Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Addition Versus Replacement

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Spike Lee caused quite a furor over his tirade at the Pratt Institute against the gentrifiers of Fort Greene, the neighborhood he grew up in. Why, he asked, did it take an influx of white people for proper city services to manifest? The question itself frames the issue as one of economic colonialism: A Black neighborhood, having suffered fifty years of redlining, discrimination and neglect by the city, is now sitting on riches in natural resources; namely, stately brownstone rowhouses and prewar apartments. It has attracted the attentions of moneyed white speculators who have come to claim it, the locals be damned.

Is it colonialism?

I suspect I’ve answered my own question. But the controversy of Spike Lee’s comments is in the words of the backlash. Pundits have asked, in as many words, “what right do people have to live in the neighborhood of their birth?” – that is, when they’re not simply arguing that gentrifiers have right of dominion because they “cleaned up” the neighborhoods. That is a question that seems to have an obvious answer at any scale other than one’s home district. Inheritance protects one’s home for future generations. Citizenship protects one’s city and country for future generations. The region of a few square miles, however, seems to have cause for a deep divide.

It is not a problem of idle speculation. There is a limited amount of neighborhoods adequately served by the subway system to job sites, and considering the extreme difficulty in creating new lines, those neighborhoods will likely not increase in number. While homeowners are offered prodigious sums to leave (and renters are simply given the boot), it is unlikely that they will ever be able to command similar lodging in any other place in the metropolitan area. That equity – both monetary and cultural – is lost forever.

It is not a problem of mere architecture, either: The buildings are preserved – indeed, they are the afore-mentioned ‘natural resources’ of the neighborhood, ready to be exploited by whomever has the capital to do so – but the community that has grown up within that district is endangered. If there was a way to preserve that community despite the pressing demand of the city for additional housing, even if it meant the destruction of the architecture, it would be a more humane and more fundamentally ecumenical means of progression. No architectural form is so sacred that it’s worth sacrificing the soul of the city for; especially not within the city famous for eating its own landmarks.

As I travel to San Francisco, I fear I may witness the inevitable result of this invasion: The Bay Area is starkly divided on economic lines, where it has been suggested that the cities – San Jose, Berkeley, Oakland – have become monocultures. The working class simply cannot afford to live in convenient access to the metropole, pushed further and further afield into suburbia. The city, however, needs the working class to keep functioning, but steadfastly refuses to increase access. Development of denser housing and the extension of transit lines is insufferably slow and inadequate to the demands of the metropolis.

New York’s great strength is its diversity, heralded primarily by its subway system, but if every neighborhood within range of a subway becomes unaffordable, then New York has not only a transit crisis or a housing crisis but a cultural crisis that threatens to destroy the primary, and perhaps only, character worth keeping. As Spike Lee railed against SpaHa and SoBro and Bedford Heights and East Williamsburg, so goes the city. Community itself is threatened.

It is a great misdeed currently being perpetrated upon the neighborhood of Fort Greene, just as it has for Harlem and just as it will for Bed-Stuy; almost as if, after the White Flight of the 1950s and 60s and the tough times of the 70s through the 90s, suburban yuppies have come back to say, “We like what you’ve done with the place. Now get out.” All colonialism is economic at heart: Those with the means riding roughshod over those who don’t have the power to fight back, with little consideration as to what happens to the put-upon. That it’s done purely through money and not cannons or dogs and firehoses doesn’t change that.

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