Yesterday, while some of you were livetweeting The Bachelor (or livetweeting NHL players’ livetweeting it), or live-tweeting white people yell at each other about plastic bags, Spike Lee unloaded an internet-ready rant about gentrification at a speech at the Pratt Institute. Spike Lee has deep roots in Brooklyn, and has used it as a canvas for years, so if he’s got something to say, he’s worth hearing out. Lee was pretty on point with most of the rant, but it left out something important: things don’t have to be this way.
First, the Spike Lee rant, which was helpfully uploaded by New York Magazine. Lee got a question from an audience member who wanted to talk about the positive side of gentrification, which he wasn’t having any of. It’s worth a listen, because hearing a guy drop that many “motherfuckers” is always more fun than reading it:
New York called the rant “amazing” which is kind of ironic given that they just ran a story titled “Is Gentrification All Bad?” but magazines, like people, contain multitudes, so let’s cut them some slack there. Plus, Lee’s rant is fun to listen to. It’s passionate, clearly coming from a place somewhere deep inside of him and we can all get behind the idea that SpaHa is an offensively stupid real estate attempt to class up Spanish Harlem. We’re also on the record taking Bill Lee’s side in his neighbor’s misguided attempt to stop him from playing jazz, “When you move somewhere, you have to be aware of your new surroundings and adapt to them.” I said it then, I still believe it now.
But we can only go over the ills of gentrification so many times without any suggested solutions to it before the complaints become empty. Think of it this way: if you had a friend who was an asshole all the time, would you just tell him that people think he’s an asshole without telling him ways he can stop being an asshole? No, you’d tell him to stop asking other people to pay for his drinks and ruining the end of movies for people.
Similarly, it’s easy to transcend the “transplant” label and become a part of your community, once you actually know how to become part of your community. Do you know who your City Council representative is? When your community board meets? Well then go to some meetings, but listen before you speak. Get to know the people who are trying to make an impact in your neighborhood, and contribute where you think you can, not just because you can. Vote, which will help bring up these abysmal voter turnout numbers.
Who are your neighbors in your building? On your block? Shyness is nice, as the man said, but you can at least say good morning and ask how their day is. You can’t have a community if people don’t know each other’s names. You can’t have block parties either, and what do you, not want to have block parties?
Want to get political? Push for strong tenant’s rights. Even if they don’t have a huge impact on you, recent horror stories about landlords terrorizing tenants in the Times, Gothamist and Greenpointers demonstrate tenant’s rights are extremely necessary. Landlords aren’t ever not going to sue to weaken tenant protections, but there are plenty of groups that fight for renters and for tenants, so link up with one and give them your time, or even just cut them a check.
You might be dismissive of what Spike Lee said, you might think he’s right. But sharing viral shit on the internet isn’t going to solve New York’s gentrification problem. Actual, face to face human interaction might. At the very least, you’ll get a block party out of it. Hopefully.