I have to admire my sister and brother-in-law. Before the recession, the young couple moved into a Florida neighborhood that was in transition. Making a home in a Spanish-style cottage with a large ficus tree in their front yard that I find awesomely Floridian (but they find it to be the bane of their existence) they had plans to throw family barbecues, raise their children, and just live life. Had the economy held, I am certain that many families, Black and White, with their same values would have found their way into the walkable neighborhood, that is located near commercial and not too far from the beach. There is even a park nearby where you can put your toddler on a stroller and just…stroll. If I lived in South Florida, I would want the house across the street. Had it all gone right, this neighborhood would be the place to live but hard to get into because of the rise in desirability. Unfortunately, the recession did happen and that cute little neighborhood did not become the wave-to-your-neighbor-from-the-porch-where-everybody-knows-your-name-invite-everyone-over-for-barbecue-go-for-a-stroll-with-the-kids-and-oh-did-you-redo-your-bathroom-my-house-is-worth-a-fortune-after-ten-years-and-I-am-jealous-but-really-happy-for-you-kind-of-neighborhood. Instead, my sister and brother-in-law’s neighborhood is… a place that they want to leave. And I don’t blame them. Their neighborhood is so on the other end of the spectrum from what they expected, that it’s not even remotely funny. My sister and I actually had this discussion a few weeks ago. She is awesome in that she reads everything that I write so she had been following my Gentrify Your Own Self! series. After about the second or third “gentrification” post, she asked what I thought was a pretty good question: When do you say that the safety and happiness of my family is more important than trying to gentrify myself? My answer: Safety and happiness is always the first priority.
If my sister does move elsewhere, I do know that two things are certain:
1) She and her family did their best while living there. They kept a nice home and were good neighbors. They were just ahead of their time.
2) If the neighborhood does turn into what it should have been, she won’t get angry at those who decided to take their own chances and move in because she knows that like her, they saw the neighborhood for its potential.
I haven’t actually gotten to the real point of this post yet but I am about to. Sometimes, I wish I were rich in money. If I were, I would have bought homes in my sister’s neighborhood long ago and worked hard to turn it into the flourishing area that it was meant to be. I guess the universe heard me talking because over the last few days, I have been seeing across my Facebook newsfeed these articles about actors/screenwriter/director, Spike Lee – Yes, creator of one of my favorite movies, School Daze – go off on gentrification.
When I read the first article and listened to his addressing this audience about the subject, I cracked up. It was like listening to a comedy routine with some real truths about how gentrification can negatively impact people of color. I understood exactly what he was saying. I related. His father could not play his guitar in a place he’d lived in for over four decades, my family can no longer go fishing in the waterholes they’d known about for over two centuries. ‘Hoods that Spike Lee grew up knowing had been renamed and our ‘hoods on Hilton Head are … What exactly is a sea pine? He talked about raised rents, uncollected garbage, and enough dogs for the Westminster Dog Show. I have witnessed property tax hikes, eminent domain, and limited beach access. So while Spike Lee sounded funny when he went off, it actually can be a bad situation for those people who remain behind. Then I read the second and third articles… Those, I found less amusing. If you will bear with me, I am working through some really deep emotions. Spike Lee wrote some really awesome films. I love, love, love, the Brooklyn Brownstones featured in several of them. Heck, I wanted one of them. I really respected how Spike Lee represented his roots in each of his films. But according to the articles I read, he sold his home for his personal reasons. And of course now, his home is worth quadruple the price he sold it for, but eh what’s a few million dollars when you’re making movies that people still enjoy watching? But it is his right to sell his home if he wants to. We cannot control that. If you recall, I actually wrote about this in The Promise of Palmettos. What he does not have the right to do, after choosing to sell his real estate/home/heritage/culture/legacy, is to go off on people who saw the Brooklyn neighborhoods for the good investment that they are and acted on it.
I wish (please forgive me, Spike Lee because it pains me to say it) that he really had seen the future in Fort Greene and the other Brooklyn neighborhoods. All of these actors and entertainers coming out of Fort Greene, Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem, Boogie Down, Mount Vernon, and other communities in NYC and not one of them thought it was a good idea to reinvest in their own real estate/home/heritage/culture/legacy?! If anybody could have gentrified their own selves, Spike Lee and these other entertainers could have. It would not have been easy. It’s not for anyone. It is doable. It was doable for my family on Hilton Head Island. And if you want to talk NYC, my own family who lives in Harlem (What did they say it was called now?) still lives there. Why oh why didn’t Spike Lee take to heart the script he had written in Do the Right Thing ? You know that scene where the three old Black men who had hung out at the side of Sal’s Pizzeria stared narrow-eyed at the Asian grocer for having “the nerve” to try to make a living in their neighborhood. Art imitates life. Spike Lee, through his movies, saw gentrification coming. He had the means to maybe not prevent it, but benefit from it, in a way that his father could still play his acoustic guitar as loudly as he wanted, he could have had his Michael Jackson party and do all of the things that made Fort Greene, well… Fort Greene. And yes, it may have still been the “Westminster Dog Show,” because a great neighborhood is a great neighborhood. It draws people of all cultures that we have to learn to respect and enjoy. Not eradicate.
Am I being judgmental? Maybe I am. However, I am not going to dictate the social responsibility of every Black person of means but I want to give people something to think about. I also want to let Spike Lee know that it is not too late to Gentrify His Own Self, if he chooses to. I implore him and others to think about ways that we can make gentrification beneficial to our own community because it’s not going away no matter how loudly we protest and how many “F” bombs we drop. As for my sister and brother-in-law, if they do decide to leave, it means that they’ll have the opportunity to make their mark somewhere else. The most important thing is that they are happy.
If you have not had a chance to read Spike Lee’s thoughts on Gentrification, please view the article below: