The issue of gentrification has emerged in the aftermath of Spike Lee’s pointed response to an audience member asking about its positive aspects. Last week, when the director of many classic Black films decided to speak out against gentrification, much of it was dismissed as a rant. In a few media outlets, the remarks have been deemed “racist” and short sighted.
Underneath much of the criticism that Lee has received is the notion that because he is rich, it somehow revokes his right to comment on the issue since it does not effect him personally anymore. This approach makes it about him, and serves the function of reducing much of Lee’s commentary to personal gripes about his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. The real problem that people have with what he said is that it gives voice to the sentiments of more than a few Black New Yorkers. Expletives aside, Spike did make some valid points.
While Lee is taken to task by many, what is left out of this discussion are the voices of many anti-gentrification activists in New York City. Of course, because of who Spike Lee is, his platform has priority over those who have been dealing with this issue on the ground for at least the past two decades. That is how things are, but consider this: have Spike Lee’s detractors made sound arguments against any of the myriad of issues they so casually side stepped?
In many of the pieces, the issue of displacement is seldom raised. The heart of the matter is about people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods being unable to afford to live there due to rising rents. Where is the discussion of the greedy realtors and landlords who force out working people for those who can pay more? For example, in Central Harlem, the average resident makes roughly $26,000 a year. How can a person make rent that can easily go up to $1700 a month- sometimes more? While the fluffy part of gentrification may connote more yoga studios and coffee shops, to many working-class people it can mean homelessness. The reality of economic life in New York City is that there is a dearth of affordable housing, and gentrification only exacerbates that problem for those who are already vulnerable as it is. But, that is not what we are discussing here- its only about the angry rantings of one rich Black man.
There will be no attempt to rebuttal the countless studies on gentrification, as that would be too much like honest engagement. This public backlash against Mr. Lee was more about telling him not to speak up on issues. The incident of vandalism that took place of Spike Lee’s old building makes this point unmistakable. That was about silencing and intimidation. How dare he speak up in favor of the Black community and our right to have shelter? Despite all the talk of post-racialism, even well to do Black people are subject to attacks on their dignity and defacing their property should they speak out of turn.
-Marc W. Polite