Spike Lee’s now-famous rant against gentrification is a mixed blessing. As an extremely high profile New York voice, Lee commands headlines and brings even more visibility to an increasingly hot topic. But his unfortunate characterization as a racial lightning rod, as well as the contradictions raised by his own profiting from the New York real estate game leave him open to knee-jerk refutation from “liberal” commentators. Yet despite these contradictions his analysis is on point, and reflect someone who retains a cultural nationalist solidarity with the community he emerged from, and that only makes his political point stronger.
I think it’s particularly important to respond to the opinion column published today by Errol Louis in The Daily News. Louis has ascended from beat reporter to hosting Inside City Hall, probably the most influential local news interview show on New York television. His deft interview style and sunny disposition has made most political junkies forgot the acerbic wit of the sadly, and deservedly disgraced ex-host Dominic Carter. While Louis’s take-down of Lee is remarkable in its precision and high-handedness, it’s unnervingly the voice of an Ivy League scion scolding a Morehouse knucklehead.
The first graph sets the tone, while at the same time belying Louis’s flawed liberalism:
Spike Lee’s obscenity-filled tirade about the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods — caught on tape and posted online in all its mother-effing glory — perfectly captured the bitterness, confusion and circular logic that sends most conversations about New York’s ever-changing neighborhoods down a blind alley.
Louis immediately drawing attention to Lee’s street language as a way to discredit him, as if saying the word motherfucker automatically discredits all intellectual credibility. But the lede’s second half, with its stereotyping references to “bitterness” and “confusion,” as well as the never-explained allusion to “circular logic” has the effect of discrediting all critics of gentrification–property flipping or not–as using the same supposedly hypocritical argument. And, as most liberal defenders of gentrification do, he normalizes the destructive process driven by an out-of-control real estate market backed by infinite stacks of cash unimaginable just a decade ago, as part of New York’s centuries-long history of “ever-changing neighborhoods.”
It’s debatable whether Lee’s comment about gentrifiers playing an analogous role to the colonizer Columbus is “offensive,” in the sense that it can arguably said that most real estate speculating brownstone-buyers can reasonably be said play the role of colonizers, not particularly caring about the fate of the people they are displacing, and I’m willing to allow Lee the use of the verb “killing” metaphorically. What follows next are Louis’s strongest points, which are that Lee in some way helped gentrify the neighborhood early on, and even if that could have been seen as an attempt to capitalize on a growing black arts movement while solidifying the neighborhood’s African American presence, it did at least indirectly draw attention to the neighborhood and make it attractive to the first wave of new investment. Whether it’s fair to call that an “epic contribution” is again another question.
Lee probably would have a stronger claim as defender of the neighborhood had he chosen not to leave in the late ’90s and ultimately buy an Upper East Side townhouse for $16 million in 2006. However his recent flipping of the Hatch House property for twice its value was part of a Manhattan real estate gain that had nothing to do with Fort Greene. For Louis to compare the complaints of his “friends in nearby Yorkville” to the catastrophe that has been visited upon poverty-level African American and Latino New Yorkers in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Bushwick, Harlem, Williamsburg, and slowly, the Bronx, is disingenuous to say the least.
The facts Louis presents surrounding the profit Lee made on his Fort Greene townhouse–a mere $350,000, peanuts in New York real estate flipping terms, do not indict Lee as a robber baron of the hood. His further charges, that Lee “used some of his earnings to become a significant property owner in the area, buying and renting out residential and commercial properties,” are curiously not embellished with financial data about exactly how much he profited from being a property owner in Fort Greene. Point conceded, however to Louis’s claim that Lee is currently asking for $6 million for his former 40 Acres and a Mule HQ. If you assume Lee has great cash liquidity, you could opine he might consider turning it into affordable housing if he really loved the neighborhood so much. Of course assuming that Lee is rolling in cash could very well be inaccurate–it’s not inconceivable that as a largely independent filmmaker he may have significant debts to cover.
But then Louis begins to descend into the untenable language of the increasingly obsolete liberal New Yorker. How does one call out an African American’s “language of complaint” as souring “into one of exclusion, or even menace,” when the history of New York real estate barons has been an unflinching stance of exclusion and menace towards generations of African Americans and other minorities? What power does Spike Lee have to exclude or menace the forces that are running over his old neighborhood? Isn’t that what he’s complaining about?
That attitude undergirds the city’s stubborn racially segregated housing patterns and ignores the reality that longtime black homeowners in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant actually end up earning life-changing levels of wealth when gentrification drives up the value of their property.
We need to ask, once again, who were the original designers, and who continues to design the increasing patterns of segregation in New York and most major cities in the United States? Menacing users of profanity like Spike Lee? And while it is true that there are a considerable number of African American property owners who “end up earning life-changing levels of wealth,” possibly even Louis’s own family, if I remember comments he made on his old WWRL radio show correctly, the vast majority of African Americans and other disenfranchised poor are light years from sniffing this sort of profit, and are living in East New York, Yonkers, Hempstead, or even Rochester as a result of it. I submit that these small and concentrated gains do not justify gentrification.
“It’s always painful to see friends uprooted and forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere,” Louis laments, imagining that those displaced are actually seeking fortunes rather than just trying to survive. “But turbulence and transition come with the city’s exhilarating pace.” So exhilarating has been this pace that one-bedrooms in Fort Greene are starting at $2500 a month. The liberal view that New York is an unstoppable machine of change engineered by its status as the center of capitalism is myopic about the disappearance of the middle class, the mass displacement of working people, and the accelerating crisis of homelessness. How exhilarating is it to see a continuing parade of women carrying infants on the subways, saying they’ve been thrown out of the shelter system, begging for change?
Like most independent artists, Spike Lee is a hustler, and maybe he’s making noise about gentrification as part of some new way to market his authenticity, always his strongest selling point. Maybe he’s planting the seeds for a film that might finally fulfill his promise as an urban auteur. But no matter what his contradictions, you can feel his pain about the city he grew up in. “What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it,” he asks. “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!”
No doubt. When he spoke up about gentrification, Spike Lee said the right thing.