Who’s Brooklyn?: Documentary Explores Gentrification, Development, and the Future of the Borough

Last Friday, IFP and Filmwax kicked off a one week theatrical run of the documentary film My Brooklyn directed by Kelly Anderson. I was at the ReRun theatre (located in Dumbo’s, reBar) to see the film on its second screening of the evening which preceded a Q+A with Anderson and others.

The redevelopment of the Fulton Street Mall in Downtown Brooklyn is the center of Anderson’s film

The film, also narrated by Anderson, centers around the massive redevelopment of the Fulton Mall and the surrounding areas of Downtown Brooklyn which began in 2002. While the documentary has been casually labeled and perhaps easily written off as a ‘gentrification film’, it is much more than a heartstrings-tugging, guilt-laden, valentine to our beloved borough. My Brooklyn is not your average nostalgic film searching for a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ Brooklyn that is long past. Rather, it is an illuminating film that traces the complex networks of city planning departments, local interests, and private developers, which inspires more anger than nostalgia.

Anderson opens the film with her own background as a post-collegiate Brooklyn transplant who moved to the (comparatively) diverse neighborhood of Park Slope in the 1970s. Throughout the years, Anderson would move between different Brooklyn neighborhoods as she and her neighbors were slowly priced out of once-affordable areas. What really piqued her interest was the differences in resilience she and her neighbors had with regards to the demographic and economic shifts experienced in Downtown Brooklyn. What follows is an investigative attempt to answer the ‘who’s’ and ‘how’s’ of gentrification. What actors profit from redevelopment? How are decisions made? Anderson interviews a chorus of Brooklynites who occupy varying degrees of resiliency using these questions as a compass.

My Brooklyn somehow manages to come off as extremely educational without being slow or overtly instructive. Anderson takes her viewers through the history of redlining, the development of different neighborhoods, and the cultural significance of spaces like the Fulton Mall, all while giving the viewer the benefit of the doubt that they are conscious of their role in the redevelopment cycle.

The Williamsburg Savings Bank clocktower in Downtown has now been converted into condominiums. Photo by Lauren Hudson

For me, the film fits in with other neighborhood-based documentaries like  Nelson George and Diane Paragas’ Brooklyn Boheme or Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. My Brooklyn is a blend of the reflection and retelling of a Brooklyn neighborhood  that once was as seen in Boheme, as well as the powerful narrative of economism that  Moore visits via his hometown of Flint, Michigan. This balance makes it easy to see how strongly My Brooklyn resonated with its audience Friday night and inspired a discussion of ‘what next?’ well after the film ended.

It’s easy to feel a bit powerless after watching a detailed report on just how expansive city development is. It’s no wonder why the first question for Anderson after the film was, “is there any way to be a good gentrifier?”. Anderson and noted academic Craig Wilder (who is also featured in the film) complicate this question by shifting away from our binary understanding of development (gentrification is either good or bad) and into something a bit more nuanced. “We have been demoted to one dimensional consumers who are only here for consumption”, Wilder noted. We have been told that community development and change is a giant behemoth whose repercussions cannot be countered or contested. Perhaps in order to become a ‘good’ gentrifier, we need to do what Anderson suggests and “move away from the gentrification argument tropes” and towards a progressive discourse of accountability where we challenge who decides what gets developed where.

My Brooklyn is still screening at the ReRun Theater in Dumbo, for ticket information, as well as information on panel discussions with the director and community organizations, click here.