Speaking Tuesday night in Brooklyn, blocks away from his company headquarters and his father’s apartment, Spike Lee went off on how the neighborhood has changed. The filmmaker, wearing a Knicks beanie, orange socks, blue Nikes, and “Defend Brooklyn” hoodie, was at Pratt Institute for a lecture in honor of African American History Month, surrounded by locals, when he was nearly asked a question about “the other side” of the gentrification debate. “Let me just kill you right now,” Lee interrupted, “because there was some bullshit article in the New York Times saying ‘the good of gentrification.’” (See: “Argument Over a Brownstone Neighborhood” and New York’s “Is Gentrification All Bad?”)
“I don’t believe that,” said Lee. And for the next seven minutes he explained, with passion, humor, and a fair amount of f-words.
Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.
[Audience member: And I don’t dispute that … ]
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. And even more. Let me kill you some more.
[Audience member: Can I talk about something?]
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!
Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.
You can’t just — here’s another thing: When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!
I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!
And then! [to audience member] Whoa whoa whoa. And then! So you’re talking about the people’s property change? But what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want live in Fort Greene. People wanna live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word? [Audience: East Williamsburg]
That’s another thing: Motherfuckin’… These real estate motherfuckers are changing names! Stuyvestant Heights? 110th to 125th, there’s another name for Harlem. What is it? What? What is it? No, no, not Morningside Heights. There’s a new one. [Audience: SpaHa] What the fuck is that? How you changin’ names?
And 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. I wrote that script in 1988. He was the first one. How you walking around Brooklyn with a Larry Bird jersey on? You can’t do that. Not in Bed Stuy.
So, look, you might say, “Well, there’s more police protection. The public schools are better.” Why are the public schools better? First of all, everybody can’t afford — even if you have money it’s still hard to get your kids into private school. Everybody wants to go to Saint Ann’s — you can’t get into Saint Ann’s. You can’t get into Friends. What’s the other one? In Brooklyn Heights. Packer. If you can’t get your child into there … It’s crazy. There’s a business now where people — you pay — people don’t even have kids yet and they’re taking this course about how to get your kid into private school. I’m not lying! If you can’t get your kid into private school and you’re white here, what’s the next best thing? All right, now we’re gonna go to public schools.
So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!
All right, go ahead. Let’s see you come back to that.
Here’s the full audio, including the man’s response and Lee’s rebuttal: