Spike Lee’s Speech and the Problem With How We Talk About Gentrification

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You may well have read by now about Spike Lee’s lengthy response to a question about gentrification during a lecture he gave at Pratt in honor of African American History Month (if not, the entire text is here — and, yes, everyone is, unfortunately, calling it a “rant”). As one might expect from such a polemic, there’s been a pretty polarized response to Lee’s views; depending on who you read, either he’s dead right or he’s talking out of his ass. The thing is, though, the current discussion about gentrification in NYC isn’t helping anyone, and the sort of rhetoric that Lee is throwing around is a prime example of why.

I have nothing against Spike Lee — if nothing else, I have to respect a man stoic enough to keep shelling out for courtside seats throughout this entire tragicomic Knicks season. And the points he raises are largely valid ones: it is a problem when privileged people move into neighborhoods and fail to engage with the existing community and/or generally behave like dicks, immediately calling the cops on the drummers who’ve been in the park opposite their building for the last 40 years. These people deserve every little bit of opprobrium that gets heaped upon them.

But if we’re going to talk about gentrification — and clearly it’s a conversation that is as constantly necessary as it is exhausting in a city where the rent is, indeed, too damn high — then we should actually talk about the phenomenon, instead of merely throwing around invective at people who, just like everyone else in this city, are just living where they can afford to live. If we’re going to stop the urban poor from being pushed ever further to the margins, we need to narrow the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, and address the fact that the minimum wage is far too low to live on. We need to dismantle the systematic racism and classism of a system that oppresses working-class people of color and discourages social mobility, address the lack of affordable housing city-wide, etc.

But looking at all that stuff isn’t as easy as taking cheap shots at “motherfuckin’ hipsters,” is it? Frustratingly, there are some hugely important points buried in Lee’s rhetoric. He has every right to ask why “it take[s] an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better.” But if you’re placing the blame for this on the new arrivals in the neighborhood themselves, instead of the people who created the conditions that led to their arrival, you’re getting it wrong. There’s a tendency everywhere for immigrants to be blamed for matters beyond their control, and in a weird sort of inversely economic manner, this is a similar phenomenon.

None of this is to say, of course, that gentrification doesn’t bring problems, nor that gentrifiers aren’t generally blissfully oblivious to the impact of their arrival on incumbents, nor that they tend to benefit from positions of comparative privilege from which they write face-palming articles like this. The key problem with Lee’s speech isn’t that poor ol’ gentrifiers might feel badly about people hating them; it’s a question of how people at or below the poverty line are supposed to survive in a city that grows more expensive by the day. But the thing is, getting angry at people you perceive as “gentrifiers” risks shooting the messenger, and does nothing to fix the problem.

The point is, none of this happens in a void. There’s a general trend in cities the world over for the poor and disenfranchised to be pushed further and further from the city center, a curious inversion of the donut effect of the 1970s and ’80s, when the rich moved to the suburbs and vacated the inner city. These days, the process works the other way: new arrivals in Brooklyn have been pushed out of Manhattan. New arrivals in Bushwick have been pushed out of Williamsburg. New arrivals in Bed-Stuy have been pushed out of Bushwick. And so on. This is a city-wide trend, and it flows out into the boroughs like the ripples you get when someone throws a stone into a pond.

And what’s the stone? A city-wide increase in rent doesn’t start from the bottom up — it starts from the top and trickles down like a sort of Reaganite nightmare. The buck stops, as it were, at the super rich — and that includes, irony of ironies, the sort of people who can afford $32 million Upper East Side mansions. Lee’s lecture feels like he wants to have his cake and eat it too, and the world doesn’t work that way — not if you’re just as much a part of the problem as the new family with the expensive stroller who just moved in down the block.

Ultimately, this is a complicated issue mired in a discussion that we insist on having through silly broad stereotypes when what it really needs is careful, realistic consideration. And it needs the voices of the actual people involved, not people who claim to speak for them. So I want to quote an excellent piece from Gothamist here. It’s a response from a lifelong Bushwick resident to one of the site’s “Native New Yorker” columns, which argued that everyone in New York is a gentrifier:

This shit is hard. Like stupidly insanely hard. I am St. Patrick’s-Day-Beer-Vomit-Green with jealousy when I see those beautifully renovated apartments along Irving or Knickerbocker Avenue. I want to cut those bitches shopping at Mary Meyer with their ridiculously expensive, cute vintage outfits. I want to scream when I see a studio space I could never afford to start a small business… I tell you all of this because for eight years I’ve tried to make sense of my uncontrollable anger at gentrification. It’s not a race thing, it’s not a class thing, it’s a place thing. I do not understand why my anger is so deep and so hot… [but] this horrible journey that all of us working and poor kids in this city endure is not new. While this anger is justifiable, it’s also poisonous. It has prevented me from getting to know the new businesses and the newcomers. This gentrification bullshit is going to happen no matter what, but maybe it can be done a little more humanely and a little more compassionately (on both parts).

The socioeconomic interplay of a load of very different people in a relatively small city is insanely complicated, but shit, we all have to live here together. Or, at least, most of us do — we can’t all live in luxury on the Upper East Side, shut off from the rest of the city.