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“I Was Shocked To Be the Only Person There with a Camera”: Kelly Anderson and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg on their Tribeca-Debuting Doc about Industry City Development, Emergent City

Emergent City

From Elizabeth Nichols’s Flying Lessons, to Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s Union, to now Kelly Anderson and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg’s Emergent City (likewise EP’d by Stephen Maing), corporate takeovers of NYC and the inherent Gotham vs. Goliath battles they spawn seem to be in the documentary air this year. And while Flying Lessons and Union clearly cast entities like corrupt Croman Real Estate and anti-labor Amazon as the respective baddies, Emergent City is surprisingly not much interested in blaming Jamestown Properties, the conglomerate behind Industry City, the largest privately owned industrial property in New York, for the rapid gentrification of the Sunset Park neighborhood the longtime Brooklyn filmmakers call home.

Indeed, the veteran duo prefer to play the fly-on-the-wall long game, over a decade actually, patiently turning their lens every which way, from the aforementioned developers of IC, to the area’s long-established Latino and Chinese communities, to the caught-in-the-middle council members, as each side publicly makes its case for the future of the Brooklyn waterfront. And by extension, the rest of NYC as well.

A week before the film’s June 11th Tribeca premiere, Filmmaker reached out to Anderson, who’s been documenting gentrification in the borough since 2012’s My Brooklyn, and Sterrenberg, whose arts collective and production cooperative Meerkat Media is based in Sunset Park, to learn all about Emergent City and being part of the “creative class” Industry City caters to.

Filmmaker: So how did each of you end up in Sunset Park and eventually come to collaborate on this project?

Anderson: I moved to Sunset Park in 2009. I had just finished my feature documentary My Brooklyn, which dealt with being a gentrifier in many Brooklyn neighborhoods and trying to understand the hidden drivers of change in the city.

In the process of making that film I ended up being priced out of Fort Greene (the neighborhood adjacent to Downtown Brooklyn which was the focus of My Brooklyn). I felt a huge relief moving to Sunset Park because it was a beautiful family-oriented neighborhood that felt like NYC prior to the hyper-gentrification of the Bloomberg years. Of course Jay and I were both aware of the ways our presence could impact Sunset Park, as we were the kind of creative professionals new developments like Industry City court through their marketing and promotion.

Sterrenberg: In 2014, my arts collective and production cooperative Meerkat Media had been displaced from three different office spaces in just a few years. We were thrilled to find affordable space on the waterfront, in the heart of Sunset Park, long a favorite part of New York City. There’s a large community of worker cooperatives in the neighborhood so we were excited to have our space there.

I spent a few years documenting an experiment in participatory democracy that was happening in Sunset Park, which ultimately became the POV short Public Money. It was an observational film grounded in local politics and public meetings where community members grappled with having some control over the future of their neighborhood. Through that I had the opportunity to learn about the neighborhood’s foundational relationship to the Climate Justice movement, to visit many corners of the neighborhood and meet a lot of people involved in organizing.

As Jamestown began their process of redeveloping Industry City and made clear their desire to rezone their section of the industrial waterfront, it seemed obvious that this was going to lead towards some kind of confrontation. Kelly and I went to the first public scoping meeting in October of 2017 expecting there to be loads of press covering this monumental moment. I was shocked to be the only person there with a camera. As a member of the community with access to production equipment it felt important to show up and document these public meetings — to help make visible the often obtuse yet incredibly impactful process by which neighborhoods are transformed.

Anderson: In terms of how we decided to work together, Jay and I first met through New Day Films, a distribution cooperative we both belong to. Brenda Avila-Hanna, who is a producer on Emergent City, is part of New Day as well. What got us talking and thinking about doing a film about Industry City and Sunset Park was the strange disconnect between the culture of IC and the neighborhood, an understanding that a rezoning of the property could have serious implications for Sunset Park and the city, and the fact that we felt like we were being directly “spoken to” by Jamestown Properties’s activities and outreach. The turning point, I think, was when we were both invited to a Rooftop Films event at Industry City and we had to confront the tension between being indie filmmakers who love Rooftop, and being community members in Sunset Park.

Filmmaker: You did note in your directors’ statement that Jamestown Properties “were clearly targeting a ‘creative class,’ including indie filmmakers” as part of their redevelopment plan. Which made me wonder if management made a blatant effort to woo you to their point of view. And conversely, did any longtime residents express skepticism, or even downright hostility, to your camera’s presence?

Sterrenberg: AbelCine, a really valuable camera equipment resource, moved from Manhattan to Industry City, and so it became a place we began to rely on for repairs and rentals. The developer made it a very welcoming place for companies to relocate to, with their highly curated food hall, tenant gym, outdoor space and countless amenities. They often provided funding, and their space at no cost, to organizations like Rooftop so that they could just get people to make the trip from other parts of the city and learn their space existed. It was a win-win, I think, for organizations and artists that needed event space and for a developer that wanted to rebrand their property to lure higher-paying tenants to the place.

Anderson: We reached out to Jamestown Properties and asked them to participate in the film. We were interested in hearing what their plans were on their own terms. Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball had come from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and we really respect the work done there to retain industrial businesses in NYC. We wanted to really understand what the plans were for Industry City. Ultimately, the problems we see with Industry City have more to do with capitalism, real estate imperatives, and the city’s failure to properly regulate industrial land use than with Kimball or Managing Director Jim Somoza as individuals. They treated us respectfully, and I hope we treated them fairly as well.

Sterrenberg: It took many communications and in-person meetings with them and their PR firm before they were willing to participate. I think a big part of Andrew Kimball’s job was to woo everyone to support the rezoning, so we definitely got a version of his pitch. It is undeniable that the hundreds of millions of dollars Jamestown put into upgrading those buildings has made the space nicer and more functional, and they make a compelling case for their redevelopment when you spend time with them and are immersed in their world. For us, a lot of the power of the film came from offering juxtapositions between the developers’ perspectives and the ways that community members were seeing or experiencing the redevelopment from their vantage points.

Anderson: In terms of people’s skepticism or hostility, we found that folks were generally very willing to share their perspectives. Many of them knew us because we kept showing up and being part of what was happening. We also worked, as much as possible, with crew members and paid interns that were either from Sunset Park or from the communities represented, and spoke Spanish or the Chinese languages of Sunset Park. We also filmed a large part of the film in public spaces, and weren’t trying to dig into or expose people’s personal private lives. Finally, we took care to make sure that even people we filmed in public knew what we were doing and were comfortable with it.

Filmmaker: How much footage did you ultimately shoot – and how did you decide which characters and threads to focus on? What was left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have been included?

Sterrenberg: We filmed a lot! I had been filming civic process in Sunset Park since 2013, and we started documenting the events related to Industry City in 2017. The film is almost purely observational, and we had more than 200 shoot days.

We were fortunate to be an ITVS co-production, and they allowed us the flexibility to edit over a two-year period. That gave us the time to synthesize a very multifaceted story and complicated planning process into a digestible story, and to find the purposeful pacing and style that could illuminate systems while also allowing viewers to experience the emotional aspects of people’s attachments to place. There’s a general perception that meetings are boring, but we had experienced the tension that occurs when you really understand people’s objectives and conflicts, and the stakes, and we tried to craft the scenes to bring that forward. We spent almost a year just going through all the meetings and letting the key moments emerge, and then another full year going from our assembly to rough cut to the final film.

Anderson: In terms of characters, from the beginning we felt the film was less about the goals and conflicts of any one individual, and more about larger power dynamics within Sunset Park. Each person that is featured more prominently in the film — councilmember Carlos Menchaca, UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre, community board member Marcela Mitaynes, Protect Sunset Park member Antoinette Martinez — brings a certain lived experience, perspective and strategic approach. Some people worked inside the established democratic institutions, others exerted pressure from outside, and some did both. You feel the possibilities and constraints of each path, and the way power circulates through different institutions and formations in both public and private realms. We were interested in letting the audience make sense of it all on their own terms, and draw their own conclusions. I think we retained most of what we are really attached to in the final film.

Filmmaker: Though Kelly’s been covering gentrification in the borough since at least 2012’s My Brooklyn, there seems to be a heightened documentary focus this year on the corporate capture of NYC that is causing today’s gentrification on steroids. (In addition to Emergent City, there’s the Sundance-debuting Union, co-directed by Brett Story and your EP Stephen Maing, and also Elizabeth Nichols’s Flying Lessons, which premiered at True/False.) So do you have any thoughts on what’s going on in the zeitgeist? Has the city suddenly reached some sort of post-pandemic tipping point?

Anderson: I felt the tipping point in 2012 when Michael Bloomberg was leaving office after initiating more than 100 rezonings across the city. People were just starting to realize how much the city had changed, and there was a hunger for understanding why.

Since then there has been a lot more suspicion of land use actions, like rezonings, that people might have paid less attention to in the past. A lot of rezonings across the city have been opposed, some successfully, and more people are aware of and participating in the land use process. There has been a whole movement in recent years to require racial impact studies as part of the environmental review process. Post-COVID, and with the rising cost of living and housing in the city and elsewhere, I think a lot of folks are wondering why we can’t align our policies with our values more closely, and create an actually sustainable and livable city.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious to hear what’s been the various responses from the participants to the final film, especially since no individual is framed as either hero or villain. Is everyone satisfied with how they and “their side” are portrayed, or were there specific criticisms?

Sterrenberg: So far none of them have seen the final cut, though we have had a lot of conversations. We hope folks will think we portrayed them fairly and with respect.

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