Skip to main content

Spike Lee missed the point

By Errol Louis, CNN Commentator
updated 6:26 PM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Spike Lee railed against gentrification in his old neighborhood
  • Lee has profited from the thing he decries. But he also missed point, he says
  • In many big cities, housing costs rise much faster than incomes
  • Louis: Fixing that gap requires more than racial finger-pointing

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

(CNN) -- There was an important kernel of truth buried in director Spike Lee's recent tirade against gentrification. New York City, like other big cities, has experienced a decades-long economic squeeze in which the cost of housing has soared while wage levels dropped, leaving middle-class families feeling pinched, punished and pushed out.

Lee's 10-minute, obscenity-laced rant about changes in his old Brooklyn neighborhood, Fort Greene, was deliberately offensive and, at times, incendiary (you can listen to it -- uncut -- here). He accused white newcomers to the area of being rude and disrespectful of local culture. And in this defense of Fort Greene, he sounds somewhat neighborly -- New York could always use a few more polite people -- until you think about it for a minute.

Who, exactly, determines what the local culture is? To whom is this deference or "respect" supposed to be rendered, and how? When can the "respect" bill be considered paid in full?

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

And whatever happened to the idea that law-abiding citizens in a free society should be able to walk their dogs in the park, take yoga classes, sip overpriced coffee at the local café and otherwise go about their business without having their lifestyle choices judged, ridiculed or attacked?

Also, as I've noted elsewhere, it doesn't help Lee's case that he sold his own home for $1 million in the late 1990s and decamped to the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he currently resides in a 9,000-square-foot palace that he bought in 2006 for $16 million and recently put on the market with a $32 million asking price. This is a man who made a fortune by promoting the hipness of black Brooklyn, relentlessly and profitably spurring on the very gentrification he now decries.

There was a better point Lee could've made.

The real phenomenon of gentrification worth talking about is a national crisis of housing costs that are climbing faster than the earning power of many residents. It's not confined to black neighborhoods, and it's happening all around the country, not just in New York.

Spike Lee rips NYC gentrification
Spike Lee on gentrification

In a fascinating report, Daniel Hartley, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, examined metropolitan areas to measure the number of census tracts where the housing prices moved from the lower half to the top half for that area.

Between 2000 and 2007, Hartley found, housing prices made that leap in 61% of Boston -- the most spectacular increase of any big city. Seattle ranked second, with 55% of the city's census tracts with low-cost housing moving into the pricier bracket. New York, came in third, with 46% of the city's cheaper housing turning not so cheap.

Hartley's price-based measurement of gentrification makes far more sense than racially charged anecdotal observations from Lee. Looking at these kinds of hard numbers also reveals that, in many cities, gentrification takes place without an ethnic shift. It's middle-class black homesteaders who are gentrifying the Bronzeville section of Chicago, for example. And South Boston is going upscale while remaining an Irish-Catholic bastion.

What makes gentrification a problem is that earning power for most people isn't keeping up with the rising cost of buying or renting a place to live. In New York, the cost of renting an apartment jumped 8.6% between 2007 and 2011 -- and in those same years, median household income dropped nearly 7%, according to a report by New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate.

That gap between income and rent is the true crisis of gentrification -- and to fix it will require going beyond ethnic and racial finger-pointing.

What we need is a national campaign to ensure that middle-class wages keep pace with the cost of necessities like food, health care and shelter. It won't make headlines like Spike's rant, but it might replace the heat of blame and resentment with the light of solutions.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT