Friday, 28 February 2014

Why Spike Lee is wrong. Some thoughts on gentrification.

American film producer, Spike Lee went off on one about the gentrification of Brooklyn:

Then comes the motherfuckin' Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can't discover this! We been here. You just can't come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin' African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can't do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father's a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin'-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin' people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He's not — he doesn't even play electric bass! It's acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin' house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin'-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!

Language aside this is a pretty classic critique of gentrification - wealthy hipster incomers buying up cheap properties and doing them up. Soon followed by trendy bars, whole food stores and the other paraphernalia of hip modern urban life. And the place is unwelcoming to the people who were living there before the trend-setting bearded ones.

The problem is that, despite Spike's passion, he's wrong. That Christopher Columbus Syndrome applied as much to his Dad as it does to these white folk moving in on Brooklyn. Indeed, gentrification is a necessary urban process not something to be prevented. More to the point, as Spike polemically explains, the consequence of gentrification is better schools, more responsive public services, safer streets and, overall, a more pleasant environment.

Gentrification isn't slum clearance - people are buying property on the open market and improving it, they aren't rounding up poor folk and marching them to the next slum up the line. And don't those poor folk also benefit from better schools, safer streets and the litter getting cleared up?

Here's a slightly different take on gentrification - it contains some angst and a warning but it isn't the 'this-is-my-place-you-can't-live-here' attitude that Spike Lee (and many others who attack gentrification as anti-poor). This is Atlanta:

Personally, I credit her (together with many other people) for creating a lot of value over the years. Compassionate value. But that’s where irony steps in. Because value, once created, doesn’t just sit quietly in a vacuum. It attracts people and money and change at an increasingly accelerated pace. After the risk oblivious — my wife and me in our youthful naiveté — come the risk aware (folks who recognize the challenges associated with disadvantaged or depressed areas but are willing to accept them, at least conditionally) and, finally, the risk averse (those who’re only attracted to an area once certain levels of safety, predictability and comfort present themselves).

The process of gentrification does exclude but, in this case, it took 20 years. And in that 20 years the prior residents of the area have benefited from those improved schools, those better services and those safer streets. The very things they'd urged politically for years but that were delivered in a (relative) breath by economic change. Moreover, some of those 'natives' - if that's a word we can really use - will still be there happy and smiling because their lives were made better by gentrification. OK it will be a pleasant, maybe a little dull, middle-class neighbourhood rather than an edgy urban place.

However, we aren't all hipsters and seeking affordable urban edge isn't what we do. We want a safe, reliable, pleasant and stable community - Cheam rather than Peckham. And gentrification - not always but mostly - delivers just that sort of community.


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