Thursday, February 27, 2014

Does Racism Spike Lee's Urbanism?


In case there was any doubt, Spike Lee wanted to eliminate it completely.

He hates gentrification.  And he went off on a profanity-choked tirade during a Black History Month event at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, my Dad's alma mater, to prove it.

"You just can’t come in the neighborhood," Lee bellowed to his audience.  "I’m for democracy and letting everybody live, but you gotta have some respect.  You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations, and you come in, and now s--- gotta change, because you’re here?"

Suffice it to say, this was about the longest stretch of his soliloquy that was devoid of an f-bomb.  The man may know how to make popular movies, but his personal vocabulary leaves a lot to be desired.

Nevertheless, he got his point across.  He resents all of the wealthy interlopers into neighborhoods that have been struggling to survive for decades.  Particularly in Brooklyn, where the tidal wave of gentrification has caught many of the borough's crime-worn residents off-guard.  For years, they assumed gentrification was something that happened in Manhattan, or maybe on the fringes of Brookyn Heights, the borough's historic silk-stocking district, where gas lamps still light brick-paved streets.  Having wealthy white folks suddenly snatching up property and paying unheard-of sums for rent in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, and Bushwick - neighborhoods whites abandoned more than half a century ago -  is more than bizarre.

Lee, and plenty like him, think urbanism's latest twist is unfair.

But is it?  No matter how marginalized a neighborhood may have been, or for how long, gentrification is a product of supply and demand, and incorporates both benefits and drawbacks.  In a city like New York, where most of its poorest residents rent, gentrification can seem particularly punitive, since property owners benefit most from rising property values.  The trick is to make a neighborhood's transition worth the extra costs for those who paid their dues in other ways, back when nobody else wanted to live there.

After all, gentrification indicates opportunity.  It's what happens when, for a variety of reasons, an aging neighborhood becomes attractive to newer residents who are richer than the ones currently living there.  Taken as part of a city's cycle of life, gentrification is usually the flip side of deterioration and dysfunction, two phenomena that became a hallmark of white flight more than fifty years ago across urban America.

Back then, after World War II, and the invention of the mass-market suburb, inner city neighborhoods that had been home to many white Americans experienced an unprecedented transition in their social, political, and racial composition.  As a combination of racism, classism, and the desire for more space to raise one's family helped to spur middle-class whites out of cities, the neighborhoods they left behind filled with poorer blacks and Hispanics, who have now spent multiple generations in those same neighborhoods.  These are neighborhoods that have generally decayed more than they've thrived, with crime, unemployment, public assistance, slumlords, and political corruption holding sway over sustainable economic and social vitality.

Now, however, as younger generations of mostly white twentysomethings from the suburbs have grown up on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends - shows that portrayed city life as vibrant and trendy - the inner city has become hip.  Bored with suburbia, and educated for white-collar professions, they're flocking back in droves to the crumbling cores of the cities their parents and grandparents fled decades ago.

Upwardly mobile Americans, after all, are rarely content with ordinary used stuff.  It's one reason they left America's aging city centers to begin with.  Things have to be either really, really old and kitschy to be trendy and desirable, or completely new and fresh.  And with suburbia having mostly been built dispassionately and cheaply, hard-coded with design motifs that became dated quickly, there's a lot for young strivers to dislike about their parents' subdivisions.

It's worth pointing out that while those dated subdivisions and strip malls lose their allure to whites, they're being back-filled once again by people more desperate for housing than prestige.  The poorer blacks and Hispanics who've been populating urban America have, to a certain extent, begun their own migration from those old city neighborhoods into what are now the aging cores of America's original suburbs.

Problem is, not enough poor folks are leaving those inner cities and creating more space for wealthier whites who want to move back downtown.  So, while gentrification itself shouldn't intrinsically be a bad thing for urban neighborhoods, it tends to be when it creates an imbalance between what newer arrivals with more expendable income can pay for housing, and what the same neighborhood's current residents can afford.

However, as far as Spike Lee is concerned, it doesn't sound as if he's particularly upset by the money being spent by gentrifiers, as much as he's upset about their skin color.  He complained about whites infiltrating Harlem, but he conveniently ignored the affluent blacks who've rechristened many of the dilapidated brownstones in the originally Jewish neighborhood with far more opulence than they've ever had.  Now it's the brownstones in Brooklyn's tattered outliers newcomers are after, but it's the skin color of these newcomers that apparently prompted the vulgarity contained in Lee's unscripted speech at Pratt.  The introduction of a greater level of prosperity into an existing neighborhood seems distantly secondary to him.

If gentrification is purely an economic conundrum at its core, and if greater levels of prosperity instigate corresponding increases in social expectations by the people holding that greater level of prosperity, then perhaps some of the problems Lee identifies could be resolved through greater intra-neighborhood dialog.  For example, if a street party celebrating Michael Jackson is something longtime residents want, what's the harm in newcomers simply chalking up such events as part of the price they pay for urban living?  After all, nobody's ever claimed Brooklyn is as quiet as the 'burbs.  However, if Lee is going to claim that a Michael Jackson memorial street party is a black versus white issue, then how much have we progressed since the days of white flight?

Oddly enough, not all neighborhoods experiencing new waves of wealth are experiencing gentrification.  Some neighborhoods, like Manhattan's Upper East Side, have been in a perpetual state of ever-increasing affluence since they were initially built, so the term "gentrification" doesn't apply to the stratospheric rise in the cost of apartments there, even despite the new class of super-luxury condo towers commanding prices of up to $100 million.  Few current residents of the Upper East Side may be able to afford such trophy apartments, but they're not exactly being displaced by such developments, nor is their standard of living being pinched economically by them.

Of course, most current Upper East Siders are white, and most of the people purchasing those high-dollar apartments are also white, so there's a lot less tactile acrimony for agitators like Lee to work with in pitting people groups against each other.  Skin colors come in many more shades over in Brooklyn.

Even so, Lee did have one good point to make.  He called out the city's real estate professionals and developers who've taken it upon themselves to unilaterally re-name gentrifying neighborhoods that used to have woefully negative reputations.  Simply applying artificial new nomenclature to these transitioning 'hoods is supposed to make them more appealing to newcomers willing to pay inflated rents in what used to be crime-washed ghettos.  But what about the folks who still live there, and have called the neighborhood by its original name for generations?

Neighborhoods have enough on their plate sorting out all of their new racial and economic diversity without Realtors arbitrarily changing their names as well.

When it comes to the questions Lee asked about the uptick in sanitation, police, and public education attention that gets paid to a black neighborhood after whites start moving in, however, the answers nobody voices are ominous.  Precisely because nobody says them out loud.  There are elephants in the gentrification room that people don't really want to talk about, and part of the reason is because people like Lee already have their prejudices about prejudice, and have the temerity to infuse their prejudices with obscene diatribes that only inhibit rational discussion.

Meanwhile, how much gentrification would be taking place if black property owners weren't selling their homes and businesses for top dollar and moving on to other parts of the city, the suburbs, or a long-desired retirement?  Nobody's forcing beleaguered property owners to sell out, after they've spent decades trying to protect their property so they could raise their families and run their businesses as best they could during urban America's dark days.  Blame the newcomers for their arrogance if you want, but if gentrification is as vile as Lee claims it to be, it's not white folks who are cashing in and moving out.

Oh, so has the race card suddenly become unwelcome, Mr. Lee?

Then drop your use of it, and let's start this dialog again.  Otherwise, it looks like history may be repeating itself, only with the colors reversed.


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