Stealing Home: 'Battle for Brooklyn' Tells an Epic Tale of Eminent Domain
In 2003 filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley read a story in The New York Times about a development project that would bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn. But the story sounded more like a "funky press release" that didn't sit quite right with them. And rightly so. A few days later Galinsky saw a little green xerox poster that said, "Stop the Project," with a woman's phone number on it. Galinsky, who lives in Brooklyn with Hawley, called the number.
The woman turned out to be intrepid journalist/activist/writer Patti Hagan, who was concerned about the proposed Atlantic Yards Project long before anyone else knew much about it. The $4.9 billion venture, supported by local government supported by local government, and to be carried out by Forest City Ratner, one of the largest developers in New York City, included a new basketball arena, shops, restaurants and housing--all designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry. But in order to begin the project and "build a new community from scratch," people were going to be forced out of their homes, some of whom had been living there for generations.
This David-and-Goliath case of the big developer seizing private property--with compensation--in the name of "development" and "the public good" amounted to Eminent Domain abuse.
When Hagan started talking Galinsky's ear off, the seasoned filmmaker picked up his camera and said, "I'll be right there." This was the beginning of a very long road. But now, nearly nine years later, Battle for Brooklyn will have its US theatrical premiere in New York City on June 17.
This project, which has been an exercise in patience and perseverance, began with an education in both New York City politics and the proposed development plan and how it would affect the local community. Galinsky and Hawley began searching for characters and a storyline. Early on, the filmmakers were alerted that a loft-dweller named Daniel Goldstein might fight the developers, so they should pay attention to him.
It just so happened that Galinsky was acquainted with Goldstein. Not only had Goldstein done the graphic design for Galinsky and Hawley's Horns and Halos, but he was the college roommate of a good friend of Galinsky's, and this made getting initial access to Goldstein much easier. "We didn't know at the time that he would be the one who would fight to the end because there were many people fighting at that point," says Hawley. "But it did seem the way in to tell this story." This suited Galinsky and Hawley's filmmaking style, which is to make "character-driven films about people who push back against the system."
One by one the loft-dwellers settled with Forest City Ratner and moved out; within the first six months of shooting, all of the tenants except Goldstein had agreed to settle and had vacated the building. Goldstein's battle had begun, and the filmmakers hunkered down to follow the story for seven more years through innumerable community meetings, rallies and legal battles.
"We filmed a lot in the beginning," recalls Galinsky. "It was very intensive because there was so much confusion and everyone was trying to get a handle on it. And then it settled into almost like the trenches, and at that point there was a lot less shooting." Galinsky maintains that it became a challenge to figure out when not to shoot. Over time there were so many public meetings that if he filmed a meeting, it meant they would have three or four more hours of footage to contend with. Not only would they have to make decisions about whether or not the footage would actually make it into the film, but most of the time nothing really happens at a given meeting. Hawley recalls that there was a lot of deliberation about when to shoot, "Michael would be like, ‘Ah, there's another hearing tonight; should I shoot it?' And it would be a big discussion--is it going to go into the movie, is it not going to go in the movie?"
Sometimes, however, the decision would be made for them. With two small kids, they had certain priorities, says Galinsky. "And then we'd say, ‘You know it's bath night,'" and he'd skip the meeting.
But over the years the story evolved and they accumulated footage--Galinsky shoots and Hawley edits their projects--and even though they had interns logging footage part of the time, Hawley watched every frame in order to understand the emotional content. She put some scenes together while the story was still unfolding, but in the end she edited for a year-and-a-half, during which time she mined some 300-500 hours of footage.
It took a long time to figure out how to make more accessible the complexities of Eminent Domain, city politics and a divided community while crafting an emotionally engaging story. They toiled to find the right balance of meetings and politics to make sure audiences understood what was going on without boring them. Furthermore, the filmmakers worked hard to build Goldstein's character while giving a complete picture of how the impending development impacted an entire community.
"We realized we had to pull back on introducing characters," Hawley notes. "We needed to show that he is not alone. It wasn't just a personal fight; he was doing it on behalf of a huge community--but we couldn't really introduce them [other characters] as people."
During the editing process Galinsky and Hawley held numerous screenings, particularly in the last nine months. While they welcomed feedback, they would often use cell phone usage as a barometer for boredom. "We definitely took advice from people, but mostly we watched when people got bored," says Galinsky. "If someone checked a phone we made a note of that, and by the end of the screening process people stopped checking their phones."
Now making its way into the world, Battle for Brooklyn is a gripping, cinematic story with an epic character arc that condenses seven years into 93 minutes. The film deftly captures infuriating politics and tender personal moments as Goldstein ends one relationship, begins another, gets married and has a child, all while fighting to keep his home.
Battle for Brooklyn premiered in April at Hot Docs in Toronto to lively, enthusiastic audiences and great press. The positive reception by international audiences of both doc makers and doc aficionados alleviated worries that the film is too specific to New York. "It was gratifying to see that it does translate to an international audience, because all politics is local and people understand that," says Hawley.
Over the years, the Atlantic Yards project itself has received much media coverage, but Galinsky explains that the news coverage was complicated and limited at best. "Everything is led by news cycles and the news cycles were led by the developer, so the developer is going to control the narrative," he points out. "With all the millions of dollars that they spent on PR over the years, they definitely controlled the narrative as far as people in New York understanding what was going on. This film is our attempt to take back the narrative and say, ‘Well actually, this is from a different perspective of what happened.'"
In the nearly nine years since Galinsky and Hawley began working on Battle for Brooklyn, they have become more intertwined in their own community. Over time they have established roots, cultivated friendships and become very involved with their children's schools--the "bedrock of communities," says Galinsky.
In a very personal way, making this film solidified their understanding of community and the conviction that top-down development doesn't work. "The people in the community and their bonds together were so much more than just a building," Hawley reflects. "To hear from someone on top saying, ‘We're going to build a community from scratch, and take away peoples' homes in order to do this' deepened our understanding of what was going on, why it was wrong. To just uproot the existence of social networks was a very big deal, and it unveiled itself to us very slowly over the seven years."
Battle for Brooklyn has its US premiere June 3 at the Brooklyn Film Festival, then screened June 9 as part of the Rooftop Films Summer Series; the film opens June 17 at the Cinema Village Theatre in New York. Galinsky and Hawley are working on theatrical distribution in theaters across the US, including an August 19 premiere at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.
Laura Almo is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer.