Brooklyn Gentrification on Screen

Opinions about gentrification and the rapid transformation of certain pockets of Brooklyn have been steadily fueling discourse and debate for years. My Brooklyn and Gut Renovation, two new films screened on Sunday as part of the recent Brooklyn Film Festival, each offer a look at a decade of change through the lens of a local filmmaker. Both films struck a chord with festival-goers and received Audience Awards in the documentary category from a crowd that was palpably sympathetic to the films’ critical stances towards gentrification. Despite the shared praise from the audience, viewers should be careful to judge each film on its own merits — one presents a thoughtful inquiry into the complex issues of neighborhood gentrification, while the other disappoints, delivering a one-note, wholesale denunciation of all change.


My Brooklyn
Directed by Kelly Anderson and Produced by Allison Lirish Dean

At the beginning of My Brooklyn, director Kelly Anderson admits an important fact: “I was the beginning of the new wave… I know my presence helped fuel the change.” This concession establishes the film as a gentrifier’s in-depth and personal look at the changes in Brooklyn that she has been a part of, rather than an indiscriminant tirade against them.

Barber shop in Downtown Brooklyn
Barber shop in Downtown Brooklyn

The film focuses on the history and community surrounding Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn, a pedestrian mall primarily patronized by local African-American and Caribbean communities. Despite foot-traffic counts that any mall would envy, the mall was deemed “under-utilized” by the city and was rezoned in 2004. The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership was established to encourage denser use and new development. In the years since, thousands of new luxury residential units have been built, prices have skyrocketed, and many small businesses have been displaced.

Fulton Mall in the 1980s
Fulton Mall in the 1980s

By interviewing many of these local business owners as well as shoppers, Anderson paints a picture of a unique destination that was an important part of what many residents thought of as “their Brooklyn.” For her, this is not market-driven gentrification, where residents and businesses gradually move into a new neighborhood. The transformation of Fulton Mall is the result of policy that promotes displacement and the city’s possibly questionable relationship with developers and landowners.

Historian Craig Wilder (MIT)
Historian Craig Wilder (MIT)

The City’s argument is that change is for the common good. My Brooklyn calls that reasoning into question. Was this neighborhood actually underutilized (spoiler: positive and negative feelings towards the area break down along racial lines)? What is the government’s role in promoting or controlling change? Whose role is it to help small businesses move or find new spaces? What level of influence should developers and landowners have in deciding the zoning of the properties off of which they stand to make millions?

These issues are expansive and complex, and it’s refreshing to see them addressed concretely through the lens of one location and community. This film is not subtle in its criticisms of gentrification, but the argument is compelling thanks to Anderson’s rational raising of valid questions about how New York is changing, not blindly arguing that it shouldn’t. Wherever you find yourself on the issue, My Brooklyn is worth a view as one side’s well-constructed argument.

For more info and future screenings, check out the film’s website. [And for an incisive analysis of the redevelopment of the Fulton Mall, read Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall by Rosten Woo, Meredith TenHoor and Damon Rich -Ed.]

Gut Renovation
Directed by Su Friedrich

Local business owner: “The new generation doesn’t know what’s good.”
The director replies: “It’s the end of the neighborhood. We’re screwed.”

That sums up Gut Renovation. All change is bad. Everything new is worse than what was there before. Director Su Friedrich was part of the first wave of artists to move into empty industrial spaces in Williamsburg 20 years ago. Her film is a personal lament about the changes in her Brooklyn neighborhood since the city rezoned the area from industrial to residential, opening the door for thousands of luxury condominiums that have transformed the neighborhood and its character.

Friedrich argues that the neighborhood was fine the way that it was and that the City shouldn’t have changed a thing, using personal photos of parties, friends and artists to support her case. Though her stories may illustrate the effects of change, they do not constitute a persuasive argument against policies that apply to an entire neighborhood. She points to the businesses and manufacturers that were still operating in the area to suggest that industry was still thriving. But if it were, the community of loft-dwellers she champions would not have found the plethora of empty spaces in which they lived.

Most frustrating was her fleeting mention of important issues that deserved more thorough treatment: the integration of affordable housing into new developments, the impact on existing residents’ quality of life during massive amounts of construction, and whether the city’s allegiance should be with maintaining the current state of neighborhoods or encouraging neighborhood change as part of a broader vision for the city as a whole. She only briefly touches on the Loft Law the City choose not to enact in 2005 that could have expanded rights for many loft residents.

Friedrich’s argument is simple: everything new is bad. The film does not address that much of the new replaces, for example, empty lots or abandoned properties. The question is not how neighborhood change could have been better implemented; she is critical that it happened at all. She resorts to listing condo prices, making fun of the names of the new developments and criticizing residents carrying shopping bags from new stores.

When a resident of a new building calls Friedrich rude for thrusting a camera into her face on the sidewalk, she exclaims she is “filming the people that are ruining the neighborhood.” This tone of superiority and condescension permeates the entire film. We are supposed to be on her side because this is obviously so horrible. Apparently, many in the audience were — the film won an Audience Award. Those already subscribed to the horrors of change in the city will like it, I was hoping for something a little more convincing.



Photos courtesy of My Brooklyn and Brooklyn Film Festival.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Daniel Rojo is a project manager at The Architectural League and is a former assistant editor of Urban Omnibus. He is an urbanist, writer, and designer interested in the power of the urban environment to enrich people’s lives. He lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.