Do we really accept that Big Money—through intimidation, bribery, or some other coercion—can shove us out of our homes and obliterate our communities?
Eminent domain is the government’s right to seize private property, usually with compensation, for the public good. We live in a nation, however, in which the elite—not ordinary Americans—have the power to define what is the public good. The recently released documentary Battle for Brooklyn transcends typical left-right politics, unites all who believe in self-respect and democracy, and invites Americans to join together in the fight against the elite’s abuse of eminent domain.
Co-directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, Battle for Brooklyn is an account of the fight waged by residents and business owners of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood facing demolition of their property to make way for the Atlantic Yards project, a massive plan to build 16 skyscrapers and a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets.
The Atlantic Yards project was conceived by the powerful mega-developer Bruce Ratner when he was the majority owner of the New Jersey Nets (he since has sold the team to the Russian multi-billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov). Ratner’s cheerleaders included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, all of whom were important to Ratner because Atlantic Yards relied heavily on New York state and city subsidies (over $2 billion of taxpayers’ money), and a good part of Atlantic Yards was to be built on rail yards owned by the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This giant project also required a great deal of private property, and thus Ratner needed government to wield the weapon of eminent domain.
Battle for Brooklyn focuses on Daniel Goldstein, whose newly purchased condo sat at what was to be center court of the planned arena. While all the other condo owners in his building took the money and ran, Goldstein fought back, rejecting the idea that eminent domain can be used —without the say of either his community or his local elected officials —to take his home and those of his neighbors’ and hand them over to a private developer.
Supporting Goldstein’s “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn ” organization are his neighborhood’s elected officials as well as other residents and business owners who are angered that they had no say in the development of their community (neither the community itself nor any elected city or state officials voted on the eventual approval of the project). On Ratner’s team were his army of lawyers, public relations spokespersons, and high-profile politicians, as well as those residents excited by the promise of jobs and affordable housing. There was also a celebrity battle. On Ratner’s team were Brooklyn-born hip-hop mogul Jay-Z— who owns 1 percent of the Nets— and his wife Beyoncé. Supporting Goldstein and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn were Brooklyn-born actors Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro.
The shameless Ratner used his money to attempt to make Atlantic Yards a racial issue. He funded a synthetic grassroots (“astroturf”) black community group and tried to inflame black residents against Goldstein, a white graphics designer. The truth is that all African-American officials who actually represented the neighborhood, including City Councilmember Letitia James, were adamantly opposed to Atlantic Yards, as they saw through Ratner’s empty promises of local jobs and affordable housing. While Goldstein is the citizen hero of this film, James—who went on to win her second term in a landslide—is the kind of public servant that every community wishes it had.
On November 24, 2009, after approximately a six-year battle, New York’s high court, the Court of Appeals, ruled for Ratner and against Goldstein and other property owners and tenants. On March 11, 2010, Ratner held a groundbreaking ceremony at the project site.
As of March 2011, of the 15,000 construction jobs promised by Ratner, there were 114 workers at the site, with 14 of them local residents. And only the basketball arena—not affordable housing—was under construction.
Battle for Brooklyn examines what eminent domain should and should not be used for, and this speaks to the very question of democracy versus corporatocracy (rule by giant corporations, the wealthy elite and their corporate collaborator politicians). Goldstein and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn argued that Ratner’s development plan was unnecessarily large, and that real competitive bidding for the rail yards might have yielded a project that would not have destroyed but improved their neighborhood. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn opposed the use of eminent domain as a legal maneuver to transfer real estate from one private owner to another in which the public has no say as to what is in the public good.
The abuse of eminent domain unifies Americans across the political spectrum—from community organizers, to private-property advocates (Reason Magazine calls Bruce Ratner “a serial eminent domain abuser and corporate welfare queen”), to those who view themselves as “nonpolitical” but simply don’t think it’s fair that rich people can use government to push everyone else around.
Like many other Americans, I too have seen multiple abuses of eminent domain where I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. In one case, the “big dick” was the University of Cincinnati, which destroyed a neighborhood that I had lived in when I was a graduate student. I still am pissed off over the unnecessary destruction of my favorite breakfast restaurant, In The Wood, which has, for quite some time now, been replaced by NOTHING. This is not unusual.
The 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London upheld the use of eminent domain to obliterate a New London, Connecticut neighborhood to make way for a Pfizer development. The giant drug company eventually closed its research and development headquarters in New London, moved 1,400 jobs out of town, and left vacant vast acres where homes once stood. The careless, whimsical use of eminent domain as a toy for giant corporations and the wealthy at the expense of ordinary folks is a major issue that people experience viscerally, one that can awaken Americans from our slumber.
While Gailinsky and Hawley clearly have their sympathies with Goldstein and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, they make an earnest attempt to show all involved—including the residents who supported the project for its promised jobs—without mean-spirited shots. One of the painful and powerful aspects of Battle for Brooklyn is the depiction of ordinary people so desperate for jobs that they are willing to get pushed around by the elite. This kind of thing can get many of us cynical about human nature and move us into defeatism. However, cynicism and defeatism are not the messages of Galinsky and Hawly. Instead of having contempt for those job-hungry people who were duped, we feel sorry for them. And though Goldstein loses his battle, he comes out a winner in more ways than one —I won’t give away the film’s storybook romantic ending.
It is unfortunate that many film festivals are not screening this well-crafted documentary that depicts the real battle in America—the one between those who have the money to push people around vs. those getting pushed around. In the end, Battle for Brooklyn compels audiences to ask a question that should unify the vast majority of us rather than polarize us: Do you want to live in a country where Big Money controls EVERYTHING?
Bruce E. Levine is the author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). His Web site is www.brucelevine.net