Spike Lee’s Posturing About Gentrification Helps No One


It’s been a whole month since Spike Lee spoke out about gentrification in Brooklyn, but never fear, he’s back on his soapbox about his favorite topic — specifically, he’s taken issue with A.O. Scott’s recent piece in the New York Times, which addressed the matter of gentrification in Brooklyn. Lee has of course been vocal about this subject in the past, and he posted a lengthy response to Scott’s article on his Facebook.

Lee begins by noting that he chose not to send his response to the Times because, “I do not want the New York Times editing, rearranging my words, thoughts or even ignoring a letter to you… I’m writing what I feel and there is no need for somebody else … to interpret it.” Still, some sort of editor might have been a good idea, if only they might have told Lee that his response has basically nothing to do with what Scott was saying. It’s like he read the first three or four paragraphs of the article and then took to Facebook immediately — his entire post is a response to accusations of hypocrisy that Scott didn’t actually make.

Sure, in his piece, Scott quotes Errol Louis’ Daily News op-ed, which definitely does call Lee a hypocrite, but only as an illustration of how others have responded to Lee’s comments on gentrification. The rest of Scott’s article is a measured discussion of Brooklyn past and present, looking at how perceptions of the borough have changed over the years. If he’s upset at being called a hypocrite for holding forth about gentrification in Brooklyn from his swanky Upper East Side pad, Lee’s directing his objections to the wrong critic.

Still, it’s worth responding to the points that Lee does make, because they’re indicative of the way that many people approach this subject. He takes a black-and-white view of gentrification — literally — arguing that “gentrification is great for the new arrivals in Harlem, South Bronx, Bushwick, Red Hook, Bed-Stuy Do or Die and Fort Greene, and in many other cities across the U.S… but not so great for the brown and black residents who have been in these neighborhoods for decades and are being forced out.” (He also suggests that it doesn’t matter where he lives, because “the truth is the truth.”)

This is the sort of argument that it’s impossible to refute, because it’s essentially a truism — yes, rich people moving into a neighborhood have it better than the poor people who are moving out. Yes, gentrification that destroys local culture and forces up the rent is a destructive force. Yes, people who move to new neighborhoods and then complain about what’s already there are the most insufferable of douches and deserve all the opprobrium that is directed at them. Yes, tearing down local buildings to build identikit condos is awful. Yes, developers who say things like this are the worst.

But none of these phenomena are entirely reflective of how and why gentrification happens. As I’ve written here before, gentrification isn’t something that happens in a void, a product of rich white folks who could quite happily afford to live in Midtown condos deciding to up and move to Bed-Stuy on a whim. It’s the product of over a decade of Bloomberg, a mayor whose term coincided with the ongoing conversion of Manhattan into a theme park for the über-rich. It’s the product of a slow but steady dismantling of the rent control/stabilization regime. It’s the product of the fact that basically no one can afford to live in Manhattan anymore. It’s the product of crazy-high property taxes. It’s the product of assholes like this, landlords who deliberately force out longtime residents so that they can charge new arrivals a shitload more money.

Ignoring all this to stamp your foot and complain about the silly people with fixed-gear bikes doesn’t help anyone. Gentrification is a citywide problem — and, indeed, a worldwide problem. The nature of cities is always that neighborhoods will ebb and flow — as long as we live in an economy predicated on endless growth, rents will rise and those who can’t keep up will be forced to move to cheaper neighborhoods. Those people are students and artists as well as the disenfranchised and the poor. They live where they can afford to. So has it ever been.

How does Lee propose we deal with this? He’s not arguing that new arrivals should be respectful and assimilate, which is entirely reasonable. Clearly, moving into a new neighborhood and trying to alter its existing culture to suit yourself is a shitty thing to do. But Lee is arguing that they just Shouldn’t Be There, which is ultimately empty grandstanding and helps no one. It’s an ugly argument, no matter who makes it — and it’s reminiscent of arguments the right has used for generations to stir up animosity toward immigrants, and that have been invoked by rich people who don’t want the poors moving into their neighborhood.

And speaking of that, if Lee really wants to stop gentrification in Brooklyn, he could start in his own neighborhood, because this isn’t a change that needs to come from the bottom up — it needs to come from the top down. As long as Manhattan remains a playground for the moneyed few — a group that includes a certain Mr S. Lee of East 63rd St. — then Brooklyn (and Queens and The Bronx and Staten Island) will be the place for everyone else. And we all have to live together.