OPINION: Spike Lee’s half-right

Brooklyn-raised filmmaker Spike Lee is seen at the Oscars in early March in Los Angeles. AP Photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Recently, Brooklyn-raised filmmaker Spike Lee made waves when he complained about the gentrification of his former neighborhood, Fort Greene, which has a large African-American community.

He complained that the gentrifiers, mainly well-off white residents, have no sense of the area’s culture or history. As an example, he said that for 40 years, people were drumming in Fort Greene Park until some of the newcomers started to complain to police. He also said that one of them complained about his father, a jazz musician, practicing his bass – and it wasn’t even an electric bass, it was an acoustic.

Lee was also angry that because of the newcomers’ ease at complaining to city government, municipal services suddenly improved. In the past, he says, people like his family were often ineffective in getting better services. This, of course, is completely understandable.

However, it seems to me that Spike Lee is only half-right. It’s not only about race.
About seven or eight years ago, I was reading a blog (don’t remember which one—it might have been the old “Gowanus Lounge” blog by the late Bob Guskind) that talked about yuppie types from Park Slope moving into neighboring Windsor Terrace. Both the Slope and Windsor Terrace are primarily European-American neighborhoods. After a fancy coffee place opened, the blog author wrote, one of the newcomers exclaimed, “Finally, a place to get a good cup of coffee!”

The author wondered where this person was coming from – “Connecticut Muffin’s been serving good coffee for years!” But clearly, even if the person who made the comment about the new place had passed by Connecticut Muffin every day, there was something about it – the wrong kind of décor, the wrong kind of wait staff – that made it “invisible” to him or her.

Another article I one read, this one about Carroll Gardens, recalled that at a community meeting in the ‘90s, one well-off professional asked another, “When did you first come here?” “In 1975,” the other one answered. “Oh! Then you’re one of the real pioneers!” the first one exclaimed. In the room, the article continued, were several middle-aged Italian-Americans whose families had lived there for several generations. No one bothered to ask how they felt about these comments.

Finally, in writings talking about neighborhoods where young artists settle, like Bushwick, we often see comments like, “Oh, it’s great! Two blocks away there are galleries, three blocks away there’s a bar with poetry readings…” What that person doesn’t mention is that in between his home and the art galleries, there might be an empty lot, and between there and the bar, there might be a bodega and a botanica, or Latin religious-goods store.  It’s invisible – or, more likely, unimportant – to them, just as the Connecticut Muffin store was invisible to the new resident of Windsor Terrace.

The sad fact is that for most of us, what we grew up with is “normal.” For me, who grew up in a lower-middle-class area of the Bronx in a certain era, diners, Cantonese Chinese restaurants, old-fashioned candy stores and pizzerias are normal. For someone who grew up in Scarsdale, Great Neck or their equivalents across the country, like many of the gentrifiers did, Banana Republic, Starbucks, boutiques and sushi restaurants are normal.
There’s always a tendency for people to seek out what they know. That’s OK—but all too often, people ignore what they don’t know or what doesn’t fit into their notions of what things should be like. And that’s why Spike Lee’s right – but he’s only half-right.

March 11, 2014 - 8:30am



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