Ray Sanchez and Steve Almasy, CNN, February 26, 2014
Spike Lee grew up in Fort Greene in Brooklyn.
His parents still live there.
He still keeps an office there.
But it’s not the same neighborhood he grew up in, and his feelings about newcomers now inhabiting once-blighted parts of America’s most-populous city like Fort Greene slapped many people in the face after the famed director went into an expletive-laced rant during an African-American History Month lecture on Tuesday.
“I grew up here in New York. It’s changed,” Lee said at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, an art, design, and architecture school. “And 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 mother******* 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.”
Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, said the city has witnessed an enormous recovery since 2001, and the greatest change has been felt in Brooklyn, which has drawn newcomers because of its housing, access to Manhattan and improved safety.
“Cities don’t stand still, and the cities that stand still are Detroit,” Moss said. “So if Spike Lee wants to see a place where there is no gentrification, he’ll also find a place where there are no investments. Obviously, he’s someone who knows how to make a movie but doesn’t know anything about cities.”
“Let me just kill you right now,” Lee, the “Do The Right Thing” director, told D.K. Smith, a Brooklyn homeowner and tech start-up director, at the speech when Smith brought up the subject of the “other side” of gentrification.
And then he launched his lengthy tirade.
On Wednesday, Lee told “Anderson Cooper 360” that he’s not against new people moving into areas that were once predominantly poor and predominantly African-American.
“My problem is that when you move into a neighborhood, have some respect for the history, for the culture,” Lee said.
Smith, the managing director of the start-up Brooklyn Innovation Center, told CNN that he doesn’t mind that Lee ripped into him and wouldn’t let him interject.
Smith told Lee on Tuesday that he didn’t dispute his point that services in the neighborhoods had changed after the new people–most of whom are white–moved in.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa . . .” said Lee. “Let me kill you some more.”
“Can I talk about something?” Smith said.
“Not yet. Then comes the mother******’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here,” he said to applause from the audience.
He gave the examples of people playing drums in Mount Morris Park, a tradition he said lasted 40 years until the new residents complained.
And then there was the one that literally hit home. Lee said his father, “a great jazz musician,” bought a brownstone 46 years ago.
“And the mother******’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not–he doesn’t even play electric bass. It’s acoustic. We bought the mother******’ house in 1968, and now you call the cops? In 2013?”
According to a New York Times article, police have received 17 noise complaints. The Times said a woman who lived next door had called most.
Lee lamented that Fort Greene Park in the morning resembled the Westminster Dog Show with hip dogs and that real estate brokers and “mother******* hipsters” conspired to change the names of neighborhoods like the South Bronx to SoBro or Bushwick to East Williamsburg.
“So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” Lee asked. “Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”
Lee didn’t dispute to Cooper that gentrification brings rising home prices, but he worried about what became of the people who were priced out of the neighborhood.
“There’s good. But what cost? If we lose half of the African-American population, in my neighborhood, Fort Greene, and the schools become better, what happened to half the people that left?”
And he was angry that city services improved when the neighborhood profile changed.
“I just find it interesting you have to have an influx of white New Yorkers to move into these neighborhoods for the services to go up, for the schools to be better,” he told CNN. “They get better sanitation, get more police protection. Why didn’t that happened before gentrification? We’re still paying taxes. We’re still New Yorkers.”