Film director/Knicks superfan Spike Lee is certainly not above reproach ; if you paid an admission price of any sort for “Girl 6″, you know what I’m talking about. But if seems that Lee’s wealth and celebrity status have caused some to sneer at his recent diatribe against the creeping Vice-ification of his beloved Brooklyn (“we had the crystal ball, motherfuckin’ Do the Right Thing with John Savage’s character, when he rolled his bike over Buggin’ Out’s sneaker. I wrote that script in 1988. He was the first one. How you walking around Brooklyn with a Larry Bird jersey on? You can’t do that. Not in Bed Stuy”).
Noting the rather aggressive backlash to Lee’s comments, Jeremiah Moss of the fantastic Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York cannot help but recall his own blog once fielded a comment as pithy as “NYC was gross back then. The natives nearly destroyed the city. Now, thanks to the influx of cleaner people, the city is glamorous again!”
People didn’t like that Lee was angry and had used the word “fuck” several times in what was now being called his “rant.” They called him “arrogant,” a word that has “uppity” as one of its synonyms. They didn’t like that he, like television’s George and Louise Jefferson before him, had “moved on up” to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky, as the song goes. He was a wealthy hypocrite, people argued. He had too many multi-million-dollar properties. He had abandoned Brooklyn, and didn’t deserve to defend it. In an op-ed for the Daily News, Errol Louis made some good points about Spike’s own role in the gentrification of Fort Greene, including his flipping of several properties and the marketing of a rather tacky “Absolut Brooklyn” vodka. There were definitely some conflicts there that Spike did not address, and should have; however, that omission does not fully explain the violent backlash he received, and the fierce pro-gentrification cries that swirled around him. After all, plenty of other financially successful New York artists have railed against gentrification—David Byrne of Talking Heads, whose net worth is $45 million, even used the word “fuck” in his rant against the rich–and they didn’t get such backlash. But they weren’t black people expressing anger about white people.
As the online comment threads about Spike Lee lengthened, growing more contentious, the conversation began to crack. The neoliberal façade that hides the true face of today’s brand of gentrification fell away like a veil. Several people began to make statements like (I’m paraphrasing here): “I’m white and I helped make the neighborhood nicer,” and “White people were here first,” and “Black people pushed out the white people and now the whites are just coming back,” as well as, “I’m white and I’ll live wherever I want.” Said another (not paraphrasing), “Making a neighborhood that was once nice, nice again is not gentrification. It’s restoration.”