In February, at a Black History Month event in Brooklyn, Spike Lee spoke out against the recent transformation of the borough where he grew up and where many of his films — “Red Hook Summer,” “Clockers,” “Crooklyn” and of course “Do the Right Thing” — had been set. His complaints had to do not only with the accelerating gentrification of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant but also with the fact that other historically African-American parts of New York had become whiter and wealthier in recent years.
As is often the case with Mr. Lee’s public utterances, this one was a mixture of hyperbole, provocation and plain truth. He scolded white gentrifiers for succumbing to “Christopher Columbus syndrome,” proclaiming their discovery of already-peopled territory even as they undertook the cultural marginalization and physical expulsion of the original population. “You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start Bogarting,” he said, “and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they did in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people.”
What’s the saying about people who live in glass brownstones? Nearly everyone who brings up gentrification is implicated in some way, and accusations of hypocrisy on Mr. Lee’s part were not long in coming. In a Daily News op-ed article, Errol Louis noted that Mr. Lee currently lives in the old-money oasis of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and also that when he lived in Brooklyn, he was both an agent and a beneficiary of the gentrification he now decries. Mr. Lee’s presence in Fort Greene in the 1990s — as an artist, an entrepreneur and a celebrity — contributed in no small measure to that area’s cachet. Fort Greene was colonized by successive waves of interlopers: bohemians and creative class types; recent graduates and fledgling families; bankers and lawyers.
The cartoon accompanying Mr. Louis’s piece portrayed Mr. Lee as the original hipster, surveying a streetscape overrun with his clones. “There goes the neighborhood,” he says, and the implication is that it’s his own fault.
Of course, the phrase “there goes the neighborhood” has an ugly racial pedigree. It evokes a history of blockbusting, redlining and white flight, an urban past whose legacy is more likely to be evoked ritually than studied, and that stands as a grim prologue to the gentrified present. And yet, as often as not, that scary time is also recalled as a golden age.
Every city is simultaneously a seedbed of novelty and a hothouse of nostalgia, and modern New York presents a daily dialectic of progress and loss. As Colson Whitehead notes in “The Colossus of New York,” you become a New Yorker — or perhaps a true resident of any place, whether you were born there or not — when you register the disappearance of a familiar spot. “You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city.” But this subjective landscape of memory and desire is built on an infrastructure of social and economic reality, on the concrete facts of race and class that Mr. Lee insisted on pointing out.
New Yorkers, like most Americans — white, upper-middle-class Americans in particular — prefer to address such matters through an elaborate lexicon of euphemism and code, speaking of “good schools,” “sketchy” blocks and “improvements” in the retail and culinary amenities. National politics has a tendency to revert, in the age of Obama, to the shadow language of white supremacy, with its rhetoric of laziness, dependency and cultural pathology. The word “class” is uttered sanctimoniously when preceded by “middle” and scoldingly when followed by “war” but is more often swallowed up in numbers and abstractions. We’d much rather talk about the 1 percent or the 47 percent, inequality or envy, diversity or opportunity than about labor, wealth and power. But maybe Brooklyn is a place to start, and perhaps culture, rather than politics, is a more fruitful area of investigation. The name of New York’s most populous borough does not signify what it used to, and embedded in that change of meaning are some clues about the current state of our old friends the cultural contradictions of capitalism.
The new Brooklyn is easily mocked — and almost as easily embraced — as a utopia of beards, tattoos, fixed-gear bikes and do-it-yourself commerce. Everyone is busy knitting, raising chickens, distilling whiskey, making art and displaying the fruits of this activity in pop-up galleries and boutiques, farm-to-table kitchens and temples of mixology. “Brooklyn” might as well be a synonym for the Portland of “Portlandia,” or for the sweet, silly, self-important, stuff-white-people-like Gestalt that television series has come to represent. Its ethic is both countercultural and entrepreneurial, offering an aesthetic of radicalism without the difficult commitment of radical politics. The tension built into the “Brooklyn” brand is that it’s both a local, artisanal, communal protest against the homogenizing forces of corporate culture and a new way of being bourgeois, and as such participating in the destruction of non-middle-class social space. Its rebellious energies are focused largely on restaurants, retail and real estate.
Not everyone in Brooklyn has a chin-strap beard or a sleeve tattoo or a home bacon-curing operation, of course, but with remarkable speed this image of a county of 2.5 million people has become a global brand. And it has almost entirely displaced an older Brooklyn, whose image was once almost as pervasive.
That Brooklyn was the quintessential Old Neighborhood, a patchwork of ethnic enclaves safe from any Columbus. The old Brooklyn was a place from which ambitious young people — Jewish, Irish, African-American, Italian — set out, not a place they flocked toward. In the mid-20th-century imagination, it is like a small, provincial town that happens to lie just across the East River from the capital of all aspiration. The journey from one side to the other is long and freighted with symbolism, and at times impossible. Ralph and Alice Kramden, in their Bensonhurst walk-up, were a million miles from Park Avenue. Brooklyn is where young Alvy Singer lived with his squabbling family in a house under the noisiest roller coaster in Coney Island; Manhattan was where he found Annie Hall. Brooklyn is where Tony Manero worked his dead-end job, ate his pizza and argued with his parents; Manhattan is where, in the last shot of “Saturday Night Fever,” he will seek freedom, fortune and artistic fulfillment.
When I was a kid, living mostly in Chapel Hill, N.C., Brooklyn was “Welcome Back, Kotter,” whose title character had, in defiance of sanity and upward mobility, returned to his old neighborhood to teach in a public high school populated by a melting pot of multiethnic underachievers. Brooklyn was also where my own grandparents held similar jobs, and where my mother and most of her numerous cousins had grown up, itching to be elsewhere. Nowadays, Brooklyn is represented on television by “Girls,” in which it figures as a playground for the ambitious but not quite disciplined, broke but not really poor, mostly white, college-educated young, and by “2 Broke Girls,” in which the main characters, impecunious but still mightily entitled, collide with dubious stereotypes from the old neighborhood. One of the drifting stoner girls of “Broad City” on Comedy Central, meanwhile, has been priced out of Brooklyn to one of the parts of Queens occasionally announced (along with Philadelphia, Providence and any number of other aspirants) as the Next Brooklyn. The old Brooklyn mourned the loss of Ebbets Field, historic home of the Dodgers; the new Brooklyn reacted with ambivalence to the construction of Barclays Center, where the Nets now play. There were protests and petitions on every corner of Park Slope and Prospect Heights when the arena was in the planning stages. Now many of the protesters show up for Neil Young and Barbra Streisand or drop their kids off to hear Kanye West and Vampire Weekend.
The name for this change may be gentrification, but only if the word is allowed its full freight of complexity — the mix of guilt, resentment and pride that has been slowly accumulating for a very long time. You see glimmers of it in “The Squid and the Whale,” Noah Baumbach’s poison-pen love letter to mid-’80s Park Slope, still a bourgeois-bohemian hinterland of the Great Metropolis. As early as 1970, in her prescient and unsettling novel “Desperate Characters,” Paula Fox captured the tension at the heart of Brooklyn’s transition. A married couple with more than a touch of “Columbus syndrome” are menaced by a feral cat who represents both their own uneasy consciences and the hostility of the neighbors they may be displacing. Another version of that story — of white “discovery” and black resentment, but also of fragile interracial solidarity — is told in Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel “The Fortress of Solitude,” which looks back at Boerum Hill in the 1970s, the era Mr. Lee recalled in “Crooklyn.”
The Brooklyn of that time, as recalled by Mr. Lethem and Mr. Lee, is a place where a painter and a writer — or a schoolteacher and a musician — could raise their children in relative comfort. It was also a place where such families lived in close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity to people in very different circumstances, where class and race could not be wished away. That Brooklyn still exists and cannot entirely be bought out, built over or exiled to the kingdom of memory. It will be the task of the artists and writers who live there now, native and otherwise, to discover it.
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