March 13, 2014

Gentrification in Spike Lee’s Old Neighborhood

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

The old complaints about how New York isn’t New York anymore are coming up again. In truth, they are rarely far from many people’s lips. All neighborhoods change, and at times those transitions can be quite unnerving and very, very personal. But it is a tricky issue that touches on race, class, and community.

Last week, at a Q&A at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, filmmaker Spike Lee was asked if—even though there are a lot of negatives to gentrification—he could acknowledge that there are a few benefits too, for example better schools, and the chance for folks who bought housing cheaply to sell their brownstones at a better rate. Lee, who grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has been struggling to explain the complicated effects of gentrification since his second film, 1989’s Do the Right Thing. He didn’t mince words at the question: 

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 ***** day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild [Junior High School] 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.

Calling the experience of whites ”discovering” Brooklyn ”Christopher Columbus Syndrome” he says, “We’ve been here!” (Listen to the whole exchange here, and a clip from Do the Right Thing here.) 

On a smaller scale, New Yorkers see the change everywhere. A month ago news spread of an International House of Pancakes replacing an historic New York club called The Limelight. Restored from an Episcopal church, the Gothic Revival brownstone building opened as a dance club in 1983. For a time it was one of the key places for late night parties and performances, and was frequented by many of New York’s glitterati and was visited in early nineties by a certain younger sociologist/blogger. (Ahem.)

But those days are gone. The nightclub closed in 2007. Now, it’s set to be an IHOP. A friend of mine commented on this by paraphrasing a song by a band called The Pretenders that echoes Spike Lee’s lament: “I went to my city but my city was gone.” I too felt a small tug on my heart, a sadness that something I held closely in my memories was no more. 

The Limelight is just a building that I visited twice; Lee was deeply concerned about his neighborhood and, in fact, the African American communities throughout New York. He talked passionately about the changing racial dynamics and how much of a shame it is that the only way schools could improve is through gentrification. (Why? because the U.S. is one of the only developed countries that links education funding to property taxes. More on that here and here.)

An iconic club closing is not the same as gentrification, which is the process of ”urban renewal” that includes the physical displacement of (often minority and lower income) families and businesses through incoming, upper class renters and owners, and new businesses. Some would call both examples of the widening suburbanization of New York. 

I feel conflicted about the process of gentrification of Brooklyn because I certainly played a part in it. When I moved into a predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood in Brooklyn the day I started graduate school in 1999, I came to find an apartment with no hot water and no bathroom. A gate had to be built on the stoop to stop people from sitting on it to sell drugs right across the street from a drug and alcohol treatment center called El Regreso.

And yet by the time I left South 2nd Street seven years later, there was a swanky new condo being built in the dirt lot next door. The neighborhood changed because people like me moved in.


Photo courtesy of the author

Sociologists have been interested in the issue of neighborhood change since the beginnings of the so-called Chicago School (see an early discussion of theories of urban change here), and have studied it from New York’s Lower East Side (see Christopher Mele’s Selling the Lower East Side) to East Nashville (see Richard Lloyd’s “East Nashville Skyline”) to a beach city in California (see Deener’s Venice). See a powerful PBS documentary, Flag Wars, if you want to learn more. 

Sociologists recognize the brutal effects of economic power on displacement, but also the symbolic and cultural detriments of obliterating community and place. Still, the issue of gentrification isn’t so black and white.

Lee later clarified his comments on CNN to say that he is upset that newcomers don’t respect the traditions and values of the existing community they have entered into. This is exactly the insight Japonica Brown-Saracino raises in her study, A Neighborhood that Never Changes. She adroitly challenges the notion that all gentrifiers are indifferent to the ”old timers” in their new neighborhoods and finds that some, those she calls ”social preservationists,” were attracted to an area not in spite of the local communities, but because of them. These new residents want to help bolster a neighborhood so it can remain as it was when they arrived. 

Adding additional complexity, Lee would likely not complain about middle class African Americans moving to the neighborhood either, as Mary Pattillo’s brilliant Black on the Blockillustrates changes occurring in the North Kenwood-Oakland area of Chicago. And some scholars provide evidence for the benefits of gentrification that Lee initially dismissed.

Paradoxically, it is the rising spatial segregation of ethnic groups and classes that has lead to wider distributions of property taxes and, therefore, unequal education funding. Lee, then, at least on this point, could welcome his new neighbors (see Massey and Denton’s classic American Apartheid). Although other scholars note that at least one of these benefits—on better education through improving test scores—is imperceptible. 

Furthermore, the New York Daily Newswas quick to deride Lee for not recognizing his own role by venerating Brooklyn culture in film and even endorsing a limited edition of Absolut Brooklyn vodka that promoted old-school brownstone stoop culture, but also noting how he has financially profited from gentrification himself in buying and reselling million dollar properties. Even Lee’s host, the Pratt Institute has played a role in neighborhood renewal.

When I arrived in Brooklyn I know that “my city” wasn’t someone else’s city anymore, just as it wasn’t my city when I left it seven years later. Although Lee was quick to say, “We’ve been here,” the truth is that before Fort Greene had its strong African American community, there was the Canarsie tribe of the Algonquin Nation years past. Who has the Christopher Columbus Syndrome now?


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"Although Lee was quick to say, “We’ve been here,” the truth is that before Fort Greene had its strong African American community, there was the Canarsie tribe of the Algonquin Nation years past. Who has the Christopher Columbus Syndrome now?"

That line is so pathetic. This must be a favorite tactic of White shills everywhere. Play one minority group against another to deflect blame off yourselves.

African Americans were brought over as slaves. They are not nearly as responsible for America's ethnic cleansing (my bad... displacement) of the First Nations as the White invaders/pilgrims who "discovered" the not-so-New World.

Everything was going good until that last sentence. The displacement of the Canarsie had nothing to do with African Americans.

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