Spike Lee spoke last night at an event in honor of Black History Month at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and let loose on the topics of gentrification and hipsters and dog-owners and changing neighborhood names and it was pretty amazing. Lee, who grew up in Fort Greene (where his father still lives) now resides on the Upper East Side, but had, as the New York Daily News reports, quite a few things to say about the changing demographics of his former neighborhood and the borough as a whole. At one point during the evening, the filmmaker was asked by an audience member whether Lee had any thoughts on the “other side” of gentrification. And what Lee said next will amaze you! Well, no. It probably won’t amaze you, because it’s kind of exactly what you’d imagine the director of Do the Right Thing would say. But it will probably delight you, as it delighted me, because Lee is a native New Yorker who has experienced the city in a way that few people have, all the while exploring issues of class, race, gender, and socio-economic status through his art. Who better to share some thoughts on how Brooklyn has changed? No one. No one better.
Lee actually didn’t even let the audience member finish asking the question before he cut him off, saying, “Let me just kill you right now, because there was some bullshit article in the New York Times saying ‘the good of gentrification.’” It’s hard really to know exactly what Times article Lee was referencing, because, in a sense, all Times articles are about the “good of gentrification.” No matter, Lee didn’t need to go into specifics before embarking on one of the best takedowns of gentrification that we’ve heard in a while. In fact, it’s too good to just select quotes from, so here it is in full, via New York magazine:
Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.
[Audience member: And I don’t dispute that…]
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. And even more. Let me kill you some more.
[Audience member: Can I talk about something?]
Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.
You can’t just — here’s another thing: When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!
I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!
And then! [to audience member] Whoa whoa whoa. And then! So you’re talking about the people’s property change? But what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want live in Fort Greene. People wanna live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’ motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now because of motherfuckin’ hipster. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word? [Audience: East Williamsburg]
That’s another thing: Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers ar
e changing names! Stuyvestant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?
And we had the crystal ball, motherfuckin’ Do the Right Thing with John Savage’s character, when he rolled his bike over Buggin’ Out’s sneaker. I wrote that script in 1988. He was the first one. How you walking around Brooklyn with a Larry Bird jersey on? You can’t do that. Not in Bed Stuy.
So, look, you might say, “Well, there’s more police protection. The public schools are better.” Why are the public schools better? First of all, everybody can’t afford — even if you have money it’s still hard to get your kids into private school. Everybody wants to go to Saint Ann’s — you can’t get into Saint Ann’s. You can’t get into Friends. What’s the other one? In Brooklyn Heights. Packer. If you can’t get your child into there… It’s crazy. There’s a business now where people — you pay — people don’t even have kids yet and they’re taking this course about how to get your kid into private school. I’m not lying! If you can’t get your kid into private school and you’re white here, what’s the next best thing? All right, now we’re gonna go to public schools.
So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!
All right, go ahead. Let’s see you come back to that.
There’s a pretty good chance that many people will respond to Lee by asking why it’s ok for him to live on the Upper East Side, but not for a white person to live in Bed-Stuy, or by pointing out that it’s not literally genocide when a neighborhood is appropriated by wealthier newcomers, or by getting all worked up and commenting something along the lines of “I love when people defend filth. Whites always improve neighborhood. This is the fact.” Basically, there will be a lot of coded (or, as is the case with the last comment) and not-so-coded racist defenses of gentrification and few, if any, rationale responses to Lee’s valid points. As we saw recently with the publication of what might be the worst first-person account of Brooklyn’s gentrification ever, there are some people who move into already established neighborhoods and have no intention or desire to integrate, and are instead only there to interact with the other new arrivals, and frequent the businesses that have only recently opened, thereby negating the longtime presence of the pre-existing community. This, to paraphrase Lee, is fucked up. And it is, in fact, analogous to genocide, because not only does gentrification attempt to wipe out a long-standing culture, but most gentrifiers are basically asking the people whose space they entered to thank them because, hey! Schools are improved now.
Which, let’s talk about the whole improvement of schools and institutions thing for a moment here. Lee asks, “Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly?” And this is a good question! Why? The answer is no less disturbing for being pretty fucking obvious: it’s because rich, usually white people moved in. These institutional changes do not come with the first wave of gentrifiers, rather, they are the effects of a new class of people who come in when a neighborhood has already started to be co-opted, and what’s so gross about these kinds of “improvements” is that they tend to be mentioned as being one of the clear advantages of gentrification, with no possible downside. In fact, what these changes really represent are just one example of the myriad ways that our society makes it close to impossible to affect change at a foundational level unless you’re working completely within the system. A system, might I add, that is inherently discriminatory and favors the pre-existing ruling class. For so long, we’ve been fed the same line of bullshit, that poor communities and the (mostly) minorities that live within them haven’t been able to care for themselves, and that it’s only through the saving grace of the wealthy people who deign to move next door that positive change can be affected. But this is bullshit.
One example of this is, in fact, the public school system. In 1968, the city experimented with allowing some neighborhoods to have control over their own schools’ curriculums, instead of employing a purely centralized system. This was the result of the fact that new data demonstrated that less than 10% of the city’s public school teachers were black. Mayor John Lindsay, in an effort to build community stability and to promote a better educational experience for African-American children (many of whom spent considerable time being bussed to schools outside of their neighborhoods), allowed districts like Ocean Hill-Brownsville to operate independently. Despite initial academic successes in the district, the teachers’ union (UFT) protested this development because many white teachers were fired after the new system was implemented, and the ensuing teachers’ strike crippled the entire city, and led to children having to attend classes by crossing picket lines. The end result was the elimination of community controlled schools (this despite the fact that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district’s scores had significantly increased) and is emblematic of what still goes on today: rather than let communities that have traditionally not been served by the powers-that-be have the chance to operate independently, external groups (always white, frequently “liberal”) swoop in thinking that they know what’s best. And then if positive changes are made? The credit goes to the white gentrifiers. And if problems still exist? They’re blamed on the pre-existing community. It’s a win-win for the gentrifiers and a losing battle for those that built the community in the first place.
I’d like to think that Spike Lee’s words will start a conversation that doesn’t begin and end with “but how come he gets to live on the Upper East Side,” but I doubt it. He’s saying things that are uncomfortable for people to hear—especially for the people who truly think that they are nothing more than well-meaning, respectful city-dwellers who only choose their neighborhoods based on what’s affordable and available. But the first step toward making any sort of change is recognizing our own individual levels of complicity in the recent development of Brooklyn, and figuring out how best to respect the people who were here long before Fort Greene park became the equivalent of the Westminster Dog Show. And, seriously, if you live next door Bill Lee? Just relax and enjoy the music. What kind of person gets the police involved in a thing like that?
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