Full transparency: I’ve been to Sunset Park’s Industry City. I walked around the shops and restaurants, ate lunch at the Japan Village market, and even attended a happy hour near the cornhole sets and kitschy outdoor chairs. I don’t live in the surrounding neighborhood of Sunset Park, nor am I from that area of Brooklyn. Like those that bought the development more than a decade ago, I am not a member of the community of Sunset Park. I was simply a visitor. 

Kelly Anderson and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg’s new documentary Emergent City explores the development of the private-backed Industry City through the lens of a re-zoning plan put out by Jamestown, the massive real-estate management and investment firm that took over the classic Brooklyn waterfront, the only of which is not owned publicly by the city. And so public space became private space, rents began to rise, and a plan for hotels and increased luxury was put into place. It’s not a new tale, but one that contains resonance for New Yorkers, for any member of a small community, and for those who lose control over the land they call home. 

The documentary follows several stakeholders during the process, from then-Industry City head Andrew Kimball to the district’s New York City Council member Carlos Menchaca, the key decider on the piece of rezoning legislation. Community residents and advocates stand on the opposite side of this expanding privatization of the area, specifically Elizabeth Yeampierre, the Executive Director of UPROSE, touted as “Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization” focused on sustainability in Sunset Park. It’s a stand-off of sorts, with neither side giving much ground over the 90-or-so minutes of Anderson and Sterrenberg’s piece of captured city history. 

The cameras follow all members on either side of the aisle, sitting in on council meetings, negotiations, and public forums. The directors clearly lean towards the community, though there’s a level of understanding that this is out of their control. The filmmakers intercut promotional videos and other moments of branded content, through the lens other Brooklyners might view Industry City. I include myself in this group, complicit in a level of reward without the complete understanding of what this privatization can do to a community. 

It’s a film that alternates anger with sobriety, rarely seeing resignation from the builders or the Sunset Park residents, many of whom only grow in agitation, effort, and concern. How much power does a community wield? And can that power stand up against a corporation with more resources, more planning, and more (real and figurative) concrete? That idea seems to be the core of this story. A largely immigrant population fights against an endless stream of white men in pressed suits, pushing to secure an outcome that seems impossible, an outcome that has usually been pre-decided thousands of times before in urban cities around America. That will nearly always be a compelling story; the directors just needed to decide where to put the cameras.

Audiences won’t find flash or flourish in Emergent City. They won’t find talking heads looking back with clarity that only time can provide. Instead they will get served immediacy and stated relevancy, an example of gentrification happening in real time. They will find a thornier picture than expected––winners and losers less clear-cut than imagined––and the story of a community that won’t stop fighting, even when the rent rose, the land was seized, and the lights turned out. 

Emergent City premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Grade: B-

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