I am white. I have a college degree. I was born in Brooklyn in 1983, when property values were relatively steady. I have a beard. Though I’ve never stepped foot inside the Park Slope Food Coop or the new shuffleboard club in Gowanus, I’ve consorted with people who have at least reported on them. I confess: more than once, I think, I even enjoyed an artisanal pickle. But I’m not a gentrifier (though I may be a hipster), and I don’t feel like Spike Lee hates me.
White people got supersensitive about the filmmaker’s rant that went viral last week, in which he went off mostly on new residents of neighborhoods like his native Fort Greene. Lee made two major points, according to a transcript at New York magazine: it’s fucked up that public services improve in neighborhoods with an influx of white residents, and newcomers to established communities should respect them and not insist they conform to them. (Well, and a third—the rent’s too damn high!)
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!
It seems noncontroversial to me: as the city has welcomed back the sorts of people who left it a generation ago, people with a lot of money have moved in and sometimes they do things that run counter to our romantic image of what New York should be about—what it has been about for the last few decades; for people who still cherish such an idea of the city, it sucks to see otherwise. New York should be spontaneous, it should be loud, it should be crowded, it should have energy and unpredictability and people talking to other kinds of people they might not ordinarily. It should be a place where your neighbor is a fucking jazz musician, and where, if your neighbors think you’re being too loud, they bang on your wall or your ceiling and you know those people are dicks. New York!
But many people saw the rant as an obvious attack on white people. “Lee is plainly attacking what he sees as racial encroachment,” Joshua Greenman wrote last week in the Daily News (a column I’m lampooning up in the lede there). “That’s offensive, because he wouldn’t get away with directing a similar jeremiad at Latinos or Chinese-Americans or almost any other type of alleged encroacher.” What?! White people are so easily offended! I’d leave Greenman to nurse his wounds in peace if he didn’t follow up that silly statement with this one: “And it’s ignorant, because the phenomenon he decries is mostly innocuous, inevitable and, in a diverse and economically dynamic city, healthy.”
You’re ignorant! A common apologia for gentrification—which is a class thing, but because class and race are often closely connected in America, it can appear to be a racial thing—is that it just happens, as though it’s a natural occurrence. But it’s as natural as the subway!
There’s a kind of transformation that can occur organically: artists, say, can move into a new place because it’s more affordable than their other options; for example, this is happening right now (more or less) in Sunset Park. But few people yet are bemoaning the gentrification of Sunset Park because the artists coexist with the vibrant ethnic populations. Eighth Avenue is still Chinese as Beijing; Spanish is still the dominant language on Fifth Avenue. You could once have told a similar story about Williamsburg; look at the data: between 1980 and 2000, the median income of the neighborhood rose 38 percent. Between 2005 and 2009, it jumped 76 percent, double what it had in two decades and way more than in the city as a whole. That time period also happens to coincide with the rezoning of the waterfront and the construction of large luxury condo towers, a rezoning that didn’t occur naturally but was carefully crafted by the Bloomberg administration.
It’s this sort of development that really changes the city for the worse. It’s the housing developments that working class people can’t afford to stand near, let alone live in; it’s the landlords who will only rent to national chains because they have deeper pockets, so our streets become homogenized by corporate monoculture; it’s the neighbors who fear the city, who lock themselves into fortified lairs and only interact with the rest of us indirectly, when they’re calling the police on us.
You want to live in New York? It doesn’t matter to most of us if you’re black or white (or Latino, or Asian, or Middle Eastern, or so on). It just matters that you’re not so superrich you use your money to exclude the people who’ve been living and working here for generations—that is, it just matters you’re not a jerk, not just in your attitude to individuals but in your attitude to the whole world.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart