When Spike Lee has strong feelings on anything Brooklyn-related, the public is bound to hear about them. This is, after all, the man behind some of his home borough’s most iconic films, like Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn and She’s Gotta Have It.
During a Black History Month lecture at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute earlier this week, Lee lashed out on the rapid gentrification of New York City’s boroughs and its consequential effects on the local Black populations. Anyone familiar with Lee’s work could assume the acclaimed filmmaker’s stance on the topic, but one audience member surely did not predict the explosive response he received after asking Lee if “he’s ever looked at gentrification from the other side.”
“Let me just kill you right now,” Lee told Smith.
Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park… The police weren’t around… When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.”
Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.”
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 shit gotta change because you’re here?
The audience member who sparked Lee’s frank criticisms later revealed himself on CNN, seemingly unscathed and appreciative.
“What I wanted to do was expand the dialogue,” D.K. Smith told OutFront‘s Erin Burnett.
Not only is Smith a Brooklyn homeowner, he–like many of Brooklyn and Harlem’s architects of change–is an African American. While Smith bought his parent’s brownstone in 1989, some might consider him to be, what is ambiguously known as, a Black gentrifier.
No discussion on gentrification would be complete without the consideration of Black gentrifiers and their contributions to (and corresponding exploitation of) the original communities with which they reside.
While conducting research for her book, Gentrification in Black Face? The Return of the Black Middle Class to Urban Neighborhoods, author Kesha Moore found that ”gentrification led by Black middle income residents has a social justice motivation based on the residents’ experiences of racial exclusion and an explicit desire for racial solidarity.”
Smith might have unexpectedly kickstarted a widespread, yet redundant discussion on the pros and cons of gentrification. However, more often than not, those discussions are hot flashes in the media.
Perhaps the conversation should pivot to gentrifiers of color and how they might best exercise their class and socioeconomic privilege by brainstorming and executing new ways to collaborate with long-time residents to invest better resources and energy into their communities.