The gentrification spat between Spike Lee, Errol Louis, and AO Scott inspired me to write this piece about some of the dangers in the “old vs. new Brooklyn” narrative, and the long history of artists protesting the way the Times represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. It was published today in New Geography.
So much spit has flown on the topic of gentrification in New York City that it seemed at best superfluous and at worst suspicious for New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott to say anything at all about the subject. But Scott couldn’t resist. In “Whose Brooklyn Is It, Anyway?” last month, Scott stuck a toehold into the debate sparked by film director Spike Lee, whose 7-minute rant against gentrification recently went viral. Lee compared the influx of white New Yorkers into the south Bronx, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights to “motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus,” and decried the pricing out of renters and the wholesale takeover of neighborhoods, whose schools and streets, he claimed, received few resources before the white interlopers arrived.
Among the responders to Lee’s tirade was journalist Errol Louis, who accused Lee of hypocrisy. The filmmaker may have grown up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but the $32 million Upper East Side brownstone he just sold (or, as Louis argues, “flipped”), marked him as merely confused.
Scott gets a lot wrong in his attempt to wade into this discussion, but he gets one thing right: “culture, rather than politics,” can be a fruitful area of investigation if “labor, wealth and power” are your lenses of choice. There is, of course, ample research on economic restructuring and gentrification, real estate and global capital, and spatial injustices in the history of the city. But sticking with culture—including popular culture—is also important. Scott’s headline indicated that he was “tracing urban change,” from Welcome Back Kotter to Girls. In his analysis, as waves of demographic changes occur television representations shift.
He complicates this a touch by introducing the global branding of Brooklyn, but it isn’t quite clear how that branding is actually deployed. Through the ubiquity of artisanal shops? Scott’s partial answer is that this “New Brooklyn” found in “restaurants, real estate, and retail” is, in turn, seen—glorified? exaggerated? — on TV shows like Girls and 2 Broke Girls. In these shows, the borough “figures as a playground for the ambitious but not quite disciplined, broke but not really poor, mostly white, college-educated young.”
But while Scott seems somewhat dubious of the images of Brooklyn represented by these shows, he ultimately writes as if he believes that TV or film can perfectly double reality, and, further, be trusted: “Girls” reflects a reality, but also popularizes a small sliver of experience as a global brand, and—here’s the nasty part—even is reality. Things have changed, he writes, as one can see in the development battles over Atlantic Yards: “the old Brooklyn mourned the loss of Ebbets Field, historic home of the Dodgers; the new Brooklyn reacted with ambivalence to the construction of Barclay’s Center, where the Nets now play.”
Scott isn’t interested in how a show like Girls might change, absorb, or reinforce communities and/or realities. And he isn’t so much interested in what it might leave out. For Scott, the relationship between television shows and gentrification is fairly pat. This pits the “Old Brooklyn” against the new, as Scott trots out well-worn examples like the Honeymooners and Saturday Night Fever and The Squid and the Whale. Never mind that he could have easily chosen very different movies and TV shows—The Warriors or The Jeffersons or Willie Dynamite— but then the relationship would have been considerably less pat; the images and representations might have complicated his understanding of New York at a certain time, his simplistic vision of the Old Brooklyn of working-class aspiration and the New Brooklyn of handlebar moustaches.
When we think of certain films or TV shows as “capturing” their time, we usually mean that they tap into an anxiety, a flavor, an aesthetic. TV shows, in their goofy approximations of urban life — think here the fake skyline of Friends—clearly remind us that cultural producers pick and choose symbols that they use to construct — represent, if you will — a certain reality. To what end? Pleasure, entertainment, authentication, maybe documentation. But these can be contested, too, and Scott’s insistence on ignoring the cultural sphere as its own field in which struggles for power take place (the power conferred by image and by representation) is troubling.
In his tepid response via Twitter to Lee’s grouchy self-defense, Scott described his article as “reportage.” He identifies a correlation between a cheese store on his block and a cheese store in Girls and understands one as reflecting the other, yet longs for artists and writers to “discover” another Brooklyn, one that looks more like it did in Lee’s film Crooklyn, or Jonathan Letham’s novel Fortress of Solitude, when residents lived in “close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity to people in very different circumstances.” But he’s gotten himself into a pretzel here. Discontent with the world outside his window, he’s also vaguely discontent with the world on his TV.
Coincidence? Like any representation, Girls might help us recognize something about ourselves; might deliver a particular kind of pleasure to a particular kind of audience. But there are brutalities and deceptions to be found in any artistic or cultural representation of a city, and Scott’s decision to switch hats from critic to commentator suggested something a little provocative: the potential for actual public debate related to representation and power and wealth.
There’s a long history of artists protesting the way the Times evaluates and represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. In 1971, Robert Macbeth of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem chided Times theater critic Mel Gussow for referring to a production at his theater as “defiantly parochial.” Although Gussow penned a glowing review, Macbeth took exception to the suggestion that the theatre company
should have been something other than what they were…. Gussow, it seems, is saying that Black artists can and will and should only achieve full presence in his view when they are performing in his theatre, for him and his audience, like it was during slavery time…. Then he would be spared the long journey to the “narrow province” of Harlem. Harlem would come to him. And the artists of the province would insure that a transistorized translator would interpret their petty offerings for his “more universal” intelligence.
In 2014, many critics still long for universal intelligence; it’s much easier than thinking about the particular, or what actual reportage on wealth, labor, and power in the Arts & Leisure section might be. All of the cultural elements at play here called for a rough and tumble sociology of culture approach, but in the end, we were left with a battle of wills (and egos). Lee and Scott engaged in a duel of authenticity: can Lee really speak as a victim of gentrification, or has the great leveler of wealth rendered him a gentrifier, in spite of his own self-identifications? Today’s duel of choice rages on at the expense of other questions: the lived experience of neighborhood in relation to cultural access, and the actual reach of cultural products.
Rather than reflect on Girls as a true “copy” of the city, it would behoove Scott to demystify it. Why this curious game of pretending Girls is not the fruit of creative and commercial choices made in order to shape a particular urban experience? Why ignore labor issues and embedded assumptions about wealth and representation, in an article that purports to look at “labor, wealth, and power”? Perhaps the terrifying thing for Scott would be to question where the pleasure in watching Girls comes from– for him, and for audiences.
Hillary Miller is Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, where she teaches in the Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture program. Her current book project, “Drop Dead: Crisis and Performance in 1970s New York City,” looks at theater and community identity during the 1975 fiscal crisis.
The “new” Brooklyn: Flickr photo by Matthew D. Britt, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York.