Local In Conversation
BROOKLYN'S ONGOING BATTLE
MICHAEL GALINSKY & SUKI HAWLEY with Williams Cole
The Brooklyn-based filmmaking duo of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky (whose previous films include Horns & Halos) began documenting the Atlantic Yards controversy right when the project was first announced nearly eight years ago. Their new film Battle for Brooklyn will open the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 3, followed by a showing at Rooftop Films on June 9, and a theatrical opening at IndieScreen in Williamsburg and Cinema Village on June 17. I sat down with the two of them in the café at Whole Foods at Union Square, the kind of settingthat will surely be more common in the Brooklyn of the future. –W. Cole
Williams Cole (Rail): Explain how you first started this film.
Michael Galinsky: We were taking our daughter to her first day of day care just a couple of blocks away from the Atlantic Yards. They had announced this project and the New York Times had a big piece about it. I read the article and it sounded like a press release. So I said, “This sounds weird,” and I started asking my friends and neighbors and everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, the mayor, the governor, everyone’s on board. Oh well, what are you going to do? It’s going to happen.” Then I saw a poster that said, “Stop the Atlantic Yards project!” It had a phone number on it so I called and Patti Hagan, who is prominent in the film, answered and she started talking my ear off. I said, “Hold on, hold on, I’m going to be there in 10 minutes.” She was running about like Chicken Little, like the sky was falling—and she was right, the sky was falling. So for the next 10 days I ran around the site with her and she explained to me what was wrong with the project and all the things that were untrue about what had been said about it. And it was pretty apparent that she knew what she was talking about. This was in December of 2003. So it was about a week after the project was announced.
Rail: So how did the main character Daniel Goldstein come into the picture?
Galinsky: After a week of following Patti around she said, “You know, you really should meet this guy Dan Goldstein. He’s a fighter, he’s the guy who’s really gonna fight.” And I was like, “Oh, I know Dan!” I had actually lived with him for one summer. He was a college roommate of a good friend of mine from high school. So I called up Daniel—I wasn’t really good friends with him, but I knew him enough to say, “Can I come film with you?” So I started filming with him and that’s how it all kind of rolled. And Patti was right. [Laughs.]
Hawley: He’s a fighter by nature. He doesn’t want to be wronged. But he wasn’t an activist in the beginning of the film and he wasn’t necessarily interested in community building or any of that stuff. There were a lot of people involved in the fight. Daniel became the sort of person who had the potential to stop the whole project because he had standing and had this apartment in the footprint of the Atlantic Yards plan.
Galinsky: One of the interesting things about shooting for eight years is that you see someone mature incredibly. You can see it. Daniel changed from this doughy, unfocused guy to become a force-to-be-reckoned-with. He makes the point that even though a lot of people left and were happy with the money they got, there are often larger issues at play. I think the big question here that he represented was: Are we going to be completely self-interested, or are we going to think about the results of our actions?
Rail: So how is the Atlantic Yards Project pivotal—realistically and symbolically—to the changes in Brooklyn over the last decade or so?
Galinsky: Incredibly pivotal. As George Will points out in the movie, all the city officials were saying this area is blighted and we have to redevelop it. But, really, they wanted the land because it wasn’t blighted. It was probably the most valuable piece of property in Brooklyn! And yet they’re getting to lease it for a dollar for one hundred years. A dollar for one hundred years! I mean, it’s absurd, and then they’re not paying any taxes.
Hawley: It’s also symbolic because it relates to the way important things are approached by government these days. For example, the fight around schools that’s going on now in the city. The idea that policies should come from the top down and that city government and business know what’s best for the people. So maybe this neighborhood is developing authentically and organically—a true sort of development—but they need to come in and call it blighted, to give it to one person (Bruce Ratner) to redevelop and make 16 skyscrapers. That’s very top-down. It’s like the Bloomberg idea of top-down management where everything is run like a business. But government isn’t a business. Communities aren’t a business. And schools aren’t a business. I mean, none of this is business, and yet, that’s how it’s playing out across the country, not just here.
Rail: So how do you think the resistance to the project eventually affected the outcome?
Galinsky: In the end, there’s nothing getting built except an arena. And people want to blame that on the resistance: “Well if you had just let them build, they would’ve had the housing, etc.” So, in a way, if you look at it from a business perspective, the communities ended up with the worst-case scenario. But if you look at it from a community-building perspective, you had communities really coming together and getting involved in a changing demographic. You have these difficult collisions of groups but when they came together to fight this project, and came up with their own workable visions of what the development should have been, it was very productive. It’s too bad that the government couldn’t have helped organize this idea of listening to the community. Instead the whole process was so absurd. There are very few people in city and state government in this process who you can say did right for the people—
Hawley: Except for Tish James.
Galinsky: Except for Tish James. I think she upset some people, but in general she said at the beginning, “This is wrong, and I’m going to oppose this because it’s wrong.” And at the end she was opposing it because it was wrong. And she didn’t bend to the will.
Rail: Do you think that Tish James and Daniel see it as a victory of sorts even though the project went forward? Maybe it was a Pyrrhic victory because the final result was so radically different than the first proposal.
Hawley: After we showed the film at the Toronto Film Festival we heard two guys talking about it on their weblog. And they were like, “If you were going to say one word about the film, what would you say?” And they said “Inspiring.” And I thought, “That’s so weird, because he loses!” Our main character basically loses the fight. But they think the film is inspiring. But it was somewhat of a victory because he stood up for what he thought was right and he didn’t back down, and in the end he won. In the end he got paid fairly for his place and he kept his soul.
Rail: What we all hope for. Keep your soul and get paid is the goal [laughter]. In the film you show Mayor Bloomberg—after all the years and the struggle—at the groundbreaking of the Atlantic Yards saying, “No one’s going to know how long this took to do, they’re just going to see that it was done.” Isn’t he right on some level?
Galinsky: That’s actually one of my favorite moments in the movie because as we watch him say that, we’ve just seen how long it took. We know how it got done. Hopefully the film will last longer and tell that story. I think what he’s saying there is that hubris wins out. We’re going over this peak of hubris, which is like that top-down management style that we see is failing in terms of how it divided communities in this process. But at a certain point hubris gets to be crushing. So I think people will know that this project was a mess. History will show it.
Hawley: The developer had so much money for marketing this and controlling the narrative. And the New York Times doesn’t have a dedicated Brooklyn reporter. It’s a complex story and no one really covered it in the mainstream press with any consistency on a weekly basis. So, of course, when we look back, we won’t know how long it took; we’ll just see that it’s done and we will have forgotten because no one got the full story. In a sense one of our favorite things to say is that they controlled the narrative for eight years while they built this thing, and this film is our attempt to wrench back the narrative and say what really happened from our perspective, from Daniel’s perspective. It’s from an actual people-on-the-ground perspective, rather than this sort of management perspective.
Rail: So looking back, did your opinions change about the developers? Weren’t they an easy target? Isn’t this what happens in New York—people come in roughshod and develop?
Hawley: Unfortunately, no. No, I mean Norman Oder—who did great reporting on the project—has a great quote, which isn’t in the movie, where he says, “You know, I came in as a journalist and I’m totally unbiased, I came in objectively. But when you come in objectively and see what happened, it’s hard to remain neutral, because the process was so screwed up that you just can’t be on the side of the developer.”
Rail: So what does the Atlantic Yards debacle teach us about development in Brooklyn? Going forward, what lessons does it give us?
Galinsky: We need to be organized in advance. We need to look at our communities and ask how we want them to develop. I think that this project did spur a great deal of debate about rezoning in communities, with city council members saying, “We need to be on top of this. We need to really look at our zoning.” There has been a whole wave of rezoning, some of which was community-driven, some of which is top-down-driven where the communities weren’t as engaged. But mostly this teaches us to question those in power and not just roll over when someone says, “Business people are coming to bring you benefits.” The benefits never materialize. And you know what? It’s messy. And it’s very difficult for different people to deal with others who don’t have the same goals and desires. But unless we can learn to work together as communities, we are going to be divided and developers will come in and do what they want. Just like they did with the Williamsburg rezoning. That neighborhood will never be the same kind of place it was.
This June is an exceptionally good month for documentary premieres with a social political bent. Most are included in festivals like Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (June 16 – 30) and Kings County’s own Brooklyn Film Festival (June 3 – 12). Here are a few specific films to look out for:
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (Premieres June 17 at HRWIFF)
From Pamela Yates and the team at Skylight Pictures comes the third film in a quartet of transitional justice documentaries that includes State of Fear and The Reckoning. Granito specifically focuses on Guatemala’s past and present by weaving in compelling footage from Yates’s seminal 1982 documentary When the Mountains Tremble—a film that is now used as forensic evidence in an international criminal case against a Guatemalan military commander. Part memoir, part thriller, the powerful themes of Granito manifest how documentary film not only contributes to the historical record but, because it’s visual proof, can be used as powerful evidence in the ongoing struggle to bring those who are responsible for atrocities to justice.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Premiering at IFC Center June 22, also at HRWIFF and BAMcinemaFest on June 18)
Directors Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry (of Street Fight fame) tell the story of Daniel McGowan and his involvement in the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group called America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” In one of the largest domestic terrorism cases in the U.S., McGowan was arrested in 2005 for his involvement in ELF actions that torched timber companies, horse slaughterhouses, and other things environmentally egregious. If a Tree Falls poignantly profiles a movement born out of activist frustration with nonviolent protest and police violence, as well as how such a movement splinters when confronted with the consequences of its actions and the new laws and definitions of the “post-9/11 world.” Should damaging private property in protest when no people were ever injured, targeted or endangered be called domestic terrorism? Central to this is the mild-mannered Brooklyn-born McGowan, who was also featured in a 2006 Local piece in this very publication (http://brooklynrail.org/2006/06/local/local-man-as-eco-terrorist).
Better This World (Human Rights Watch Film Festival)
In somewhat of the same vein as If a Tree Falls, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s film explores how two teenaged boys were arrested for domestic terrorism after their plot to firebomb the 2008 GOP convention was thwarted. Of course, it’s more complex than that: young idealism is manipulated by multiple parties and, while these angry Texan youths were surely ready to do some damage, it’s clear that their case is not cut and dry and that the FBI and Homeland Security edged on entrapment strategies. Democratically uncomfortable policies often need precedent and there are lingering questions here as to if the “Texas Two” where fomented to give more justification for Patriot Act budgets and the like.
DOCS AT THE BROOKLYN FILM FESTIVAL:
Beside Battle for Brooklyn the growing Brooklyn Film Festival is presenting some other interesting Brooklyn-linked documentaries that are sure to add to the burgeoning filmed history of this borough.
Here are some highlights:
How could anyone resist the story of Brooklyn’s own Jimmy McMillan, the gloved protagonist of multiple gubernatorial debates who made “The Rent’s Too Damn High!” a common phrase for a bit. The former postal worker, martial arts expert and founder of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party became a media sensation and this film takes a look at the rise—and the fall—of yet another eccentric character in politics who actually makes good points but is then discarded as a curio.
Bed-Stuy - Do or Die
The Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps is the first volunteer minority run ambulance corps in the nation. Tracing the beginnings of the Corps to the late 1980s when crack and gun violence plagued the neighborhood and ambulance response times in Bed-Stuy took up to 40 minutes, Bed-Stuy-Do or Die tells the story of how one man decided to take action and, working with gangs and addicts and volunteers, created a Corps that has reduced response time to merely minutes—all this even though the Corps itself is now fighting to stay alive.
Skydancer is about a quintessential NYC topic: the Mohawk Native American Ironworkers who have raised America’s modern cityscapes. Anyone growing up in this city has heard at one point that, for generations, many of the high-rise ironworkers hail from the Mohawk tribe in upstate New York. Skydancer shows us who these men are and examines why they have so consistently become part of the building trade.
Mann V. Ford
If you think that the pollution in Newtown Creek or Gowanus Canal is bad, 19 miles away in Mahwah, NJ is a toxic Superfund site that was one of the worst ecological disasters in the United States. At the site of the former Ford Motor Plant, this HBO film tells the story of how Wayne Mann, leader of a small Native American community where tons of toxic paint sludge was dumped, stood up to the corporate behemoth Ford Motor Company and won.