The “Defend Brooklyn” hoodie that Spike Lee wore last night should’ve been a clear indicator regarding his thoughts on gentrification in the borough that raised him.
Last night, Lee appeared at Pratt Institute for a Black History Month lecture, but the discussion quickly became a piercingly truthful rant from the opinionated auteur. Citing a New York Timesarticle about the supposed good of gentrification, Lee unleashed a seven-minute tirade about how the changes in Brooklyn infuriate him, specifically the “Christopher Columbus Syndrome.”
The Daily Intelligencer transcribed the moment, which had about as many f-words as a Scorsese flick. Here are the highlights:
I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. 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 motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. 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.
On the aforementioned “Columbus Syndrome”:
Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ 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 motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
On how the changes have alienated longtime residents:
You can’t just — here’s another thing: When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!
On how the rising cost of living has priced people out of neighborhoods, and those “motherf****** hipsters” in Williamsburg:
So you’re talking about the people’s property change? But what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want live in Fort Greene. People wanna live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word?
On the frustrating practice of re-naming neighborhoods that already have names:
That’s another thing: Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers are changing names! Stuyvesant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No, no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?
On how he predicted gentrification over 25 years ago with the infamous Larry Bird shirt scene inDo the Right Thing:
And we had the crystal ball, motherfuckin’ Do the Right Thing with John Savage’s character, when he rolled his bike over Buggin’ Out’s sneaker. I wrote that script in 1988. He was the first one. How you walking around Brooklyn with a Larry Bird jersey on? You can’t do that. Not in Bed Stuy.
Finally, on how gentrification hasn’t made the neighborhood better for everyone:
So, look, you might say, “Well, there’s more police protection. The public schools are better.” Why are the public schools better? First of all, everybody can’t afford — even if you have money it’s still hard to get your kids into private school. Everybody wants to go to Saint Ann’s — you can’t get into Saint Ann’s. You can’t get into Friends. What’s the other one? In Brooklyn Heights. Packer. If you can’t get your child into there … It’s crazy. There’s a business now where people — you pay — people don’t even have kids yet and they’re taking this course about how to get your kid into private school. I’m not lying! If you can’t get your kid into private school and you’re white here, what’s the next best thing? All right, now we’re gonna go to public schools.
That last statement is the key to the argument that Lee and so many others make about gentrification: that’s it’s only beneficial to some people. The only difference between Lee and the next disgruntled 56-year-old Broolynite is that he’s Spike Lee—when he shares his thoughts (which are accurate), people listen. Also, his words resonate with non-New Yorkers because the same thing is happening in cities all over the U.S.
Do the Right Thing, widely recognized as Lee’s strongest film, turns 25 in June. If a special edition release with commentary like this about the changes in Brooklyn isn’t already in the works, it should be—especially after this. Listen to audio of the full exchange to truly feel Lee’s passion.