I HAD A PREPAID TICKET TO SEE THE NEW DOCUMENTARY MY BROOKLYN at Dumbo’s comfortable reRun Theater, with old red-brick walls and bench car seats from the 1960s. But they’d overbooked it—must be a great date movie, I thought – and the apologetic guy at the door put my name in the computer and gave me a coupon for free food from the restaurant/bar, reBar. I’m always into free food.
The documentary runs only through this Thursday, so the next night I returned and found my empty seat. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries fresh from reBar, just a few feet down the hall. Before the food could arrive the crowd, mostly hipsters, were taking over folding chairs set up in front and along the aisles. Despite the crowd size and innocuous title, My Brooklyn is not a date movie, nor is it a happy documentary; its subtitle is Unmasking the Takeover of America’s Hippest City. Telling the story of Downtown’s Fulton Street, filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Allison Dean convey the borough’s changes over the past few decades, from a mostly white community to a dilapidated minority community, to a restored community, to what developers are now doing their damndest to turn into bland city of ugly glass towers, chain restaurants, big-box stores, a too-big-to-fail bank on every corner. Like today’s Manhattan.
“They take culture away from the city and turn it into Disney World,” director Anderson says in the film. She interviews small business owners along Fulton Mall – the same businesses referred to as “job creators” during the last election.
Their tales aren’t so creative: Landlords have jacked up rents from around $15,000 a month to as much as $45,000; businesses have 10-year leases which in the fine print say they can be evicted with just 30 days’ notice. And many have been: the same landlords are selling the land to large developers. In footage shot during New York City Council meetings, the developers say that they’re building offices to create jobs, to prevent jobs from going to New Jersey. Instead they resell the same land for a huge profit to other companies, which construct 20-story co-ops that sell for around $400,000 each, and hotels whose rooms go for between $400 and $1,000 a night. And the jobs? A few office jobs, but mostly short-term construction work and low-wage hotel-staff and box-store “associate” positions.
While the City Council never does a follow-up, the developers do receive subsidies for bringing in jobs, and co-op buyers also receive tax subsidies. “For them it’s subsidies,” says one small business owner, Todd Jones. “For us it’s called welfare.”
“Success isn’t measured by how many jobs are created, it’s in the use of land,” Anderson explains during the question and answer session following the documentary. “It’s not keeping Mom and Pop in Brooklyn; [the profit] goes out of town.”
Jones was another guest during the Q&A. He runs Cuzin’s Duzin (“Hot Fresh Mini Donuts” reads his business card), which was evicted from Fulton Mall. Despite his hardships, “Entrepreneurship is a choice you make,” he says. “You have to be relentless.” And so he is. He moved to another location until that was closed down. Now he caters, embracing new technology like social media (Check out his Facebook page).
“Box stores are a magnet,” Jones says. “They attract business. Mom and Pop—that model is done. And not everybody eats donuts.”
True. “Let them eat cake,” Mayor Bloomberg might say – as long as it has no trans-fat.
Executive Editor Phil Scott frequently writes about travel and aviation.