Early in the new documentary Battle for Brooklyn, Senator Chuck Schumer appears at a rally in support of the proposed Atlantic Yards stadium and housing development. “What really enervates me about this project,” Schumer says, “are the jobs.” Sure, it’s an innocent slip of the tongue: Schumer meant to say “energizes” or “excites” or something equally booster-y. Yet he inadvertently cut to the core of this eight-years-and-counting urban outrage: “Enervate” means lacking in energy or vitality, and the promises of developer Bruce Ratner — that he was bringing world-class architecture, affordable housing, and, most important of all in his sales pitch, tens of thousands of jobs to the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues — are turning out to be expensive fictions.
According to the sometimes-maudlin Battle of Brooklyn story line, Daniel Goldstein tried to warn the city. He and his wife Shabnam Merchant were the last holdouts living in the construction zone, heroically leading the resistance against the forces of Ratner until they finally capitulated to the tune of $3 million. The filmmakers, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, also give significant screen time to Atlantic Yards enthusiasts, sincere and otherwise (the movie is a terrific reminder of the cynical buffoonery of Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz).
The film isn’t objective, which is fine, and appropriate: Atlantic Yards was never a fair fight. Launched during the boom years, with aggressively pro-business politicians running the city and the state, Atlantic Yards has used strategic heaps of money and a crafty marketing strategy (Brooklyn pride! Frank Gehry! Affordable housing! Jobs, jobs, jobs!) to churn relentlessly forward, even surviving the one serious threat to its existence, the great recession. What Battle for Brooklyn can only hint at, however, are the crucial political alliances that have kept Atlantic Yards alive; Mayor Bloomberg, Ratner, and the other key establishment players apparently didn’t deign to sit for interviews. That’s fitting, too, given the façade of a “public” process used to approve the massive project.
The movie’s heroes include people like Councilwoman Letitia James, who railed loudly against the dubious enticements Ratner used to lure black support. But the real stars are the unidentified thousands of regular people who appeared at rallies and hearings, most of them knowing their cause was doomed. Markowitz, after the official Atlantic Yards groundbreaking, says something glib about the beauty of living in a democracy. Battle for Brooklyn is at its best showing how Atlantic Yards used the pretense of democracy to enrich the powerful, but how it also energized actual citizens to fight the good fight. Seeing the girders climb for the Nets' new home, though, there’s little comfort in being noble losers.