I recently attended a screening of “Some Place Like Home: The Fight Against Gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn,” a documentary produced by Families United for Racial & Economic Equality (FUREE), a downtown-based community group fighting for accountable development. Over 100 people attended the screening at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, which marked the debut for this 40-minute long film narrated by activist and author Kevin Powell. Similar to Isabel Hill’s film “Brooklyn Matters,” which documents opposition to the Atlantic Yards project, this film seeks to explain what’s been happening in downtown Brooklyn over the last several years, as numerous business owners and residents have been displaced to make way for high-rise luxury condos and more big chain stores on Fulton Street. Hardly anyone who’s ridden a bus down Fulton Street Mall lately can fail to have noticed the shocking changes: “Going Out of Business” signs have been posted everywhere, and there’s a gaping hole where the Albee Square Mall use to stand. By using interviews with local residents and business owners, the film does a great job of capturing the effects of this rapid and seemingly unfettered development, which has especially hurt immigrant small business owners and low-income Brooklyn communities of color.
As the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Church on Washington Avenue says in the film, development is the economic phase of the Civil Rights Movement, which still continues on. Obviously he is not opposed to development per se. He just prefers a fairer process that involves a triangular relationship between the local community, the city, and developers. As the film successfully documents, this is not what occurred in downtown Brooklyn. And as the performance at the screening by rapper Hasam Salaam of his song “Someplace” made clear, this type of unjust gentrification is occurring all over the US, from Newark to Detroit to New Orleans.
The 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning and Redevelopment Plan, which covered some 60 square blocks of downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, loosened restrictions on building heights and allowed residential buildings in former commercial districts. Then the Bloomberg administration enlisted a public-private partnership called the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership to spearhead and promote this rapid wave of economic development. Arguing the need for more retail “diversity,” i.e., chain stores(!), that was evidently similarly used in Harlem in the 1980’s, they colluded with the Planning Commission to push through development requiring the displacement and destruction of local businesses and long-time residents through the use of eminent domain. The shocking results: more than 90 businesses have been evicted from Fulton Street Mall; all of the businesses along Willoughby and Bridge Streets were evicted (and given only 30 days’ notice without any relocation assistance from the city); all of the businesses in the Albee Square Mall, the epicenter of young black music culture in Brooklyn for decades, were evicted, and the building and adjacent parking garage were razed; and, as the opening scenes of the film so poignantly show, all of the essential stores along Myrtle Avenue for residents of the Whitman and Ingersoll Houses--from the closing of their only supermarket in the summer of 2006 to the ice cream shop that used to be near Flatbush--have been destroyed. Thus it is little wonder when one of the residents interviewed in the film declares that the “heart of downtown Brooklyn” has been ripped out by all of this destruction.
Given the recent economic downturn and credit crunch, much of the pending development downtown is on hold, and many of the luxury condos are vacant. Unfortunately some of these developers are using the economy as an excuse for not fulfilling their affordable housing commitments. Despite all this, what can people do to get involved? You can support FUREE’s work, particularly its main Campaign for Accountable Development, which includes the following goals: 1) Immediate restoration of services, including affordable supermarket, pharmacy and laundry, to Myrtle Avenue; 2) REAL affordable housing that is based on actual earnings of community residents; 3) A displacement fund, affordable space and long-term protections for small businesses; 4) An Abolitionist Museum that incorporates the 227 and 233 Duffield Street Houses; and 5) Real community input and leadership in urban planning decisions. And of course see the film and spread the word on Facebook and beyond!
For information about how to set up a screening of the film or how to purchase a copy of the DVD, once it becomes available, contact FUREE at http://furee.org/ or call (718) 852-2960, x301.