. Also, we hope people will look more critically at the information they get. It’s funny, people who say they’ve seen film say, “wow I feel like I was asleep through all of that.” But they weren’t asleep. They feel that way because it was such a glossed over event.
Q: You’ve said that you didn’t see yourselves as activists or journalists when making this film. What is your role?
Both: We’re filmmakers.
Galinsky: We took great pains to have it not be an activist film and it works in some ways on a journalistic level. But it was about what is going to make audiences connect with this situation so that it will make a good movie.
Hawley: Our goal is always to follow a character under pressure and go through that intense experience with them. And in that way the audience can connect with the character and the situation.
Q: What is Daniel Goldstein doing now?
Galinsky: He’s trying to figure out what to do and he’s very involved in getting control of the site back. They’re trying to reinvigorate the part of the footprint that’s not the arena, instead of just having parking lots. There’s the arena block and then the area twice the size of the arena, and Daniel is trying to get control of that area. They want to put this out for bid for other developers who can do something that the community wants. They [Forest City Ratner] would say, “Oh, were going to build the affordable housing,” but it’s not a realistic thing.
Hawley: It’s not realistic if you consider that all of the affordable housing subsidies for Brooklyn would need to be used in order for them to build the housing they said they would build.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.