Filmmaker Spike Lee rips into questioner during speech
Lee riled about New York gentrification and hipsters
Urban policy professor asks: Does Lee want New York to be Detroit?
D.K. Smith, the questioner, says "What I wanted to do was expand the dialogue"
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.”
He added: “Brooklyn has become more attractive to more people. Of course, that means some people are going to have to find other places to live, but that’s the magic of New York. We create new places. Today, Bushwick, which was an area that people were afraid to go to, now has some of the best restaurants in the city.”
The new neighbors complain
“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: Why are the services finally better?
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!”
Smith couldn’t get a word in during Lee’s speech Tuesday night. But the next day he said he was glad the filmmaker got people talking about the issue.
“What I wanted to do was expand the dialogue,” he told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
There is another side, resident says
But Smith said there was a definite lack of balance in Lee’s rant.
“I’m black, and America is America,” he said. “I don’t need to moan and groan about it all the time. And some things are bigger than Bed Stuy or Fort Greene or being black in Brooklyn. Gentrification is an issue everywhere. It gets right down to the whole economic scene with the super rich, the 1%, and then the other 99 % of us.”
Smith said that when he bought his parents’ four-story brownstone in 1989, he thought he’d be lucky to one day get $450,000 for it. “We passed that some time in the ’90s,” he said.
“I’m personally tired of moaning and groaning about being black,” he said. “Here’s a case where it has its advantages – for the first time tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of blacks can participate in American wealth creation. My God, that’s what this country is all about.”
Referring to reports that Lee’s 9,000-square-foot mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is on the market for $32 million, Smith said: “Spike is a causative factor in gentrification. If Spike moves to a swamp … that land next door goes up immediately.”
But Smith doesn’t disagree entirely with Lee.
“I’ve had incidents with the dogs of new owners crapping on the sidewalks. They don’t think anybody lives there,” he said, adding that most are “wonderful new neighbors.”
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.”