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Battle for Brooklyn Recasts the Atlantic Yards Narrative

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The compelling new documentary Battle for Brooklyn does not just recount seven-plus years of community conflict over the Atlantic Yards megaproject, which includes an under-construction basketball arena for the relocated New Jersey Nets plus 16 planned skyscrapers.

It shows how the media shape the public's understanding of the project. For example, at one key city council hearing, community critics of Atlantic Yards were shunted to the afternoon, by which time most of the media representatives, as well as most council members, had already left.

So, as the film opens commercially in New York City June 17, it's worth a look at developer Forest City Ratner's response.

Muddying history

The first response is simply obfuscation, verging on untruth.

"Atlantic Yards had -- and continues to have -- the overwhelming support of Brooklynites, community leaders and elected officials," the developer claimed in a statement. "A small group of opponents tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, to stop the project. Fortunately today Atlantic Yards is under construction."

Actually, as I've pointed out, initial polls showed opposition to the project if it involved eminent domain or involved public costs. Both, of course, are part of the project, as the film documents.

Later polls indicated support for the project when it was said to "provide" subsidized housing. But that's a euphemism for city subsidies, which could be deployed anywhere.

At the much-ballyhooed arena groundbreaking last year, only a handful of Brooklyn officials showed up, with none from the immediate area, as the film shows.

Moreover, Atlantic Yards, at least as promised to the public, is not "under construction." Only the arena is being built, with the promised towers -- and the attendant jobs, housing, open space, and tax revenues -- ever delayed.

Forgetting history

"Nobody's going to remember how long it took; they're only going to see that it was done," declares New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in soothing tones at the groundbreaking.

That's highly dubious, as the film shows. After all, a seemingly neutral party, reporter Charles Bagli of the New York Times, makes the bland but powerful observation that arena construction, without the rest of the promised benefits, seems like "a hollow accomplishment."

The developer's narrative

Beyond that, Forest City Ratner has another strategy, aided by reporters and editors who willingly follow what I call the developer's Atlantic Yards Narrative.

Consider this recent profile of CEO Bruce Ratner in the real estate publication The Real Deal. It somehow concluded that it's "a strange twist of fate for the affable, rumpled" developer to be vilified, without exploring Ratner's willingness to play political hardball.

Then came a long article in the New York Daily News Sports section that declared the arena Ratner's "triumph" and repeated Ratner's inaccurate claims about a perfect record in court.

Watching Ratner

Ratner avoids nearly all potentially unsympathetic members of the press, but, in the early days of the Atlantic Yards plan, appeared at a couple of public meetings.

His statements are captured in the Battle for Brooklyn, showing the developer to be a thoroughly insincere figure.

The film's counter-narrative

The film, which focuses on Daniel Goldstein, who became the spokesman for coalition Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and the lead plaintiff in eminent domain cases, has some flaws, as I described in my review for Dissent.

But it provides an important counter-narrative. As I wrote:

HAVING OBSERVED much of the story in real time, I found Battle most valuable in the camera's witness to the palpable insincerity and cold-blooded indifference of the developer-government alliance. Though Atlantic Yards may not directly evoke the Robert Moses era, when massive numbers of people in New York City were displaced by large public projects, the film shows that the powers today are less blatant but still relentless.

(Disclosure attached to my review: The filmmakers asked me to view a near-final version of the film and comment on factual errors. I did so, and they made most, though not all, of the changes I recommended. Also, the filmmakers, knowing that I'd write a book on Atlantic Yards -- and encouraging it as a more definitive work than they could manage -- have given me access to hours of footage they've shot. They did so knowing that I wouldn't pull punches in my review.)