Spike Lee, Gentrification and the "Right" to the City

Film director Spike Lee, speaking to an audience at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.  Source: cnn.com
You may not like his, uh, inelegant approach, but for the most part, Spike Lee is right.

The film director’s recent comments on gentrification at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute have garnered a lot of controversy and criticism since they’ve been widely reported.  Pulling from a transcript of the comments written in the Guardian, here are some of the choice things he said that riled people up:

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.

But he was just warming up.  He followed up with this:

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!

 In his defense, the questioner who ignited the fuse that was Lee’s rant (who, incidentally, was black) offered his view of gentrification being a new catalyst for wealth creation by blacks, suggesting that longtime homeowners are benefiting from previously unheard-of property values.  Lee says:

Yes, but here’s a thing to deflate your answer. The people you talked about are not a great number. Number one, a lot of these people have not kept their taxes so they can’t afford to keep the house. Number two, when these real estate guys come around and open a suitcase with a bunch of money they’re gonna sell it. I mean these people you’re talking about are elderly. And they get the money, their money goes a lot further down south. Black people by droves in New York City, it’s called reverse migration. They’re moving to Atlanta, they’re moving to North Carolina. They got a house, they got a lawn, they got a backyard, they have less taxes… New York City’s a hard place and so if you’ve worked all your life and you’re retired, they’re selling their houses and I don’t blame them. I can’t say to them, ‘you can’t sell your house’. They’re like, ‘Fuck you, Spike’.You have to do some research, and look at the numbers. The black American population of New York City is going down. There’s reverse migration.

I’ve cut out enough; I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.  And it’s appropriate for me to say here that while I’ve been an advocate for city neighborhoods throughout my life, I’ve been living in the suburbs for the past eight years, largely because job requirements pulled me here (but I do enjoy where I am).  That being said, here are my thoughts:

This is not xenophobia, this is resentment.  Lee, and most longtime residents, don’t fear the newcomers.  They are mostly resentful that it took newcomers coming in to start getting the quality services they’ve been requesting for decades.  Emergency response has likely improved; parks are cleaner and better programmed; streets are cleaner and trash is quickly picked up.  There is a frustration that longtime residents weren’t able to garner these improvements on their own.

Related: the Christopher Columbus Syndrome.  Lee is right that newcomers bring with them a sense of discovery and wonderment as they enter gentrifying neighborhoods.  I’m reminded of people who buy a used car who tell people they have a “new” car; you can tell them it’s used and not new, and they’ll say “well, it’s new to me.”  Gentrifying neighborhoods are new to them, and full of potential and promise.  But that potential and promise was likely also apparent to longtime residents.

Respect our culture!  Lee is not anti-change, and certainly not anti-improvement.  He has sought to link improvement of people and place, which is a key reason he’s stayed in New York instead of seeking greener filmmaking pastures in Hollywood.  He and others have pushed for improvements, but have also pushed to maintain the sense of culture and history that neighborhoods like his have enjoyed for decades.

A comment from an urban planning professor in New York in a CNN article speaks to the traditional view that, hey, change happens, either get with it or get out of the way:

“Cities don’t stand still, and the cities that stand still are Detroit,” (Mitchell Moss, NYU Professor of urban policy and planning) said. “So if Spike Lee wants to see a place where there is no gentrification, he’ll also find a place where there are no investments. Obviously, he’s someone who knows how to make a movie but doesn’t know anything about cities.”

He added: “Brooklyn has become more attractive to more people. Of course, that means some people are going to have to find other places to live, but that’s the magic of New York. We create new places. Today, Bushwick, which was an area that people were afraid to go to, now has some of the best restaurants in the city.” 

Hmm.  I don’t think Lee was advocating for static, stagnant neighborhoods.  Far from it.

Let’s talk about neighborhood change and the current gentrification process.  When southern blacks moved to northern cities, they experienced xenophobia.  They were initially constricted to certain parts of cities, and when density caused them to consider other locations, fearful white residents were concerned about their impact on crime, property values and the quality of city services.  Blacks did not “displace” white residents then in the same sense that displacement occurs today; in fact blacks “replaced” white residents white residents who often moved out faster than the black residents moving in.  That kicked off the cycle of decline in inner cities and fueled suburban expansion at the same time.

Today, gentrifying neighborhoods are urban battlefields that will determine how our cities will look, feel and be in the future.  Fellow blogger Richey Piiparinen summed it up in a blog post yesterday about gentrification:

Regardless, the challenge for all cites is the same: finding a balance between knowing who you were, who you are, and who you can no longer be. The city, like the self, is constantly evolving, and the “right” to the city moves with it. The key is to find a sweet spot between too much circulation and too little. Or between the chains of nostalgia and the void of having no sense of place.

Well said.  But the problem is that many African-Americans feel that gentrification’s message to them is that they have lost their “right” to the city.  The fear is that even as they gain some benefit in wealth creation, ultimately they will be on the outside looking in — either in stagnant suburbs surrounding a vibrant city, or in struggling Sun Belt locales instead of dynamic coastal metropolises.

Dealing with this divide will be critical for the future of cities.

This can be done.  One of the most fulfilling consulting projects I worked on was a quality-of-life plan for a near west side neighborhood in Chicago (you can find the link on the website to the plan itself).  The neighborhood had long consisted of working-class black homeowners and public housing residents, but its location adjacent to the Loop meant that it has been experiencing gentrification for years as well.  Our challenge was to unite the desires of “longtimers” and “newcomers” into a cogent development plan for the community.  This could serve as a template for similar engagements.

One thought on “Spike Lee, Gentrification and the "Right" to the City

  1. I get the sense that the neighborhoods with the best combination of racial diversity and a decent quality of life for everybody are those that have changed gradually instead of rapidly.

    The main problem with “white flight” was that the white residents who fled their neighborhoods viewed all black people the same way regardless of the education or income level of the black newcomers. An upper-class black family with a doctor for a husband and a teacher for a wife could have moved into a wealthier neighborhood, and many of the white residents would have said, “There goes the neighborhood!” and left anyway. And because of the mass outflux of white people, property values would crash, and low-income people would move in, making it all a self-fulfilling prophecy. I've always said that upwardly-mobile black people have it rough because a lot of racist white people think they're “ghetto” simply because they're black, and a lot of black people in the ghetto accuse them of “selling out” for moving away from them and into higher-income, and often whiter, neighborhoods.

    On the other hand, if upwardly-mobile black families moved into a neighborhood and there wasn't a mass outflux of white residents, then the neighborhood would stay stable and diversify with time while still maintaining a degree of exclusivity because property values would remain intact.

    Conversely, if you have mass gentrification of a low-income black neighborhood, then most of the low income residents get displaced due to escalating prices and taxes, but if the changes are more gradual, then nobody gets priced out, and the neighborhood stays stable even if incomes remain relatively low. But even then, it shouldn't require an influx of white (or non-black) residents into a neighborhood in order for the neighborhood to receive basic services, so Spike Lee's frustration is understandable.

    This is all just my perception, though, so take it for what it's worth.


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