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Kelly Anderson, 'My Brooklyn' Director, Discusses Brooklyn Gentrification

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

According to The Fordham Institute's Michael J. Petrilli, Brooklyn has four of the nation's top 25 most gentrifying zip codes. They are, in order of whiteningness, 11205 and 11206 (parts of Ft. Greene, Clinton Hill, and Williamsburg) 1237, ("East" Williamsburg and Bushwick) and 11238 (Pro-Cro Prospect Heights, Crown Heights and Bed Stuy).

Petrilli made his list by crunching U.S. census data, and looking at the demographic shift in zip codes between 2001 and 2010. He cautions that zip codes aren't the best way to determine gentrification "because borders change," and neither is the number of invading white people. It'd be better, he writes, "to look at changes in income levels" -- the data for which isn't yet available.

But Brooklynites don't really need charts and graphs to know gentrification is creeping further and further into the borough.

Three recent documentaries have focused on the issue. "Battle For Brooklyn" documents the process by which a chunk of Prospect Heights was displaced to make room for Atlantic Yards and Barclays Center, "Gut Renovation" focuses on the rezoning of Williamsburg, and "My Brooklyn: The Battle For The Soul Of A City" concentrates on Downtown Brooklyn, and vanishing Fulton Mall.

"My Brooklyn" (which, along with "Gut Renovation," received the Audience Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival) features footage of Mayor Bloomberg and real estate developers salivating over the Brooklyn market while longtime residents are brought to tears in intimate interviews about having to move their families or close their businesses.

The film, by Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean, shows concrete evidence that gentrification, namely in New York, doesn't just happen, but is rather fueled by public policy.

We asked Kelly Anderson some questions about our whitening borough:

HP: Your film traces the role of city government in the gentrification of Downtown Brooklyn. In what ways could the city, going forward, prevent the displacement of minority communities?

Kelly Anderson: In Downtown Brooklyn, more than 100 local small businesses were displaced in the wake of the 2004 rezoning. Many of them were owned by (and catered to) African Americans and Caribbean immigrants, and they have been replaced largely by luxury housing towers and big box chain retail stores. Particularly on city-owned sites, the city could have driven a harder bargain with the developers that came in, forcing them to provide affordable housing and affordable space for small businesses in the new developments.

Many people respond to gentrification by saying, "Change happens." Is gentrification, to a certain extent, unavoidable? A part of the way a city develops?

Everybody wants investment -- the question is how equitably will the benefits of that reinvestment be shared? Will the existing community be displaced, or are there ways of encouraging a co-existence of old and new residents and businesses? Some change is unavoidable. Our point with "My Brooklyn" is that the city is fueling the change in ways that create a more unequal city. The city encourages luxury residential development through subsidies to developers that are unnecessary in a hot real estate market like Downtown Brooklyn's. Residential subsidies totalled more than $200 million in 2011 alone, and they will continue for 10-25 years! This is money that could be distributed in ways that could benefit a wide cross-section of Brooklynites instead of just giving the most affluent residents a gigantic break on their real estate taxes.

Upzonings like the one that was the centerpiece of the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Plan increase property values overnight, and (as we document in "My Brooklyn") lead to massive displacement. In particular, rezonings that are open-ended and allow for residential or commercial development are often used by developers to create luxury housing instead of generating jobs.

Rent stabilization -- whether residential or commercial -- is an important tool for maintaining economic diversity in neighborhoods. We do not have commercial rent control in New York City -- instead the Bloomberg administration has encouraged big box retail that is displacing local small business. We still have residential rent stabilization but it is slowly being chipped away at.

I understand you have lived in Brooklyn for a while. To what degree do you consider yourselves gentrifiers and how do you reconcile that with your activism?

Economic and racial diversity, and local neighborhood character, are part of what drew me to Brooklyn. It's in my interest to help preserve those things. Through the production and the release of "My Brooklyn" we have realized that many other Brooklynites -- including newer arrivals -- feel the same way. People are looking for ways to deal with the changes happening, changes that often feel like something is being lost, not gained. It's much easier to get involved and help shape the future than sit around feeling guilty or uncomfortable about being here.

What other neighborhoods in New York do you believe are currently under the threat of being developed without considering the communities living there?

At a real estate conference we filmed, the developers were encouraging one another to get on the subway, and wait until the white people get off. The next stop will be the next "hot area." That about says it all!

UPDATE! Allison Lirish Dean, the producer of "My Brooklyn," also sent us some responses to our questions:

HP: Many people respond to gentrification by saying, "Change happens." Is gentrification, to a certain extent, unavoidable? A part of the way a city develops?

Allison Lirish Dean: When people say that gentrification is "inevitable," it tells me that they've internalized rhetoric generated by people in power who want everyone else to think their agenda is the only option. It also tells me that they feel aware of a problem, but powerless to do anything about it. If you look at history, which "My Brooklyn" does, if you look at examples outside of the United States even, there are many different types of urban change that can be traced to different political structures, and different levels of community empowerment. So no, there is nothing inevitable about gentrification, or any other type of development. It's a question of what we want and need, and how willing we are to stand up and fight for it. Sometimes it takes a long time to shift the way things get done, but as Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I understand both of you have lived in Brooklyn for a while. To what degree do you consider yourselves gentrifiers and how do you reconcile that with your activism?

ALD: One of the big points in "My Brooklyn" is that putting the focus on individual gentrifiers not only misses the real story, but is politically ineffective. Gentrification happens in waves. First there are artists perhaps (like me and Kelly), then, ultimately, there are investment bankers, and so on. In many cases, white artists being blamed for gentrification in NYC have actually fought really hard with existing local communities of color to stop it, even as they knew real estate interests, in consort with city government, were using their presence to justify a repackaging and reselling of the neighborhood. That said, it's also true that many gentrifiers move in and don't bother to create any sort of relationship with the existing community. But whatever the case, without the backing of official policy, gentrification would be much more limited. They way to change policy is not to blame gentrifiers, but for everyone, including gentrifiers, to talk to each other, and organize for more equitable policies.

What other neighborhoods in New York do you believe are currently under the threat of being developed without considering the communities living there?

ALD: The idea of development as a threat is so interesting - wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to think of it that way?! I think Harlem is certainly an example. Like Downtown Brooklyn, Harlem was also rezoned, and there was a huge fight. What was stunning and sad was that despite high levels of community participation in planing Harlem's future, the city just really shut people out. And it's just very painful to see, because we want to encourage people to be involved, right? What kind of a messages does it send when, despite the passionate articulation by ordinary people of visions and priorities for a place, people in power just go ahead and do what they want because it suits them. I think Willets Point is another example. But the theme is the same: clear out low-income people and people of color, and replace them with generic spaces for the rich. It's depressing, but there's still a lot of diversity in New York City worth fighting for. The main thing is just to get involved, and stay the course, even though it can be messy. It took us eights years to make "My Brooklyn," and there were times when we really didn't think we could communicate such complicated issues to a broad public. But I think we succeeded. Small steps are important.