Making a documentary is an uncertain art. There is no real way a director can ensure that the people and events being filmed will develop into an interesting story and the time they are investing will be paid back in full. Battle for Brooklyn, directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, stands as a shining example of what happens when documentaries turn out right, when interesting people and events come together to create a fascinating journey and do it in front of a camera.
The film centers around Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who discovers that his Brooklyn loft is about to become part of a new sports center for Brooklyn’s new basketball team, the Nets. Goldstein’s real estate trouble compels him to lead the community’s battle against the dirty dealings and abuses of power which threaten and eventually lead to the unlawful demolition of more than 1,000 residents’ homes. During the fight, Goldstein refuses to leave the condemned apartment complex, losing money and even his fiancée, but gaining both a family and purpose in the cause. The neighborhood is decimated, but Goldstein, along with a few other leaders in the community, succeeds in fighting the decision for seven years while drawing media attention toward the struggle. He also manages to highlight the corruption of the politicians who were simply handing over private property to a developer in the name of eminent domain. By the end of the film we feel a sense, not of defeat, but of triumph in what Goldstein and his neighbors accomplish and in the transformation he himself undergoes.
It’s hard to imagine why the story Battle for Brooklyn tells didn’t garner more press coverage. The idea that a private businessman like Bryan Ratner—who was responsible for the Nets’ new development project—can ask a residential neighborhood to be handed over to him and get away with it is astonishing, but that is exactly what happens in this documentary. Through the eyes of Goldstein, we see the interests of a $4 billion business deal completely bypass democratic measures. Propaganda and bribery obfuscate the people’s understanding of what is going on. The ‘footprint’ of the future Atlantic Yards development which Ratner originally commissioned Frank Gehry to design lay in a mostly poor neighborhood with a number of wealthy residents whom Ratner was able to buy off, leaving the rest of the neighborhood at the mercy of the plummeting value of their condemned houses. Goldstein is the only member of his apartment complex to refuse the $1 million Ratner offers and the gag order attached to it. Instead he forms and heads the group Develop Don’t Destroy to oppose the abuse of eminent domain, an action the government usually reserves for the building of highways or public utilities.
As they take their struggle through both the courts and the streets, Goldstein and his fellow activists have to contend with divides within the neighborhood itself, as Ratner funds a local community group to oppose Develop Don’t Destroy, with the false promise of future jobs. With unkempt hair, stubble, and a generally disheveled look about him, Goldstein in the beginning of this film looks more like a stubborn curmudgeon than a leader for civil rights, but over the course of the documentary, which spans eight years’ worth of legal struggles, we see him transform into a spokesman for this cause and an object of much media attention. We also watch Goldstein as his work leads him to his future wife, another activist working with Develop Don’t Destroy, named Shabnam Merchant. By the end of the film they are married and have a baby daughter.
Through this film Galinsky gives us a glimpse into the influence corporations have on our legal and political systems, and the power they possess to displace 1,000 citizens with the simple signing of a check. The story is captivating, the message is powerful, and it is hard not to be touched by the struggle Goldstein, along with his fellow activists, went through for a cause they knew was lost from the start.