Spike Lee certainly didn’t hold his tongue this week at an event in Brooklyn when an audience member asked him about gentrification.
The famed director was asked about gentrification at a talk in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Lee’s long-time home and rapidly changing neighborhood that in many ways reflects a changing New York City.
Lee is not a fan of gentrification – when middle-class residents displace low-income residents – and he didn’t hold back saying, “Let me just kill you right now. [B] ecause there was some bullsh*t article in the New York Times saying ‘the good of gentrification…I don’t believe that,” said Lee.
The Times and other outlets have been trying to make the argument that gentrification is a good thing for communities, even though it displaces families who can no longer afford to live in a neighborhood as property values go up and rents skyrocket. While it’s true that communities become safer and improve over time, many community residents, including Lee, have a point when they ask why it takes an influx of white middle-class residents to improve living conditions.
“Here’s the thing,” Lee continued on, “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 motherf**in’ 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…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 motherf**kin’ 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-motherf**kin’-sixty-eight, and the motherf**kin’ 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 motherf**kin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherf**kin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the f**k outta here! Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherf**kin’ 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…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 f**k outta here. Can’t do that!” he added.
And Lee continued on to ask a series of relevant questions about why living conditions only improve when white folks come to town. “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!” said Lee.
Syreeta McFadden, contributing writer to Feministing.com and a former program director for New York City’s housing agency, told theGrio that Lee has a valid point about gentrification in historically multicultural neighborhoods, like Fort Greene, Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Harlem.
“The most upsetting thing about gentrification is the fact there are whole communities who have endured economic downturns and have advocated for investment in their communities, have maintained empty lots with community gardens, pressured police precincts for better protection, who have sat on community boards and wrestled with local city officials for decades to get several mayoral administrations to commit funding for affordable housing [and now] have to engage newcomers who don’t know or care about the work and legacy folks put in to preserve community.”
Essentially, the people who live in these communities have long sought improvements in their living conditions, better schools, and safer streets, only to be ignored until middle-class whites came to town, often demanding rapid improvements to the community, mostly unaware that those who have been in that community for decades have been failing to get those improvements for generations.
“[O]nce white people move in they are mostly oblivious and insular in their engagement with the indigenous community… the brown and black people who had been holding it all down since the 1970s when NYC went bankrupt and told the city to drop dead. White flight and suburbanization and racism are real things that impacted the shape of the city, public investment.”
Class intersects with race in this conversation as well, because many of those gentrifiers who enter communities from outside the city may be middle-class people of color who are moving into communities like Fort Greene and Harlem after some of these demographic shifts have already taken place.
The debate over whether gentrification is good or bad oversimplifies historic norms and ignores the divestment in these same communities over time. No wonder Spike Lee is upset.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.