Whose Brooklyn? Film criticizes development of Downtown, Fulton Mall

Almost everything we’ve heard about the Downtown Brooklyn Plan and the coming of national chain stores to the Fulton Mall has been positive.

However, in the new film, “My Brooklyn: The Battle for the Soul of a City,” director-producer Kelly Anderson and writer-producer Allison Lirish Dean are saying, in effect, “Not so fast!” Their focus is not on the new stores, but on the small merchants who have been displaced to make room from them.

Anderson, an admitted “gentrifier” who originally came from Montreal and moved to Brooklyn in 1989, got the idea for the film in the early 2000s, when she saw an explosion of luxury housing and chain-store development in Fort Greene, where she was then living.

At the same time, she began to explore what was beginning to happen to the Fulton Mall under the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, which changed zoning to allow high-rises. Originally, the planners sought to encourage office development, but by the mid- and late 2000s, condos like the Brooklyner, Oro and BelTel Lofts began coming to the surrounding area.

Part of the film deals with perceptions of the Fulton Mall.

Several African-Americans who grew up near the area fondly reminisced about its past. For example, social worker Rah Sun talked about how he used to sell long-stemmed roses on the mall, while MIT professor of history Craig Wilder remembered how during the 1990s, the Albee Square Mall was the place to go for hip-hop fashion.

On the other hand, Anderson also goes to a nearby Greenmarket and asks several young white shoppers about the Fulton Mall. Among the more printable comments were “It’s a really weird place,” “I don’t think it belongs” and “I think it should be torn down.”

Historian Craig Wilder, from MIT, who is interviewed in the film.

The best moments of the film are when she interviews small businesspeople on the Mall, especially after several of them receive 30-day eviction notices. Many are West Indian, at least one is Korean, and one is an African-American who, tongue-in-cheek, sells juice drinks that he names “ghetto grape” and “project punch.” That store, Cousin’s Dozens, is now in the DeKalb Market.

Some businesspeople, like Arnold of Jack’s Barbershop, welcomed well-heeled new residents, saying, “Maybe we’ll put in a cappuccino machine.” However, Jack’s itself was later evicted.

We also hear from the “official” voices, like Joe Chan, former head of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and Purnima Kapur, head of the Brooklyn office of the city Department of City Planning.

They say, in so many words, that change is inevitable, and that diversity is needed so that the needs of all income groups are met. Kapur comments, about the “old days” of the Fulton Mall, “It was a great place to buy sneakers and cell phones!” meaning that a better balance of merchandise was needed.

The only elected official interviewed (as opposed to seen at a press conference) is Councilman Charles Barron. Anderson said she had approached several other elected officials, who either didn’t return calls or kept canceling appointments.

Many of the area's new condos are tremendously expensive — for example, an online promo for City Point boasts that the average income within a mile of the development is $98,000. But most of the new stores coming to the Fulton Mall are basically middle-class, such as the Gap, H&M and Century 21, and not ultra-pricey.

Anderson said what she was objecting to was “corporatization,” or the growth of chain stores. “If, in the plans for City Point or the Fulton Mall, a section had been set aside for locally-owned stores, we would have been OK with it.”

“My Brooklyn” director Kelly Anderson. Photo by Fivel Rothberg“My Brooklyn: The Battle for the Soul of a City” is worth seeing for an alternative viewpoint on the Fulton Mall and its surrounding areas. So far, the film was shown at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture and at the Park Slope Methodist Church, in a screening sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Anderson is an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College. She has made several other documentary films, the most recent of which, “Never Enough,” is about clutter and collecting.

Allison Dean, her co-producer, holds degrees in both urban planning and music theory and composition, and has taught both at Bronx Community College and Brooklyn College. She decided to get involved when she did a report for Pratt Institute on the Fulton Mall, and found that many of the people in the area had a positive attitude about the Mall that wasn't being reported in the media. Soon afterward, she met Anderson, and the two decided to collaborate on the project.

For more about the film, visit www.mybrooklynmovie.com.