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A Conversation with Kelly Anderson & Jay Arthur Sterrenberg (EMERGENT CITY)

Democracy is often filled with chaos, different sides demanding to be heard and those with power and money reluctant to listen. In Emergent City (which I reviewed out of the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival) directors Kelly Anderson and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg examine what happens when corporate interests plan a facelift to a Brooklyn neighborhood’s waterfront. The place in question is Sunset Park, a diverse, mostly working-class community that hopes the area will continue to offer well-paid manufacturing jobs—ideally transitioning to a green economy while doing so—instead of switching over to service gigs which pay far less well. Jamestown, the investment group in charge of Industry City, a converted warehouse, hopes to expand its holdings and bring in upwardly mobile folks who can’t afford previously gentrified parts of town. First, however, they need to rezone the district to allow for these changes. The stage is set for conflict, and that we get, as activists confront politicians and businessfolk. I spoke with Anderson and Sterrenberg at DC/DOX 2024 (which ran while Tribeca was still in progress), and here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: For people not from New York, could you please describe the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, including where it sits, geographically?

Kelly Anderson: Sure. So Sunset Park is in the southern part of Brooklyn. Maybe some people know, for example, downtown Brooklyn or Park Slope. If you kept going, you would hit South Brooklyn, which is Sunset Park. It’s a big community with maybe, I don’t know, a hundred and something thousand people. It’s an immigrant community, many Chinese residents, many Latinx residents, Puerto Rican, and Mexican. Also, lots of other populations mixed in there as well.

One of the most important things for our film is that it’s a working waterfront, so it has a big industrial zone right on the waterfront. And it’s a maritime industrial zone, which means that it’s very strategic for efforts to green the way that we do industry in the city. And also, it’s a walk-to-work community and has been for generations, even as manufacturing has died down in many cities and parts of New York. Sunset Park does still have a very large working industrial waterfront.

Jay Arthur Sterrenberg: It’s also cut in two by the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway], or the Gowanus Expressway. So on one side it’s very, very residential, and on the other side between the highway and the waterfront, is the industrial space. And that’s where Industry City sits, which is the site at the center of the film’s narrative.

HtN: Is that cutting into the neighborhood by the BQE another legacy of Robert Moses?

KA: Yep, it is.

HtN: So when you drive by some of the Southwestern Brooklyn waterfront, it looks like it’s industrial and manufacturing warehouses in disuse. Is that true or is that just my impression driving by it?

KA: I mean, Industry City was, I think, a lot of what gave that perception for many years. It was about 30% empty when Jamestown Properties purchased it in 2013. So it had that feeling of kind of falling apart and being abandoned. There was actually a lot of garment industry in there. There’s a lot of other kinds of manufacturing and warehousing, as well. It’s interesting, because some of the folks who support industrial businesses say that they get phone calls every day from manufacturers who are looking for space now in the industrial business zone in South Brooklyn, and that they can’t find it. So there are other uses coming in and encroaching on the industrial space, as well.

JAS: I’d also add that Meerkat Media, our worker cooperative that helped produce the film, is based in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is on the southern edge of the southwest waterfront, also in Sunset Park. And it’s a space that was originally an army terminal and is owned by the city. And it also, until pretty recently, has had that sort of semi-abandoned look to it. But I think right now it’s something like 90% occupied. And because it’s subsidized, it offers long-term leases for manufacturing tenants and things like that. But because it’s a landmark building, there’s a stunning atrium through the middle of the building where our space is, and they’ve kept it looking the same as it did almost since the ‘50s. So it has this feel to it, but then behind the windows, there’s a lot that’s happening there.

HtN: Which brings me to my next question. In your press notes you talk about how you two, as “indie creatives,” are very much the target demographic for the folks at Jamestown Investment Group looking to redevelop the area. So in terms of their plans for Industry City, what were they hoping to do before the neighborhood rose up a little?

KA: In some ways we were their demographic, but in some ways we weren’t. I think the strategy of Jamestown, like many other places, is that in the first phase of redevelopment you attract a lot of artists and creatives to make the place feel cool and lived-in and interesting. And then you try to sell the space to people who are definitely not us, which are big media companies, offices, and people who are able to pay much higher rent than any artist or manufacturer can. So it’s sort of being used in that interim phase that I think made us feel annoyed and sort of targeted in that way.

HtN: You’re the vanguard to attract others.

Our Chris Reed, filmmakers Jay Arthur Sterrenberg & Kelly Anderson

JAS:  Totally. I think so. Yes. So they were the same developers behind Chelsea Market, which was a similar situation. It was an industrial space that they poured a ton of investment money into. They brought in the ground floor, food courts, Chelsea Market, and eventually renovated the buildings. Google became a major tenant there. And eventually they sold that building to Google. So that was something that I think was one of the reasons folks in Sunset Park were a little nervous about this idea of regardless of what they said they were going to do there, were they just going to try to get some other tenants in and then potentially sell the building?

 But to answer your question more explicitly, in the conversations that I had with Jim Somoza, who’s the managing director there, and Andrew Kimball, who was the CEO during the rezoning time, it starts with the process of placemaking, of really fixing up the infrastructure and making it an appealing place for people to bring their businesses to. And food is a really important part of that.

And I think they did something that was really innovative, ideally, and I think they’ve done this in their other sites, too, of selling food and also having the manufacturers, when possible, still be there. Colson Patisserie bakes bread and bakes goods that they bring all around the city. They have a retail shop in Industry City, but also that’s where their main bakery is. And there’s Li-Lac Chocolates and a number of those kinds of local manufacturers and retail places were some of the early tenants, and some of them are still there.

HtN: Because the concern is that service jobs, which would be for the retail shops, just don’t pay the way manufacturing jobs do. Which is why the neighborhood was so justifiably upset. So urban renewal, gentrification, these are terms that are used to describe the pitfalls and the dangers of redevelopment. Some of the neighborhood denizens have ideas for different kinds of development. What were their ideas that were being so resisted by people at higher echelons?

KA: I think that what the community wanted was for the waterfront to be looked at as a whole. And that it was unfair to them to have Jamestown—just because they happen to have enough money to purchase a site—have such an out-sized influence on the future of that waterfront. So I think what the community wanted was a comprehensive plan for the waterfront that would be initiated not by a private developer, but by the city planning in a process that would invite different stakeholders in.

The community, for decades, has identified manufacturing as a priority on that waterfront, and not any other uses that would threaten that. Also, what they had done was an alternate plan, and it was embraced by city planning, although it was never implemented. It’s called a 197-a plan. It’s a community plan to protect that waterfront as industrial and use it for green uses. Now, part of what made the stakes so high here was that New York State passed some of the most ambitious climate legislation in the world, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.


KA: And so what that requires is New York to be carbon neutral by 2040 or 2050. I need to get the details down. And every building over a certain size will need to be retrofitted to be carbon neutral. All of that manufacturing has to happen somewhere. And if it can’t happen in New York City with local New York City workers, it’ll be outsourced somewhere else. And so people felt like there’s money now from the state, from the city, this is the time when this could actually happen.

One model for their plan was UPROSE’s Green Resilient Industrial District, which really planned out different parts of the neighborhood and how they could fit into this idea of a model green resilient district. But making that kind of thing requires buy-in from the city, from the economic development corporation, from the state. And bringing a lot of players to the table. And that really would’ve required leadership from the city.

JAS:  And one of the challenges is when it’s just a private site that’s being redeveloped for the best and highest use by the developer, at the end of the day when certain tenants are going to pay more, it’s very hard without some kind of strong regulation to protect against that. And so a big part of the groundwork we try to lay in the film is to help understand that manufacturing uses generally go for a certain square footage that’s a lot less than commercial or retail uses, that’s a lot less than hotel uses. And so that you can just make a lot more money off of your private site by renting to different kinds of tenants, by renovating it and appealing to these other tenants.

And so even though Andrew Kimball, who was the CEO, had done amazing work redeveloping the Brooklyn Navy yard, and he had a lot of great ideas around what he said that they were trying to do in terms of having manufacturing and so forth at Industry City, there was no way to actually guarantee that. Because if you looked at what this developer and other developers like it ended up doing, and what they told us in our final interview with Jim Somoza, at the end of the day, the investment proposition is about these upper floors and making sure you can get a return on investment.

And so a big thing that we were tracking was that the community was really concerned with how we hold them accountable. Even if they’re saying they’re working with us, if it’s just a private site and it’s not governed by some broader comprehensive plan, then …

HtN: Your title, “Emergent City”…what does it mean to you? What is, or who is, emerging? Is it the neighborhood? Is it the people?

JAS: Well, for us, I think it speaks to this idea that a home, a neighborhood, a city is built and rebuilt and developed by the people who live there and work there and are sort of a part of that community. It’s this idea that the city is being made and remade again and again by the community that is there. And I think that’s sort of in contrast to the idea of a designed portion of a community or something coming in with an outside vision that is then imposed upon something. So I think that’s one layer that’s interesting to us and one of the things it means.

KA: A lot of stories start in a certain time and then they end. And then when they end, it’s over. And I think what we wanted to say is that this story began way before when there were … It starts underwater in prehistoric times. So this is one phase of a struggle over land and over the right to shape the city by the people who live there and have interest there. But by the end of the film, you see that things are continuing on and everybody’s been changed by the process and will continue to engage in future struggles over things. So it’s sort of about things being cyclical and circular.

HtN: What were some of the biggest production challenges that you faced? Did you have any trouble negotiating access to some of the people in your film? You follow Carlos Menchaca, a city councilman, around. And you’ve been filming since 2017, so I can only imagine the amount of footage you had to work through, Jay, as an editor. But what are some of the challenges, from your perspective, that you dealt with to make this film?

JAS: It’s a film that’s very grounded in place and I think we talked so much about how to represent Sunset Park, which is such a rich, multicultural community. And as soon as you try to represent a community with an image or a series of images or a three-minute sequence or a ten-minute sequence, no matter what, things are left out of the frame and things are not part of it. And so I think that’s something we talked about a lot. And we had hours and hours and hours of footage from the neighborhood and ultimately we ended up coming back to this idea of not having anything in the film be B-roll or just a throwaway shot.

A still from EMERGENT CITY

In our last two years, as we were editing the film, we did a number of additional production trips where, instead of just filming things in the neighborhood, we worked with folks from the neighborhood and filmed little vignettes that are with people where there’s really clear sound; there’re wearing mics. So each of the moments are intimate and as carefully chosen and put together as the moments that are being selected from the meetings and all of that. And it takes a lot of thoughtful pre-production to do that so it’s not just random footage.

I think no matter what, you will always fail at attempting to make a film that is representative of a place. And I think I would never claim that our film represents Sunset Park. But hopefully we were able to anchor this particular story of this rezoning conversation in this neighborhood in a way that is reflective of the experience of the people that actually live there. And we are community members there and we worked with a lot of other people from the community to be really thoughtful about which pieces we are showing.

There’s a little scene at the beginning, in Sunset Park, and there are three kids and they’re sitting on a branch. That branch is a part of this tree in Sunset Park. Everyone who spent time there knows that branch, they’ve sat on that branch, people have fallen off and broken their arms on that branch. And they had to cut that branch down about a year-and-a-half ago and we’re happy that it lives on, in a way, in the film.

KA: Since you asked about the access question, we did secure access to Jamestown in participation by reaching out to them. Jay met with them, they agreed to be in the film to show us around. And as for Carlos Menchaca, the council member, he always understood the value of allowing a film crew to follow him around. I mean, he believes in that and understands that. But at a certain point he did really help us out by, at a moment when the developer really wanted to meet with him privately, insisting that he would only meet with them if they would allow us to tag along. And so we are grateful to Carlos for really drawing that line because I think it’s part of what makes the film really work.

HtN: What is he doing now? I mean, he didn’t run for reelection because he ran for mayor. Isn’t that right?

KA: He was also term-limited. He couldn’t run again for council. So he ran for mayor. He did not win. He moved to El Paso to live with his mom and help her because she was having some health concerns. He’s a fellow at the Open Society Institute. He’s doing a lot of work on immigration. I’m not sure beyond that. I mean he stays involved in politics, but as far as I know, he’s not running for any office right now.

HtN: He should run for Beto O’Rourke’s old seat, since he’s in El Paso. (laughs) I want to thank you both for talking to me and for making the film. I really enjoyed it.

KA/JAS: Thank you.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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