The word 'zoning' may be one of the least sexy in the urban planner’s vocabulary, usually eliciting polite but blank stares from members of the general public. Even the sound of it is snooze-inducing.
Wake up to reality: Zoning is one of the most powerful tools that government has to shape places and the lives of people who live there, for better and worse. A new film by Kelly Anderson, My Brooklyn, aims to document the very tangible effect that rezoning has had on Downtown Brooklyn over the past few years. You can guess from the film’s tagline – "unmasking the takeover of America’s hippest city" – where the director’s sympathies lie.
Not with the city’s Economic Development Commission, or with the planning department, or with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, all of which pushed for the 2004 Plan for Downtown Brooklyn. The plan rezoned key parts of the borough’s core commercial district, including the Fulton Mall – which, unbeknownst to many New Yorkers, had long been the third-most-profitable retail area in the city, after Manhattan’s Fifth and Madison avenues.
The Fulton Mall flew under the radar of many New York residents because it catered predominantly to African-American and Caribbean customers. It was never just a place to shop, but also a place to meet friends, flirt, debate politics, and show off the latest fashionable looks. The mall and the surrounding neighborhoods were an epicenter for New York’s emerging hip-hop culture in the 1970s and ’80s, and Anderson shows us that time through the wonderful photos of Jamel Shabazz.
But New York never stands still for long. In some of the film’s most enlightening segments, Anderson and the film’s producer, Allison Lirish Dean, delve into the history of redlining, the banking practice that helped propel white flight for an earlier generation, drove down property values, and made the later return of white “creative” types like Anderson herself possible. When she moved to Brooklyn in 1988, she was typical of the borough’s changing demographic. The transformation picked up momentum as the economy started to boom and whites like herself bought affordable real estate in neighborhoods that had long been predominantly black.
By the early 21st century, the city and developers saw an opportunity in the Fulton Mall and the long-neglected streets around it. Here’s how the thinking went: back in the 1950s, this was an upscale shopping strip, which had since become the province of sneaker shops and cell-phone stores. Why shouldn’t it go upmarket again, now that Brooklyn was the place to be? Opening up downtown Brooklyn to high-rise office and residential development, the Bloomberg administration argued, would create jobs, improve shopping options, and restore the borough to its erstwhile glory.
But as Anderson documents, the transition has been marked by pain, loss, and alienation for the small business owners who had kept the Fulton Mall thriving for all those years. In some of the film’s most powerful sequences, Anderson interviews the people being displaced by the rent increases and demolitions resulting from the "improvements," and their stories are wrenching. The barber who took such pride in giving Isaac Hayes a shape-up; the wig store owner who wonders how she will pay her children’s college tuition; the man who ran the diner for 26 years and watches helplessly as his business is taken out from under him. It’s hard not to feel that H&M and the Gap are a poor replacement for these locally owned enterprises. The character and cohesion they bring to the street will surely vanish with them.
Anderson doesn’t pretend to present a balanced picture here. The villains of her story are the developers and city officials who smilingly insist that "change is good," and the residents at a nearby farmer’s market who dismiss, with oblivious racism, the place where generations of black Brooklynites came of age and created a culture that the rest of America is still busily consuming. She creates an ugly portrait of a city where disregard for the needs of the less privileged is as stark as it ever was in the much-maligned days of Robert Moses.
This is not an organic sea change, argues one scholar interviewed for the film, but rather a deliberate strategy on the part of city government. "It’s actually about tearing down neighborhoods and building different neighborhoods," he says. And this: "This is not the only way a city gets governed. This is not the only way that development happens."
In the past 10 years, Brooklyn has become a kind of Rorschach test onto which urban observers can project their ideas about the future of cities. Is gentrification a scourge or a boon? Are white, yuppie newcomers a positive part of the borough’s revitalization or the harbingers of its fatal homogenization? My Brooklyn is a powerful, deeply researched telling of the borough's story from one woman’s point of view, a lament for the human price paid by many to ensure great profit for a few.
After seeing it, you probably won’t think that zoning is dull any longer. It can, as Anderson demonstrates, create human drama on an epic scale.