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Documentary tracks Fulton Mall’s shopping mall-like transformation

for The Brooklyn Paper

Audiences had plenty to heckle when watching a new documentary about the borough’s rapid gentrification — and that’s not because they didn’t like the film.

The revelatory scenes of “My Brooklyn” make the case that politicians and other officials paved the way for the controversial transformation of the Fulton Mall from a shopping corridor catering to African-American customers to a hub for national retailers — displacing a community and steering millions to developers in the process.

The audience at a recent screening at Brooklyn Public Library bristled with exasperation as talking heads spoke, and a post-screening Q&A became a heated discussion over who is to blame, and what can be done.

“Even for someone like me who is pretty cynical about the political process, I was still surprised to see [the political system] so blatantly used for capital gain at the expense of the community,” said co-director Kelly Anderson, whose film is showing at Long Island University and UnionDocs in October.

The documentary’s heart beats around a major rezoning that sparked a wave of development in Downtown, which City Council quietly pushed through in 2002, heralding a new era of Starbucks and Aeropostale.

Gumshoe Anderson and co-director Allison Lirish Dean clearly did their homework as the film is informative and thorough. Interviews with shop owners and regular, working class folks feel candid, insightful, and wholly delightful. They make poetic use of photos from legendary shooter and Red Hook native Jamel Shabazz, showing Downtown as a center of community resilience and creativity during the 1980s and 1990s. The point they make is clear: good, hardworking people were displaced.

But at times, the film gets a little precious and heavy-handed about the glory of old Downtown. “My Brooklyn” feels sentimental toward an era when landlords torched their buildings and Myrtle Avenue was called “Murder Avenue.”

Anderson also seems to upend fairness by selectively quoting newcomers (or those welcoming big-box chains and high-end boutiques), portraying them as shallow, judgmental and naïve, although she is happy to point out that those moving into the new buildings cannot be blamed for others’ displacement — as Anderson moved into Park Slope in 1988 as an early gentrifier.

At its best, “My Brooklyn” connects the dots between city policy and neighborhood change, underscoring the importance of community engagement. But if nothing else, Anderson reminds viewers that blame can often be found by answering one simple question: “Who benefits?”

“My Brooklyn” screenings Wed. Oct. 3, 6 pm, Long Island University (Kumble Theater, Flatbush Avenue Extension, near Willoughby), and Sun. Oct.7., 7:30 pm, UnionDocs (322 Union Ave. near Maujer Street). Visit www.mybrooklynmovie.com.

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Reader Feedback

Paul from Park Slope says:
This documentary, along with Isabel Hill's "Brooklyn Matters" and Suki Hawley/Michael Galinsky's "The Battle for Brooklyn" show more of the same, with many of the same corrupt players. I wish this pack could all spend some time upstate together...and if Richard Lipsky has spilled his guts like the newspapers are saying he has, they just might! What will Brooklyn be like without the Marty's et al????

SWEET!
Sept. 29, 2012, 9:50 am
John from Bay Ridge says:
As someone who remembers what the Fulton Mall was like in the 1980's, I cannot imagine what value anyone could see in that era for that location. I'm no fan of big box retailers, but the Fulton Mall was a —— hole.
Sept. 29, 2012, 11 am
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
Totally. When I was growing up, I wandered in there once to go to that cineplex odeon movie theater which was across from the Albee sq. mall (before their floor fell in). After being unsuccessfully mugged twice, once inside the theater and once outside, I realized that when the other people in the neighborhood told me that it was a zoo in there, they weren't embellishing.

There is a reason Gage and Tollner went out of business and it's not because a Starbucks moved in.
Sept. 29, 2012, 1:21 pm
Kelly from Sunset Park says:
The fact that Downtown Brooklyn had a lot of crime has nothing to do with whether the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was good for the area. You need to see the film - it tries to put the terrible conditions in Brooklyn in the 1970's and 80's into some context so people understand why that happened and why. It's not a question of whether change should happen, it's about what kind of change people in the community want and how a wider assortment of stakeholders could be involved instead of just replacing one community with another. There was a huge bait-and-switch that happened downtown that allowed developers to make tons of $$$ by manipulating city land use policy. And as for Gage and Tollner -- Fulton Mall was the third most profitable shopping district in NYC before the rezoning, even the Planning Dept. admits that. It wasn't a crime-ridden area in 2004 when this development plan was created.
Sept. 30, 2012, 12:15 am
JJ from South Brooklyn says:
I don't understand why "a shopping corridor catering to African-American customers" and "a hub for national retailers" are mutually exclusive. Who says African Americans don't want the types of goods and services that other Americans want? It's about time national retailers started serving the residents of Brooklyn.
Oct. 1, 2012, 9:58 am
john from south brooklyn says:
I know one this for sure, kelly anderson and her ilk (clog/patagucci wearing film MFAs) never shopped at fulton mall.
Oct. 1, 2012, 1:10 pm
brklynmind from downtown says:
JJ - how DARE you ask such questions!
African-Americans can only appreciate locally owned electronic, gold and sneakers stores, that charge ridiculous prices in as unattractive and hostile environment as possible. They have no desire for clean well-run stores selling a wide variety if merchandise at reasonable prices.
/sarcasm
Oct. 2, 2012, 5:29 pm
Kelly Anderson from Sunset Park says:
John, I don't have an MFA and I don't wear clogs or whatever that other brand is. You all should see the movie. Not much else to see because all your comments are addressed in it.
Oct. 4, 2012, 5:01 am
Allison Lirish Dean from Portland, Oregon says:
The comments represented here are exactly the sort of thing Kelly and I were responding to when we made the film. The whole debate gets stuck in these racially charged statements about how crappy Fulton Mall was and why would anyone bother to defend it. The problem is that actually, a lot of people DO defend it! We made the film to give that side of the story a voice, because it was being marginalized. The dominant discourse was about how worthless, run down, and tacky the mall was, and how we needed to have this massive redevelopment effort to make it better, and yet a huge number of people who felt differently were shut out of the process. Not to say that they didn't want change, but there was also a lot that people valued that the city just came in and trampled on without consulting people. As the film portrays, Blacks suffered decades of financial quarantine and disinvestment in the city because of public policy, and now that everybody wants to return to the city and there's money to be made, they're expected to just get out of the way and let it happen. The film traces how this is the same pattern you see in U.S. policy throughout American history, going back to slavery. So while a lot of Blacks wanted change at Fulton Mall, and better stores, they also wanted a.) to have the things they valued about the mall understood and preserved, because it isn't as simple as just erase the whole space entirely and make it "better", b.) to be included in the development process in general, and and c.) to be able to stick around to enjoy and benefit from the changes once they happened. That seems like a fair deal, but it isn't the one that the city forged. Finally, go see the film and them you can fairly comment. This debate needs to get a lot deeper and more thoughtful if we're going to get anywhere.
Oct. 5, 2012, 4:47 pm

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