Spike Rages Against Gentrifiers (That He Prolly Helped Lure).


A photo from Fort Greene's Renaissance: Spike Lee, Vernon Reed, Reginald Hudlin, and Lorna Simpson were all part of the creative class that almost certainly helped gentrify Fort Greene.

A photo from Fort Greene’s Renaissance: Spike Lee, Vernon Reed, Reginald Hudlin, and Lorna Simpson were all part of the creative class that almost certainly helped gentrify Fort Greene.

Last night at Pratt Institute, some poor dude asked Spike Lee if he might see “the other side” — that is, the good side —  of  Brooklyn’s gentrification.

While I don’t know for sure that Spike’s sleepy eyes got big and buggy, I like to imagine that that’s what happened as this went down.

“Lemme just kill you right now,” Spike said. And thus commenced an epic ethering.

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.
[Audience member: And I don’t dispute that … ]

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. And even more. Let me kill you some more.

[Audience member: Can I talk about something?]

Not yet.

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!
Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ 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.

You can’t just — here’s another thing: When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!

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 fuck outta here. Can’t do that!

And then! [to audience member] Whoa whoa whoa. And then! So you’re talking about the people’s property change? But what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want live in Fort Greene. People wanna live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word?
[Audience: East Williamsburg]

That’s another thing: Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers are changing names! Stuyvestant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No, no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?

You can (and should) listen to their whole exchange here:

(I love Fort Greene. I’d wanted to live in Fort Greene since I was like, 11 or 12, but that was mostly because I wanted to solve mysteries with the Ghostwriter team. And before I moved to DC last year, I’d lived in Brooklyn for a decade, five of those years in Fort Greene. It’s the place that most feels like home to me as an adult. But that neighborhood — area code 11205 — saw its share of white inhabitants jump from 20 percent to 50 percent between 2000 and 2010. It’s one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the country.)

One irony here is that a lot of folks might understandably lay the gentrification of Fort Greene at Spike Lee’s feet.

Nelson George’s documentary Brooklyn Boheme sketched out the crazy mini-black/boriqua boho Renaissance in Fort Greene in the late ’80s/mid-’90s. The film is a love letter to that era, as George was very much a part of that scene.

Wesley Snipes was just a young buck who threw wild, sweaty-ass parties in his brownstone in the summertime. The glorious Rosie Perez, who still lives near the park, remembered how she used to roll up to Snipes’s parties, but would leave because of to all the holleration and ribaldry.

Pre-SNL Chris Rock was a struggling comedian renting out another brownstone on Carlton or Clermont for $300 a month just around the corner, and recalled when some burglars tried to break down his door with a sledgehammer.

The photographer Lorna Simpson was there just getting started out, as was the writer/theater director Carl Hancock Rux.

Everyone tried to get at this baddie named Halle Berry, who moved to the neighborhood for a summer for a bit part in one of Spike’s movies.

Vernon Reid, who went to Brooklyn Tech, stayed in the neighborhood after graduating high school and started his rock music career in earnest.

Guru and Premier were just young dudes who were trying to get put on, and they rented a room upstairs from a young Branford Marsalis, who had just moved up North from Louisiana. (Apparently, Jazzmatazz came out of this proximity.)

A little bit later, Erica Wright — the Queen Badu! — would move there to perform poetry at Brooklyn Moon on Fulton, along with locals who went by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. (Badu still owned a studio apartment there as of a few years ago.) Saul Williams moved to the city after he graduated from Morehouse and fell in with that set.

It was the kind of place where a random photo from the early ’90s might capture a super-young Black Thought kicking it with some folks and a super-young Laurence Fishburne just hanging out in the background.

For a long time, Spike was at the center of this scene; it’s no accident that Snipes, Perez and a bunch of other people from the neighborhood all appeared in Spike’s early films.1 

One theory of gentrification is that artists and creatives are a key part of its early stages, because they make an area more desirable for young people, and they have a lot of free time and the inclination to make old homes and neighborhoods pretty. Once those neighborhoods become cool, trendy places to live, the money follows.  It’s not hard to see Spike as being implicated in that, even indirectly.

In Boheme, Spike said that his wife tired of having random neighborhood folks knocking on the door of their brownstone right off Fort Greene Park at all hours of the night. According to Lee, she told them that he had to choose between staying in the beloved neighborhood where he grew up and everyone knew him or her and their daughter, Satchel. He obviously chose his family, and so they moved and sold their brownstone for a million dollars — a then-unheard of sum for a neighborhood that was still run through with crackheads and crime. Real estate agents quickly noticed that something was afoot in Fort Greene when they could fetch a million dollars for homes in a neighborhood still rife with crackheads and crime. Thus, George posits, Spike’s sale of his brownstone was the beginning of the Park Slope-ification of Fort Greene.

1. At the screening for the documentary that I went to, Nelson George told a  story in which Branford Marsalis recalls walking down Washington Avenue with his five-year-old son when a crackhead approached him. “I’ll suck your dick for five dollars!” the crackhead said. Marsalis then called up Spike sorrowfully, saying that he knew it was time for him to leave the neighborhood. That moment — or the “suck your dick”  line, at least —  ended up in Jungle Fever.




Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • jasmine

    the Ghostwriter reference! hahaha

    • Yo, I’m dead ass. I luhhed that show.

  • jasmine

    I believe you! I walked around with a pen around my neck from 1992-1995. #whereisJamal!

    • I had at least five of the books, the pen, and a bunch of other paraphernalia. #thabto #oldGabbywasBetter #yougottabelieve

  • jasmine

    HAHAHAH you gotta believe! great memories and great article. I never thought about Spike’s role in it all…

    • To bring this full circle: surely you remember the Hoodman storyline, which featured a cameo appearance from none other than — wait for it — Spike Lee.

      (I am, miraculously, not a virgin.)

  • So Badu moved from Texas to Brooklyn? I never realized she was based out of NYC.

    • I dunno if she’s based in NYC, but she has a crib there.

  • I just want to comment that the scavenger hunt storyline – the one where they hit up Fort Greene Park, BAM, etc… had me literally wide-eyed and talking about Ghostwriter for an entire week after my first walk through Ft. Greene.

    Also: the Max Mouse storyline had me SO TURNT when I got my first computer.

    TURNT. For NO reason.

    • I just want to comment that the scavenger hunt storyline – the one where they hit up Fort Greene Park, BAM, etc… had me literally wide-eyed and talking about Ghostwriter for an entire week after my first walk through Ft. Greene.

      Me too, E. I wasn’t embarrassed, either.

  • kelsey

    I went to public high school in Fort Green in the early-mid 80’s when Spike Lee first opened up his shop on the corner. We had moved from the Lower East Side. After 45 years of urban living, I have to say change is inevitable. What’s more, for a number of urban families, and I’ll count my mother and single head of household as one, the only access to wealth that amounts to more than $2000 is their housing. I imagine a lot of the original families were glad to sell and have the money. For those who stayed, however, the character has changed. The good part of anarchy, live and let live freedom, the time spent on stoops has faded in Brooklyn. But there is some two-way agency in that change between buyers and sellers. The bigger issue in my mind is economic disparity and racism at large that makes establishing a middle-class black foothold almost impossible as a renter or buyer, a problem experienced to a smaller but still profound degree these days by the middle class across at large. It sucks.

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  • Christian J

    Great read. I can only imagine the anger coming from Spike. And I like that he acknowledges the real estate power structure in this. And there should be no denying America’s long history of discrimination when it comes to urban development as well as the allocation of city resources that unfairly favor more affluent (often white) neighborhoods. I would quibble however with the Columbus reference. NYC neighborhoods and communities have been though as many population shifts as any place in the world. To claim that the population of Forte Green from 1960-2000 represents the “natives” and from 2000-present represents “Columbus” is rather simplistic and self serving.

    • But the argument you’re making — neighborhoods change all the time! — is pretty flip. The feeling that animates a lot of Spike’s cosigners is that the homeowners who’d lived there for decades, who weren’t white and who were often middle and upper middle class, did not see any corresponding increases in their property values (and thus household wealth) or even an improvement in local services. That’s not a small, “self-serving” quibble, that’s literally decades of wealth creation and quality-of-life improvements that those folks didn’t get to experience.

      • Justin

        Cities might be able to reduce turnover and reward longtime property owners in gentrifying neighborhoods by putting a cap on property taxes for people in certain income brackets. They have begun experimenting with this in Philadelphia. The Times just published a piece about it: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/us/cities-helping-residents-resist-the-new-gentry.html?hp&_r=0

        New York, of course, differs from Philly, where there is a plethora of available housing. In fact, some speculate that the gentrification of Philly has to do with the lack of affordable housing in New York City, which is a short train ride away. The abundance of housing makes Philadelphia a cheaper city to rent in. New York might be able to help renters, in addition to homeowners, by simply creating more high-density housing throughout the city. Contrary to popular belief, this has not been done on a large scale.

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  • Christian J

    GD, “Self serving” was the wrong word for me to use (I was thinking, “short sighted”) BUT your explanation helps me understand what he was saying better anyway. He’s not speaking against diversity or denying the eclectic history of NY, but decrying urban neglect and displacement.

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  • Leigh

    You all probably have read Mary Patillo’s Black on the Block, which talks about the gentrification of Bronzeville (i think) in Chicago, by middle-class blacks, who try to (literally) police their low-income black neighbors’ behavior in terms of noise, public socializing, etc. That kind of class discrimination is a huge problem in any mixed income scheme, whether it is a “market-based” (ha! Like policies are never behind these shifts) process like gentrification or a state-directed effort like redeveloping public housing as mixed-income. A lot of the (now unsupported) theory behind state-led redevelopment efforts is that role modeling and social networking is key for poor residents who will benefit from living near the middle-class and affluent. But we now know to be true is that newcomers – or management companies or public sector agencies or the cops – end up monitoring and controlling lower income households who have been there. This social control was/is actually considering a good thing but some policy makers, but the discriminatory or biased way it works out creates real tensions that policy makers may or may not be forced to reckon with, but certainly tarnishes these social changes and worsens class and race relations.

    And then there is racism. I’ve been talking about class so far, but frankly few whites are educated enough or have lived integrated enough lives to parse social diversity in black or other non-white communities. So middle-class people of color who have been economically stable but lived with crime and vice because of institutional racism and neglect get a double indignity from gentrification in public services and retail niches finally rolling in, and from white affluent newcomers treating them as “less than” and as part of. homogeneous population that needs to be controlled or patronized, at best.

    Yes, there’s definitely value in rising property values and cashing out, that’s quite freeing; and finally having services come to your neighborhood is great, assuming you feel welcome in the stores or your streets feel calmer. But the two major critiques against gentrification are the displacement of low-income renters or homeowners (who can’t keep up with tax increases or are victims to predatory RE schemes) and this somewhat thornier issue of cultural-social conflict (which can have material impacts like an increased police state for black residents, esp. men, etc.).

  • Christian J

    Lee seems to have 2 separate beefs:

    1. People who move in from the outside don’t respect the culture of the neighborhood. This is a valid point, but obviously needs to be addressed to each individual right? I can buy that a lot of white people may act similar (like any other “group”) but I can’t believe that he really wants to paint all white people as rude and intolerant of other cultures. In other words going off at a Pratt might feel great, but may not actually change anyone’s rude behavior. Speaking people face to face does a much better job.

    2. It takes an influx of white people to convince the city to provide fair and appropriate service that all tax payers deserve. This is his main (and best) point. And I’m glad he made it. BUT, that is something he should take up with the city – those that represent us. It’s certainly highlighted by an influx of white people (the contrast that is) but its not caused by those same white people.

    Believe it or not, but Forte Greene, Bed Sty, Crown Heights etc. was not their first choice anyway. They are only there because they cannot afford it in other more predominantly white neighborhoods. They’ve been pushed out themselves or never made it in the first place. Of course, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. But they are not to be blamed for gentrification. They’re a product of our institutionally racist system just as much as anyone else. Its not really their fault that real estate goes up when they move in. So, by all means let people know when they are being rude or disrespectful. But don’t think for a minute that they’re not pawns in the game – the same as anyone else.

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