Following the second inauguration of President Obama this week, now is probably as good a time as any to take up the questions of race, class and commerce posed by Kelly Anderson’s piercing documentary, My Brooklyn: Unmasking the Takeover of America’s Hippest City. The film is a sincere, albeit unresolved, attempt to highlight the ways in which connecting to our neighborhoods as consumers can be way more consequential than connecting to them as active members of the community.
My Brooklyn focuses on the Fulton Street Mall downtown, and the 2004 re-zoning process that saw it change from a home for modest small businesses to an area that houses more mainstream corporate chain stores. That a shopping district was changed to adapt to the needs of a rapidly-changing population can hardly be called a bad thing, but My Brooklyn effectively lays out for the viewer the general outright dismissal of what was already there, by both government and consumers alike. The film effectively pairs such scenes as the newer shoppers at the nearby farmer’s market at Prospect Park making fun of what’s sold on Fulton Street, with the Korean hair salon owner who depends on her business there to support her family.
The notion of “retail diversity,” or offering consumers in a growing neighborhood more than what’s readily available, is one that’s becoming more relevant in Bushwick with every new bar, restaurant and yoga studio that has come to accommodate the influx of professionals who’ve arrived in the past few years. Nearby neighborhoods like Fort Greene are getting a glimpse at the future of gentrification; the reward for many of the small businesses who helped give the neighborhood its cultural cachet is often their own demise.
For close to a decade, my uncle once owned one of those businesses on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene. A self-taught hat maker, he put his own sweat equity into the space, sold his signature hats to celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson and Mos Def, and put his business and the larger neighborhood on the map. When restaurants like The General Greene and Bagel World moved onto the block, his landlord reckoned he could make more money raising the rent, so he did. Today, the former site of Malchijah Hats is currently a pet supply store.
Like several of the businesses featured in My Brooklyn who ended up being evicted because of re-zoning, things didn’t end up so bad for my uncle in the end. He found a space further down the road on Atlantic Avenue that was bigger and cheaper than the one he had before, and luckily, his patrons ended up following him there. Still, to hear those uninformed shoppers featured in the farmer’s market scene in My Brooklyn blithely refer to the shops on Fulton Street as “turds” that they wished would just “go away” filled me with an anger and sadness I hadn’t counted on when sitting down to watch the film.
As a Brooklynite who has seen neighborhoods like Park Slope, Crown Heights and Fort Greene completely change, Anderson openly acknowledges the role she plays in helping to sanitize the neighborhoods she was attracted to for their diversity. She cops to being conflicted by the feelings of looking forward to having a trendy new place to shop at when she knows that shop’s success could mean her current neighbors might have to find a new place to live. It’s the type of honest admission that I could identify with as a college-educated black male from upstate New York who never dreamed of living anywhere else but Brooklyn. I hope it similarly gets you to ask what draws you to want to live and shop in Bushwick as opposed to Anytown, U.S.A.
Starting this Friday, My Brooklyn has been extended for a 9-day run at the reRun theater in that paragon of self-invented neighborhoods, DUMBO. You can check out the Facebook page for the film and buy tickets here.
For documentary nerds who are interested in a similar film that explores the process of gentrification as applied in the Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco, I would also recommend the 2009 documentary Boom: The Sound of Eviction. I also recommend this photo-essay on life in our own lovely ‘wick.