Spike Lee is no stranger to controversy. The award-winning New York filmmaker has made a career of exploring touchy subjects, usually revolving around race, class and sex. Lee lived up to his reputation for blunt talk when he opened up about his feelings regarding the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods in his hometown during an African-American History month lecture hosted by the Pratt Institute on Tuesday.
Gentrification refers to demographic shifts that occur in areas when wealthier residents and businesses move in, usually raising property values and often displacing the existing residents of the community. Gentrification is a fact of life in big cities, and is often part of a cycle, during which neighborhoods host different classes of residents and retailers of the course of decades. New York City is undergoing a round of gentrification that is bringing young hipsters and trendy retailers into traditionally lower-class minority neighborhoods. Lee, who grew up in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, is not happy about the shift, and when an audience member brought the issue up during the lecture, he did not mince words.
Using language that would be at home in his R-rated films, Lee attacked the social phenomenon, decrying the fact that it took white New Yorkers moving into depressed neighborhoods for the services and facilities to receive attention from the city. Lee used colorful language to cover topics from garbage pickup to police presence, sparing no one’s feelings as he described what he sees as racial politics at play in New York.
“We been here!” Lee exclaimed, expressing the resentment and exasperation he claims that long-term black and hispanic residents feel when they see the rapid progress being made now that more city resources are being expended in their gentrified neighborhoods. During his rant, Lee compared the incoming white residents to Christopher Columbus, with the long-term black and brown residents being forced into the role of the Native Americans. Lee claimed that the improvements made to his Fort Greene neighborhood, as well as neighborhoods like Crown Heights and the South Bronx, including the public schools, are an example of blatant racism and amount to an expression of white privilege.
While Lee made several relevant points during his tirade, his rant did little to address the underlying social, economic and cultural issues that make gentrification, and race-class relations in general, such a complex topic. Of course Lee is upset with anecdotal incidents such as when his father, a jazz musician who bought the family brownstone in Brooklyn decades ago, had the police called on him by some of his new neighbors for playing his bass guitar too loudly. This represents one side of the issue, the clash of cultures between residents who have come to expect a certain way of life, and new arrivals who are not necessarily part of the tradition culture of the area.
But at the same time, bringing new payees into the tax base, increasing the diversity of the area and having upgraded public schools can be argued to be objective positives for the city, notwithstanding the racial undertones to the improvements. Gentrification is part of the social dynamic of life in New York and all major urban centers. This is how traditionally segregated neighborhoods become economically and racially integrated.
The valid points Lee raises regarding the differences in services afforded to affluent neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods are better framed as a class issue than a purely racial one. In order for mutual respect to be established, a dialogue that allows all sides of the issue to be expressed is needed. This is difficult to do when one is busy stringing together profanity like a sailor on shore leave. If Spike Lee truly cares about the issue, and the communities affected, he would be better served trying to create a platform for conversation, as opposed to just issuing a rant on gentrification to vent his frustration.
Opinion By Mark Clarke