Last week, while giving a lecture at Pratt Institute, filmmaker Spike Lee was asked about his views on gentrification in Brooklyn, where Mr. Lee grew up. The result was an expletive-filled rant that now has divided opinion on the subject and branded Mr. Lee, once again as a “reverse racist”.
When my mother and I moved to Clinton Hill in 1986, it was an almost all-black enclave. Coming from the projects in East New York, it was my first exposure to a thriving black middle-class. I was now living in a place where for the first time in my life, I could ride my bike outside, by myself. Clinton Hill for blacks was moving up.
Clinton Hill, in the last twenty years, has become one of the most gentrified places in the United States. Before she was kicked out our home, about ten years ago, my mother’s rent went from $1600 to $4000 a month. The people living in my childhood home now are young, white, wealthy, and exactly in line with what’s happening everywhere else in Brooklyn.
Gentrification is racist. No one wants to say that. If you bring up race and gentrification, you become the villain. But those who gentrify never seek to retain anything of the environs they inhabit. They don’t want to experience anything new culturally, but to dress the new place in the drag of their likes and agenda. Those who gentrify complain at things like ethnic and music festivals, while they party and drink all night in their fancy bars, with imported taps. Those who gentrify move in an wonder why there are mural to possible “drug dealers” painted on street corners, or try to beautify the ‘hood with cafés and confectionaries that appear welcoming from the outside and on the inside halt you with a five-dollar latte.
When I was growing up, traveled, and mentioned I was from Brooklyn, the look of fear in the eyes of people was stunning and saddening. Now when I say I’m from Brooklyn, they say “Oh, I hear Brooklyn is so nice now!” What do you think they mean by that? Is it wrong that I find that more offensive than just the fear response?
Is the problem my poor white actor buddy, just looking for a place he can afford? No. Not really. Is it my wife, who is white? No. But if either of them tells anyone about my good ox tail or weed spots I’m cutting them off. It’s the fault of an institution that allows developers to gut neighborhoods without regulation. That allows those same developers to default on promises of building “affordable housing”, while saturating a neighborhood with overpriced apartments (Many of which go unrented or unsold, by the way. That’s another blog.)
The thing that angered me the most about Mr. Lee’s comments, was that so many people seemed to feel that because Spike Lee had actually moved out of Brooklyn and to the Upper East Side that his feelings on the matter were not valid. As if as a wealthy black American, he shouldn’t have an opinion. Excuse me, but this smacks of “Nigger, you should know your place” to me. It’s been said if Mr. Lee felt that way, somehow he should have stayed in Brooklyn as an “example”. The opponents of Mr. Lee like to point out specifically that he lives on the Upper East Side, a traditionally rich, white, enclave in Manhattan. They point it out because it’s important for their counter point that Mr. Lee is a “reverse racist”. He himself is gentrifying. In ten or a hundred years the Upper East Side could be crawling with black people. This doesn’t change the fact that housing in Brooklyn is barely affordable and that long-time residents who built up the neighborhoods, now considered trendy, are being forced out.
Gentrification is tricky, because it really only works ONE way. Historically, when people of color try to settle in an area dominated by whites, they are resisted with hate and violence. There’s always concern of property value being lost. Calls are made to Congresspersons. When people of color gentrify they don’t bring better school funding, better police protection and fresh produce at the supermarket. When people of color gentrify, they are seeking those things. No one talks about how great the neighborhood is getting because the blacks are moving in. When blacks from the South moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, the white population vanished to the Brooklyn coastal neighborhoods, Long Island and Westchester. The phenomenon was called White Flight. Whites left and quite literally took the city and social services with them, leaving Brooklyn nearly in ruin until the hard work of Africans Americans, Latinos, Jewish, Eastern Europeans, Caribbean Islanders, Muslims, Asians, Africans, mostly working class, all working together to preserve their culture and forge a new bonded culture in New York, rebuilt Brooklyn into a unique multi-ethic Utopia . It’s all in process or danger of being sanitized.
Why? Once you can answer that, then maybe you can convince me gentrification – as we know it, on this scale – is a good thing.
Can and should we all live together? Yes. But when you turn Harlem and Williamsburg into exclusive condo superhavens, where exactly are we living again? And why did we want to live here in the first place?