A classic piece of cinema foretold our current exasperation with gentrification.
Spike Lee is a polarizing figure. Over the course of his career, the outspoken director has displayed a propensity for making statements as confrontational as his approach to film making. Lee has been in the headlines often this year, but not because his stirring, controversial film Do the Right Thing turned 25 today. He corralled the media’s attention in February after delivering a charged rant about the purported benefits of gentrification during a Black History Month lecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. "I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed," he told the crowd before asking why "it [takes] an influx of white New Yorkers" for certain areas to improve. The truth of the matter is that one particular scene from Do the Right Thing foresaw gentrification in 1989.
During the infamous scene, Clifton bumps into Buggin’ Out, neglecting to excuse himself, and scuffing his Jordan 4’s in the process. "What you want to live in a black neighborhood for anyway, man?" Buggin’ Out asked, adding an emphatic "Motherfuck gentrification." Granted Buggin’ Out was pissed off about the smudge on his white Jordans, it was Clifton’s lack of courtesy that truly infuriated him. Absence of manners of aside, Clifton didn’t even acknowledge him, and would’ve proceeded right into his brownstone, blinders on, if Buggin’ Out didn’t confront him. It was an egregious display of entitlement and obliviousness, as if he was totally unaware of his surroundings. As if he, Larry Bird t-shirt and all, was totally unaware of anyone but himself.
Race isn’t what breeds the alienation that comes with gentrification, it’s the position that the new imports take.
Lee referenced the scene during his diatribe. "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," Lee said. "I wrote that script in 1988. He was the first one." The ones that Lee was referring to are victims of what he called "Christopher Columbus Syndrome": gentrifiers who move into urban areas without displaying any appreciation for the neighborhoods or their inhabitants, many of whom have spent their whole lives there. Unfortunately, hyper-gentrification has made this a frequent occurrence today. Furthermore, because many of these new residents happen to be white and the existing communities are largely composed of minorities, their arrival creates tension. Lee’s comments did the same.
Both actor and filmmaker Michael Rapaport and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott accused Lee of benefiting from gentrification as much as the middle class whites he criticized. "If the people that donated money to Spike Lee's last film saw the apartment that he lives in, they'd bug out," Rapaport told Huffington Post Live in April, asserting that Lee is, "making money off the fact that [Brooklyn] got better." In a response penned for the Times, Scott called Lee a hypocrite, as well as the "original hipster," a sect that wasn’t safe from the director’s wrath:
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.
But Lee’s current residence or alleged issues with upwardly mobile whites have nothing to do with his detest for aggressive gentrification. Its denunciation has more to do with the attitudes of the new denizens than their race. Lee explained this on Anderson Cooper 360 the same week he made his rousing comments: "My problem is that when you move into a neighborhood, have some respect for the history. For the culture. And I'm going to explain the word 'bogart' for people that don't know. 'Bogart' comes from Humphrey Bogart, meaning you come in and just...take it over," he told Cooper. "You can't do that. Harlem's a historic black neighborhood. History. Bedford Stuyvesant, Fort Greene...just come and be humble. Don't come in saying 'We're here now, and this is the way it has to be.' That's crazy to me."
There’s also the fact that the color that matters in relation to gentrification isn’t black, white, or brown—it’s green. Its true quandary is that as new inhabitants flock to "emerging" areas, many of the people who have spent their lives in those neighborhoods or built businesses there are pushed out because they can’t sustain the weight of the new financial burden. The root of Lee and everyone else's collective fury with gentrification is the rising cost of living, which, sadly, has priced long-term residents out. Designer Robert Lopez, who trademarked the term "Lower East Side," was forced to close his LES Clothing Co. shop at the end of May after his landlord raised his rent by $2,000. Lopez grew up in the LaGuardia Houses. He’s a product of the Lower East Side. "The reality of the situation is that the Lower East Side is prime real estate and the rents are a little crazy," Lopez told DNAinfo last month. Hell, Sal's Famous Pizzeria from the film, its walls adorned with prominent Italians, could've been a victim of gentrification today. The real estate boom in gentrified neighborhoods has made affordable housing and commercial space scarce.
"Bogarting" is what Clifton did to that sidewalk space when he scuffed Buggin’ Out’s sneakers, and it was less about him being a white man wearing a Larry Bird shirt in Bed-Stuy than the wanton disregard for his environment. Buggin’ Out was already there, and he didn’t see him, nor did he apologize until he was called out for not doing so. Race isn’t what breeds the alienation that comes with gentrification, it’s the position that the new imports take. The "discovery" of existing neighborhoods that have been simonized with trendy nicknames to appeal to these groups is the dreaded "Christopher Columbus Syndrome" in action, polluting these locales with a toxic attitude. It comes off like the ripe employee at your job who arrogantly tries to run things before they reach their 30th day in the office. A stranger in a strange land must respect their surroundings.
The color that matters in relation to gentrification isn’t black, white, or brown—it’s green.
"If you have to be a millionaire to live in New York City, New York City is not going to be the great city that it is because the artists aren't going to be there," Lee told Cooper. Artists aren’t the only ones who will vanish, and this is cause for concern in cities other than New York. Lee continued, insisting that affordable housing is necessary because it’s key to the "whole rethinking of what the city's going to be in the United States of America." While gentrification does improve neighborhoods, it fosters the divide between the haves and the have-nots in every major metropolitan city because the haves are the only ones who reap the benefits. What’s more, the displacement—above the false, offensive sense of ownership over space that isn’t respected—is gentrification’s most harrowing outcome.
Spike Lee welcomes contention. Do the Right Thing, which focuses on the breaking point of racial tension, remains his best film, followed by Malcolm X, a biopic about a man more galvanizing than Lee. Do the Right Thing was released in the wake of controversy, nearly a year after the Tompkins Square Park riot and just months after the crime that triggered the Central Park 5 jogger case. Today, we know it was prophesy for all present day dissatisfaction with gentrification thanks to one scene from a film filled with riveting ones. Do the Right Thing is one of the most culturally relevant films ever made, worthy of a spot in the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and not only New York City naming the block where it was filmed "Do the Right Thing Way," but celebrating it with a block party. Twenty-five years after the film’s premiere, its allusion to gentrification is why it continues to be pertinent.
Julian Kimble remains in awe of Do the Right Thing's cultural impact, just as you should be. Follow him on Twitter here.