Look closely at any major city in the country, and you can read into it the effects of urban change. Take New York’s Harlem. The Star of David medallions that grace the Baptist Temple Church provide a clue to the neighborhood’s past, to a time when it was the third largest Jewish settlement in the world. That was until the 1920s, when a wave of blacks moved in, and the Jews were forced out.
At the time, one prominent New York Jew rose up on a soapbox and proclaimed:
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 sh*t gotta change because you’re here? Get the f**k outta here. Can’t do that!
My bad. That wasn’t a well-known Jew speaking at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a prominent black man speaking two nights ago in Brooklyn — a man who is as short on character as he is in stature. It was none other than filmmaker extraordinaire Spike Lee, speaking out against the evils of gentrification.
New York magazine described his rant as “amazing,” a word that apparently has come to mean “profanity-laced.” Consider the number of f-bombs he squeezes into 107-word passage:
Then comes the motherf**kin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherf**kin’ 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-motherf**kin’-sixty-eight, and the motherf**kin’ 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 motherf**kin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherf**kin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the f**k outta here!
Lee’s comments came during a Black History Month event at Pratt Institute. But his remarks weren’t just profane. They were also one-sided. When an audience member attempted to take issue with Lee’s observations, he cut the person off with “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. And even more. Let me kill you some more.” This happened several times.
If there was a gesture at legitimacy to his tirade, it was hinted at in this trio of questions:
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?
Lee intended these questions to be rhetorical, but they aren’t. Another stroll down memory lane will help to clarify.
When the last white residents of Harlem moved out in the 1940s and 1950s, the community fell into decay, both morally and physically. Crime, which had been controlled, as elsewhere in New York, by the “mob,” passed into the hands of local blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. It also became less formally organized, giving rise to street gangs. At the time of the 1964 riots, the rate of drug abuse in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average — twelve times higher than that of the nation as a whole. Rampant heroin addiction was followed in the 1980s by rampant crack addiction.
A 1990 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a 15-year-old female in Harlem had a 65% chance of reaching her 65th birthday, about the same life expectancy as a woman in India. Men in Harlem had a 37% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as men in Angola.
That all changed around 2000, when Harlem underwent another renaissance. This one was marked by a mass exodus of blacks and an influx of young white families, able to lay claim for a song to one of Stanford White’s famous brownstones.
If Harlem had fewer cops walking the beat than it does now, it was because the community made itself one of the most dangerous places on earth for a beat cop to patrol. Finding quality teachers willing to venture into Harlem schools was likewise a fool’s errand.
Any other questions, Spike?
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