A working-class nurse named Susette Kelo never expected her name to be forever tied to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, but Monday marks the ninth anniversary of Kelo vs.City of New London. The infamous decision that bears her name gave government officials the power to bulldoze a neighborhood for the benefit of a multibillion-dollar corporation.
Americans across the political spectrum were disgusted with the 5-4 decision, and that passion fueled reforms that helped curb eminent domain abuse. However, over time politicians' love of power reasserted itself, and so did eminent domain abuse.
Consider New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's recent pitch to bring the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn's Barclays Center. De Blasio wrote, "The values of the Democratic Party — inclusion, diversity, compassion — are part of our city's spirit."
That may be true of the city itself, but the Barclays Center was born of eminent domain abuse, a type of cronyism that mocks the values of inclusion, diversity, and compassion.
The Constitution once limited how governments could use eminent domain, but post-Kelo, that's no longer the case. Officials routinely lock arms with corporations or billionaires to forcibly transfer property from one private owner to another, not for public use, but for private gain.
The powerful bullying the powerless — that's the opposite of inclusion. And how about diversity? Eminent domain abuse typically strikes poor and minority communities. Not at all compassionate, but it encapsulates the Barclays Center's dodgy backstory, in which officials flattened a neighborhood that was more diverse than powerful to erect a massive complex that has enriched developers and the NBA franchise that calls the facility home.
How to tame the ugly spirit of eminent domain abuse and cronyism? We suggest turning to a force mightier than politics: culture. We are producing a feature film based on Kelo's historic saga, and we hope to achieve some of the impact garnered by Erin Brockovich, another underdog film about a real-life working-class woman.
Erin Brockovich showed how culture can elevate otherwise obscure issues to drive reform. Cultural depictions played an important role in the recent shift in public support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, and Kelo's courageous struggle could likewise help viewers understand the human cost of eminent domain abuse.
After all, her story already reads like a feature film. The recently divorced nurse was on her own for the first time in her life and fell in love with a rundown little house overlooking a river in New London, Conn., She fixed it up with her own hands and painted it pink. Little did she know that power brokers from city hall to the governor's mansion were bent on seizing her little pink house and the homes of her neighbors so that Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, could enhance its corporate facilities. City officials promised more tax revenue and Pfizer executives looked forward to high-end housing and other perks. (Pfizer had high hopes for a soon-to-be-released drug called Viagra.)
Nine years after being taken from her, the land where Kelo and her neighbors once lived remains a barren lot, home to migratory birds and feral cats. So much for tax revenue.
We hope our film, Little Pink House, will help raise awareness of eminent domain abuse to the point where we could be done with this odious strain of cronyism once and for all.
Ted Balaker and Courtney Balaker co-founded Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company. Little Pink House is being produced in collaboration with the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm that championed Kelo's case.
Ted Balaker and Courtney Balaker