Filmmaker Spike Lee has triggered much commentary – both praise and derision – for his profane tirade against the gentrification of his native borough of Brooklyn, New York.
At its essence, Lee's message boiled down to this: so many middle-class and high-income (mostly white) outsiders have poured into formerly poor and working-class (mostly minority) neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other parts of New York that real estate prices have skyrocketed to the point that the old residents have been driven away. To Lee's dismay, this phenomenon has not only damaged the traditional character of these enclaves but also generated better police, fire and social services for the new, well-heeled members of these changing communities. Consequently, in less than one generation, the beloved “edgy” New York City of Lee's youth and adolescence has metamorphosed into a soulless replica of the suburban mall culture that he so loathes.
Despite Lee's hyperbole, overgeneralizations and gratuitous foul language, these observations are indisputable and reflect cold hard reality.
However, as Errol Louis persuasively indicated in a column in the Daily News, Lee's rant exposes him as a gross hypocrite. “This is a man who has made epic contributions to the phenomenon he finds so troubling,” Louis wrote. Indeed, Louis pointed out that after relentlessly marketing “Brooklyn” in his films, commercials and other media for years (making the borough seem “cool” and “artistic”), Lee eventually “cashed out” by selling his property in Fort Greene at a handsome profit, and then moved (gasp!) to the very rich, very white Upper East Side of Manhattan. Lee has since placed his East 63rd Street mansion on the market for a cool $32 million (double the price he paid for it just eight years ago).
Still, Lee has a point. New York City has indeed lost its soul (but, of course, so has Lee himself).
I have witnessed this phenomenal alteration first-hand. When I arrived in Gotham in 1989-1990, the metropolis seemed to be on the verge of collapse: The crack epidemic soared to its zenith; the city recorded 2,000 murders annually (about one every four hours); subways were dirty, dangerous and graffiti-covered; streets and parks were overrun with homeless people; and a recession wracked peoples' dreams.
New York City was also engulfed in racial turmoil as exemplified by the murder of a black teenager named Yusuf Hawkins by a gang of Italian-American thugs in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn -- the deadly culmination of the white working-classes' anger toward the influx of minorities into formerly all-white areas and the decline of a manufacturing-based economy. But Lee should know better than anyone else that this brutal, dark, challenging atmosphere is what inspired his art and served as the framework for his inflammatory rhetoric in the first place.
When I stepped into this urban inferno as a young man, I was both fascinated and repelled by the degradation all around me. Having grown up in small towns and suburbia, I found New York an exciting and unnerving place. Every day offered an adventure. As a young, inexperienced man with no firm direction in life and with little or nothing to lose, New York offered an ideal "satanic playground" to enjoy, watch vicariously and learn about life. (Although, at the time I lived in a leafy, safe, middle-class neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens, so I still maintained a discreet distance from the real hellish vortex of the city.)
Yet, I recall that I longed to have lived in an even earlier – and far more decadent – period in the city's history: the 1970s, the era of near-bankruptcy, rising violent crime, white flight, a heroin epidemic and relentless danger lurking around every corner. Thus, I felt that I actually missed the true “nadir” of the city's descent and experienced only the fading remnants of that gloriously dark and melancholic chapter.
Indeed, consider the great art that the toilet of the 1970s and early 1980s produced: ferocious punk bands like the New York Dolls and the Ramones, artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat; filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (who, though he was spawned in an earlier era, reached his artistic peak then). One can also argue that the extreme deprivation, desolation and violence of the 1970s South Bronx gave birth to rap-hip-hop (a musical form that was innovative and compelling in its earliest incarnation).
Could any of these great artists and movements have come to life if New York City had been a safe, clean, well-ordered, well-fed, expensive place to live? Highly doubtful. Consider the Ramones – the group comprised working-class boys from Queens who ventured into the dark, dank pit of the Lower East Side of the 1970s – then a truly dangerous hellhole and the heroin capital of the Western Hemisphere – and created an unforgettable musical legacy that will be cherished forever. The Ramones were not “trying” to be cool, hip and anti-establishment – rather they carved their own destiny by dealing with harsh reality on its own terms. The Ramones (and hundreds of other artists who never became famous) lived in decadence up to their armpits – including hard drug usage, among other self-destructive habits.
Now contrast the hard-core lifestyle of the Ramones to the hundreds of mediocre, derivative rock bands that now infest the clean, safe Brooklyn of the 21st century – suburban, middle-class poseurs wearing intentionally dirty blue jeans and untucked shirts, pretending to be "alienated" and "bored." (What would Joey Ramone think of these people?) What great artistic/cultural movements have germinated in New York in the past 20 years? I can’t think of one (and, no, I don’t consider the development of apps to equate to a profound accomplishment for mankind).
Since I lived in Queens in the early 1990s and worked in Manhattan, I rarely ventured into Brooklyn – but when I did, I saw grim, decaying neighborhoods replete with garbage-strewn lots, bodegas, liquor stores, check-cashing joints, etc. I don't remember what particular neighborhoods I visited, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if that gloomy scenario has now been transformed into high-priced enclaves filled with yogurt shops, artisanal cheese stores, vegetarian restaurants, yoga schools and oodles of baby-strollers pushed by nicely dressed young white women.
As a middle-aged man now, of course I would much prefer to live in a clean, safe, orderly New York City – I'm simply too old and unadventurous to hunger for what I once perceived as an “edgier” and “more interesting” urban jungle of the past. (And so is Spike Lee.) Hence, that is the unanswerable question that something like gentrification forces us to ponder: Would we rather live in a crime-ridden (but cheap) city stuffed to the gills with eccentric characters and dangerous options? Or do we prefer to live in a rich, but mind-numbingly dull and sterile landscape of prosperity that breeds nothing but self-satisfaction, consumerism and boredom. I suspect most folks (including me now), if they're really being honest, would choose the latter.
Ironically, although violent crime in New York City (mirroring the rest of the country) has miraculously plunged over the past 25 years, poverty remains even more deeply entrenched than ever. (After all, we just lived through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.) One might think this scenario – accompanied by an ever-widening wealth gap – would provide a textbook fertile ground for revolution, or at least a massive undergoing movement for change. But, all we get is Occupy Wall Street, a "protest" led by middle-class, college-educated whites who were basically whining about their high student loans! These are hardly the radical street-fighters of yesteryear.
As for Spike Lee, he is essentially engaged in marketing himself and his fake contrived “anger” while his directing career has sunk to near-irrelevance. But give Spike credit: At least he got people talking about a very important subject.