The Vanishing City (2010)
Battle For Brooklyn (2011)
The Domino Effect (Fall 2011)
A compelling documentary, “The Vanishing City,”contains a startling quote from Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “If New York is a business it’s a high-end product, it isn’t Wal-Mart…It’s a luxury product. New York offers tremendous value, but only for those companies able to capitalize on it.” The statement stings like a slap in the face to tax-paying residents, be they renter or owner, who thought the City was first and foremost a place to live and work. Or are we all meant to shop Fendi and lunch at the Oak Room?
So, what’s wrong with a plutocracy? Winning Best Short Documentary at the 2010 Harlem International Film Festival, and, closer to home, Best Feature Documentary in the 2010 Williamsburg International Film Festival, filmmakers Fiore DeRosa and Jen Senko go back to the economic downturn of the 1970s—and the proposed recovery that became the model for today’s New York open for-global business. The likes of J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch were offered sweet tax deals to stay in town. But, many jobs were outsourced anyway, and some corporations left New York for cheaper pastures. The policy model that big business would save New York translated into trouble for small businesses serving communities. And, as soon became clear, the mega-corporate model put all the city’s economic eggs in one undiversified basket, as small businesses suddenly faced real estate values and taxation that ripped them apart.
One example from the film is Sal Anthony’s Restaurant in Gramercy Park, where rents leapt from $12,000 a month to $60,000 in a single bound. The restaurant closed. Across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, the same relentless pressure of punishing rent increases inexorably began to erode much of the manufacturing and industrial base as well.
The film, taking an historical, interview-based approach, points out that in 1969, 40% of the workforce—transit, manufacturing, construction, utilities—was blue collar; today it’s 10%. The result is extreme wealth atop low-wage service jobs, and a battered and shrinking middle class.
The concept of New York as the epicenter of wealth and class accelerated under Mayor Bloomberg’s regime. But what about residents who can only afford “Wal-Mart”? As the film demonstrates, the loss of affordable housing has done the most damage. The 421a tax-abatement code was free money for developers: build big, build expensive and do it with the City’s help. This free money had two very dangerous effects.
One, it disrupted the tax flow to pay for goods and services (everything from police to sanitation to schools). As tax revenues shrank, social services began to seem like unaffordable entitlements. This included protections like rent control, which were weakened as market value became the rallying cry and real estate became the golden egg.
The second problem created by this free money was the now golden apple has made living unaffordable to average New Yorkers. “If the administration’s re-development plans move forward unchanged we estimate that only 8% of the 40,000 to 80,000 units created will be affordable to the majority of New York residents,” according to the Pratt Center for Community & Environmental Development.
The documentary notes the mayor’s rationale, known as PlaNYC 2030: projecting one million new residents by 2030 to justify the flood of high-end housing development. By which Mayor Bloomberg meant density, steel and glass towers to accommodate newcomers who presumably are all going to be wealthy. Dishwashers, shop owners, teachers, firemen, and cops need not apply.
Who came up with that projected figure? As the film tells us, a similar projection was made in the 1960s, that by today the city would have 11 million citizens. Hmm, that didn’t happen. And PlaNYC projects 9.1 million by 2030. Oops. No one seems to have corrected the math.
How has the city pulled off this “luxurification”? With tricks and sleights-of-hand that make people and neighborhoods disappear. Eminent domain is one trick, and Willets Point in Queens and The Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn are two stunning examples. Re-zoning is another trick, as in the former 11 acre Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg, an example of zoning magically shifting from industrial to residential with a wave of City Council’s wand.
A side-effect of all the glam and glitz is the loss of manufacturing and light industry. Willets Point again, the so- called Iron Triangle, is an unattractive zone that is home to a thousand blue collar jobs. It’s a rough dump of unpaved, mud-holed streets lacking basic city services, purposely ignored and blighted by the City for years, although it provides valued services, tax revenues and stable sources of income for thousands of workers. The City, under Mayor Bloomberg’s dictate, decided Willets Point needed to be prettied, and it was a hop, skip, and a jump to declare it open for eminent domain, using the blight argument to condemn the area. A convention center, a hotel and—yup—luxury housing are proposed.
The wand has also been waved over 125th Street in Harlem, where 71 local businesses will be lost to 2,500 new units of high-rise, high-end apartments. To the west, Columbia University will bulldoze 17 ½ acres of housing and businesses. Puff goes the ‘hood.
To Nellie Bailey, co-founder and director of the Harlem Tenants Council, the displacement in her neighborhood is nothing less than Armageddon. She expresses the raw pain of the trampled upon when she lights into an unmoved city planning vice-commissioner, Kenneth J. Knuckles, at a public hearing.
Where do the residents go? The affordable units developers are required to include, if they want to enjoy tax abatements and subsidies, are a pathetic gesture to make the luxury takeovers seem “legitimate.” For the few that win an affordable unit, thousands will be forced to vacate and exiled to farther reaches of the city, or out of it altogether. And what happens if the real estate bubble bursts? What happens to an undiversified economy? What happens to all those high-rise digs? Oh, that has happened. Double oops. The subtitle of “The Vanishing City”: “Now You see it. Soon you won’t.”
A second documentary, “Battle for Brooklyn,” addresses the same phenomenon, focusing on the development firm Forest City Ratner which took over of a 22-acre site—The Atlantic [rail] Yards. Owned by the MTA, the property was undersold (while our subway fares kept going up). Ratner bought out some businesses and manipulated—over the protests of the community: “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn”—to displace residents and businesses (with incomes from low to high middle) by claiming eminent domain, supported by the courts, over “blighted” private property. Much of that property was gentrified.
Norman Siegel, former head of the ACLU, and lawyer for the Harlem Tenants Council, and the eminent domain Columbia University case: “The 5th Amendment prohibits… the state cannot take the private property from a single owner and give it to another private entity.” Really? New York must be a separate nation, then, because that is precisely what has happened. Ratner brought in a world-renowned architect, purchased a basketball team—The New Jersey Nets—and promised to build a sports arena in the heart of Brooklyn. Voila, you guessed it, high-rise luxury apartments, office towers, and a teeny percentage of affordable units included to salve the conscience of all concerned. Add the subsidies, and tax abatements for developers and eventual residents, tainted only by the inconvenience of a neighborhood destroyed, and you have magic made manifest. Kind of like an urban Manifest Destiny.
In “Battle for Brooklyn,” filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky affectingly follow graphic designer Daniel Goldstein in his six-year battle to stay in his home. The film won Best Documentary and the Grand Chameleon Award at the 2011 Brooklyn Film Festival, and opened June 17th at Cinema Village, and Williamsburg’s own indieScreen.
Goldstein was the last to settle with Forest City Ratner and get out of the bulldozer’s way. What about all the displaced people who didn’t get a settlement? What about the effect of all this gentrification on the locals? As in Harlem, as in Williamsburg, the mom and pop shops, the manufacturing, the small businesses, are driven out, taking jobs, history, and individuality with them.
Bruce Ratner’s people used the old trick of divide and conquer. By promising thousands of jobs to minorities, a coalition of job-hopefuls was pitted against their neighbors who did not want to be displaced. And then the economy went south. Now what? Most of those jobs were union anyhow. Developer Bruce Ratner’s front man, Bruce Bender, cited ushers and cleaners, and when VIPs come to the sports arena someone will have to show them around as examples of new employment. The film notes, as of March 2011, of the 15,000 construction jobs promised, 114 workers were on site, 14 of them local. The world-renowned architect, Frank Gehry, has been dumped. The basketball team (Brooklyn Borough President Mary Markowitz’s personal favorite) has been sold to a Russian oligarch, and so far only the arena is under construction. Pop goes the weasel.
So, has the institutionalized greed of Wall Street gone too far, as the whole for-profit scheme implodes? Not that the rich aren’t still raking it in, but what about PlaNYC 2030? What about our shattered tax base? What about the promise of Oz? How smart was it to eliminate all those jobs? How’s it looking for the middle class—the teachers, nurses, street cleaners, and car part guys, the corner bodegas and dry cleaners? Who is going to live in all those steel and glass behemoths that have swallowed up whole neighborhoods?
A third documentary is in the works by filmmakers Megan Sperry, Daniel Phelps and Brian Paul, “The Domino Effect,” about developer CPC Resources and the New Domino, here in Williamsburg. CPCR (as its known) has a mantra of affordable housing. They claim that housing—not profit—is their goal, and they’ve played an especially vicious game of divide and conquer pitting Latinos against whites with promises of 30% affordable housing. The numbers, though, are glaringly obvious: thousands of people, inland from the Domino luxury towers, will be displaced for the handful who will win an affordable unit.
Because CPCR purchased the eleven-acre site, the sleight of hand used here was re-zoning and “grand-scale” special waivers, like high-rises permitted where they are not supposed to go. The City Planning Commission took its cue from Bloomberg and gave the developer carte blanche. “The Domino Effect” is scheduled for completion this fall.
These are important documentaries. All three ask hard questions of our elected officials, who have been nearly uniformly deaf to public protest. The documentaries question the premise that New York City is a luxury product, where regular people of varying incomes, ethnicity, skills, goals, and dreams apparently don’t deserve to live and work.
“The Vanishing City,” asks how arriving immigrants, those invisible employees who weave together the fabric of a city, are going to live. Where can they afford to live? Coney Island? Harlem? Less and less. Yonkers? East New York, the Pocono’s—a long commute. Who will serve the million well to-dos on the way? Are they on the way? Were they ever on the way? Was there ever a viable long term plan for the health and wealth of this city? Anything more than a short sighted get-rich-quick scheme and real estate grab? Watch these movies, decide for yourself. If you are reading this, chances are you live in New York City. Chances are you’d rather rest after work, or party, or maybe visit one of our great museums (hurry while they can afford the rent). But watch out, while you’re doing that a developer might be eyeing your home.