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Column: You contributed to 'troubling' gentrification, Spike

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 10:29 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Filmmaker Spike Lee riled about New York gentrification and hipsters
  • His rant elicits mixed reactions in rapidly changing city
  • Brooklyn journalist writes that Lee "made epic contributions to the phenomenon he finds so troubling"

New York (CNN) -- Whatever one thinks of Spike Lee's expletive-laced rant about moneyed newcomers inhabiting once-blighted corners of America's most populous city, the millionaire filmmaker could be considered a dubious messenger for such sentiments.

"You personally turned Brooklyn into the hottest spot creatively and politically and you move out," Errol Louis, a Brooklyn resident and political anchor at CNN affiliate NY1 News, said Thursday. "What did you think was going to happen? You got rich selling this place. This is your brand and people who have a little money want to sort of take you up on it, and somehow that's a problem."

The famed director's lengthy tirade on the Dickensian ills of gentrification during an African-American History Month lecture Tuesday has drawn mixed reactions from various sectors of a rapidly changing city.

"You can't just come in the neighborhood like you're Columbus and kill off the Native Americans," Lee told his audience after a Brooklyn resident raised the subject of the "other side" of gentrification.

Louis, in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News on Wednesday, called out Lee.

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"It's the sacred right of every New Yorker to bewail, blame and bemoan the arrival of the folks who arrive in the neighborhood five minutes after we do, but somebody has to call bull on Lee's complaints about gentrification," he wrote. "This is a man who has made epic contributions to the phenomenon he finds so troubling."

Case in point: Hatch House, Lee's 9,000-square-foot mansion on Manhattan's ritzy Upper East Side, Louis writes. The filmmaker bought the palace from artist Jasper Johns for $16 million in 2006 and recently put it on the market for $32 million.

Lee bought a five-story townhouse in Fort Greene -- where the director grew up -- for $650,000 in 1990, according to published reports. Lee sold the place in 1999 to a banker married to an attorney for about $1 million and moved to his Upper East Side mansion.

Lee also put his 40 Acres headquarters, a converted former firehouse in Brooklyn, up for sale at $6 million in 2008, published reports said.

"He's like a one-man marketing organization and he's brilliant at it," Louis, who has lived in Brooklyn for three decades, told CNN.

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.

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, said some of New York's most dilapidated neighborhoods have benefited from the city's enormous recovery since 2001.

For example, many renovated sections of now trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were vacant industrial spaces. Abandoned buildings in Harlem have been turned into attractive apartment houses.

"In many cases," Moss said, "we have populations that are growing where there were no people before."

D.K. Smith, the Brooklyn homeowner and tech start-up director who asked the question that triggered Lee's tirade, on Thursday said that he looks forward to possibly partnering with the filmmaker to keep the gentrification debate going.

"People are concerned about the issue of affordable housing," he said. "Where are people going to go? Spike made the point, 'I don't want to live in a city where every house is a $1 million or $3 million.' First of all, it's not going to be much of a city. We're going to lose the part of the city that makes it vibrant."

He added: "I imagine there are many elitists who would love to be in a city where the cheapest house is $1 million, but what kind of city would that be? It certainly wouldn't be Brooklyn, and it certainly wouldn't be the New York we have now."

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