The stores in Fulton Mall are lined with sneakers of every color and size, shirts emblazoned with Snoop Dogg’s face and wigs balancing delicately on mannequin heads. The sidewalks are filled with women in circles laughing, young people jostling and talking outside barber shops and middle-aged men managing mobile bookstores on fold-away tables.
For decades, this downtown public strip was the living room of Black and Hispanic culture in the sprawling borough. With more than 100,000 daily visitors and small businesses lining the street, Fulton Mall served a community of people of color by providing a social junction of art, culture, business and more.
In 2004, the city and developers began to change the area. Through the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, city leaders opened the strip up to office, commercial and retail space, drastically altering the cityscape and population of the area.
Filmmaker Kelly Anderson, alongside producer and researcher Allison Lirish Dean, spent eight years researching and documenting Fulton Mall and the stories of the surrounding community as transformation efforts were underway. The result is “My Brooklyn,” a documentary film first released in 2013 that tells a different narrative of the neighborhood through the eyes of Anderson, who had moved to the area years before.
On April 18, Social Justice Fund Northwest will be screening “My Brooklyn” in conjunction with a panel of organizers who will discuss themes of the film with a Seattle lens. The event is free with a reserved ticket. More information can be found at bit.ly/sjfbk.
“My Brooklyn” reveals a glimpse of a trend known as gentrification, a menacing buzzword among progressives and a fruitful process of renewal and remodel for developers. In the wake of hopelessness that follows displacement of communities whose neighborhoods have undergone dramatic changes, there is an incredibly dangerous idea: that gentrification is unavoidable.
“There’s a lot of work being being done to create a perception that [gentrification is] inevitable,” Dean told Real Change. “There’s very deliberate decisions being made every day and it’s not a mysterious thing.”
By peeling the layers of what happened at Fulton Mall in the early 2000s, “My Brooklyn” illustrates the history and policies that were implemented to reshape cities at the expense of many. It helps viewers come to terms with the fact that gentrification is not an inexplicable event that happens randomly.
For years, the socially vibrant mall thrived despite hardship in the late 20th century after discriminatory housing practices forced the neighborhood to be predominantly occupied by people of color. The lack of city investments ended when surrounding neighborhoods slowly became whiter, and Fulton Mall became the center of what was known as the Downtown Brooklyn Plan — a redevelopment of the area to add “retail diversity” and branded as a way to create additional jobs and housing opportunities.
The film highlights problems in the city by tracing the roots of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, unveiling partnerships with developers and emphasizing the ways in which the planning process did not meet the needs of the communities of color in the neighborhood.
“You don’t go into a neighborhood and not find out what is of value to people, what’s important, what’s working, what’s thriving and what’s successful,” Dean said.
Dean argued that working with the neighborhood residents and determining their needs and desires would have resulted in a better environment for all.
“It has to be a much more fine-tuned process where cities and planners try to look at what’s successful and figure out how plans can incorporate the [original] space,” she said. “That’s how it can be successful.” In the film, one business owner said their rent tripled with the new developments. Another shop owner was concerned that she would lose her business and would not be able to afford to pay for her children’s college education if she was forced out of the neighborhood.
Dean explains that the debate about gentrification often centers on people as the problem — San Francisco residents moving to Portland, or Amazon employees in Seattle — rather than the policy makers’ decisions that kick start these shifts. “My Brooklyn” emphasizes this need to examine how the trickle-down theory of development — money shifting from rich to poor — fails communities.
“In America, people need to have more a sense that their own well-being is bound up with the being of other people,” she said. “If someone else isn’t OK, then in a certain sense, I’m also not OK.”
Relationships and community building play important roles in preserving aspects of neighborhoods that can be lost by urban change, but an equally critical component is an acknowledgment of where we are as a nation by examining how we got here.
“We need to really confront our racism,” Dean said. She explained that the Black Lives Matter movement is really bringing this component into focus, but it’s also important to examine the past.
Dean said that communities need to ask themselves how a neighborhood became what it is and what it means to inherit that legacy, including the economic disparity that people of color have faced historically in this country while White people gained wealth through discriminatory practices.
It’s a pessimistic vision of history and present, but Dean could not avoid the bleak reality the filmmakers saw through the camera lens.
“There were certain things that we could have put in to make it seem positive, but we decided not to because it is depressing,” Dean said. “Sorry, we do not have a rosy story to tell at the end.”
While the story of Fulton Mall may not glimmer with hope and end with rainbows, it does provide a better opportunity to understand the layers behind gentrification. “My Brooklyn” tells the story of just one area in Brooklyn and gives voice to those who were most affected.
There are thousands of examples to be found across the country, and here in Seattle, of how historical and current policies are shaping neighborhoods in positive and negative ways.
Dean created a study guide to help others better understand the theories and terminology of gentrification.
It can be found at bitly/mybrooklynguide.