Condo developers. In a city like Toronto, those two words can strike fear into the hearts of the diverse and close-knit communities we’re famous for. They’re like the bogeyman, moving stealthily through a neighbourhood, chiselling away at its foundations, scattering long-term residents and families in the wake of mammoth glass and steel boxes. In a way, it’s almost admirable, their efficiency in finding pockets of greed to exploit, smoothing their way with money and influence until the path is clear.
Su Friedrich knows only too well the tactics employed by developers in their quest for profits beyond what most of us can imagine. Recently, she and her partner watched helplessly as their historic Brooklyn neighbourhood was chipped away by condo developers, determined to demolish buildings that have stood for generations. Knowing the end was nigh, Friedrich grabbed a movie camera and began filming the experience. The result is Gut Renovation, a searing and illuminating documentary on condo development left largely unchecked.
“The rezoning was handed down in May of 2005,” Friedrich says. “By that fall things had started happening. I knew I had to start quickly because of what I saw in the East Village in the late ’70s. At the time I was young and I just thought, ‘Oh, how sad, we’re losing this charming bakery or a great family store.’ I registered the changes and thought I would remember the way it was, but even a year later it had all become erased.”
As the surrounding century buildings fell, Friedrich realized that the venerable historic loft she lived in was next on the chopping block. When she and her fellow tenants – many of whom were artists living and working in loft spaces – finally got their marching orders, it was clear that the neighbourhood they had all loved had been eradicated. They were all forced out using various tricks of the trade: no hot water, no heating, threatening notices. The building was then demolished to make room for upscale condos.
The film documents this process in heartrending detail, chronicling the stories of people losing their homes, reduced to a category: undesirable renter or potential purchaser. Friedrich records community meetings, conversations with old and new residents, and even takes her camera along for a clandestine meeting with a condo sales agent. It’s real, raw, angry and sad. It’s also riveting, like watching a car accident, knowing you could be next if your neighbourhood is targeted for destruction.
Despite losing her home and watching her beloved Williamsburg irrevocably changed, Friedrich doesn’t uniformly vilify the company responsible for her home’s destruction.
“My impression is that some tell themselves that they’re doing a good thing, because they have a way of looking at the area they’re developing and seeing it as something that needs developing,” she says. “Along with city officials, they declare the neighbourhood as a blighted area, but they come up with this really special criteria of what is blighted. An auto-body shop that’s been there since the 1960s may look run down, so they’re going to make it all nice and new. They also make all sorts of promises of what they’re going to replace it with, and who’s going to benefit.
“And of course, some of them are assholes and they really dislike the people living in those older buildings and don’t care about who they’re displacing. All they care about is money.”