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Spike Lee Profited From Gentrification Before He Was Against It

By 02.27.14

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I read about Spike Lee’s anti-gentrification rant yesterday, where he complained about hipsters and compared Fort Greene to a dog show, all of which began when Lee jumped down someone’s throat for suggesting that gentrification wasn’t all bad. I was all ready to point out what a hypocrite Spike Lee is (aren’t hipsters partially responsible for Spike having a career?). But when I read the full text of what he said, it actually wasn’t so bad. The gist of it was, when you move into a community, be respectful. Don’t be a dick, don’t impose your values on that community. Usually the bleeding hearts are all “outlaw this!” and “stay out of our neighborhood!” that, and “yer changin’ the neighborhood,” which is basically the same thing racist white dicks say about Mexicans. But “don’t be a dick,” now that’s a suggestion I can get down with.

Still, it didn’t take long for someone to dig up all the ways in which Spike has been himself complicit in gentrifying neighborhoods before he was against it (of course). The account in the NY Daily News was especially succinct, and was accompanied by this glorious cartoon.

Here’s a snip:

Start with Hatch House, Lee’s 9,000-square-foot palace on East 63rd Street — complete with internal courtyard — which he bought from artist Jasper Johns for $16 million in 2006 and recently put on the market with an asking price of $32 million. My friends in nearby Yorkville have been gnashing their teeth for years, complaining about how rents have risen to insane levels, thanks in part to owners buying and flipping high-end properties.

Before leaving Brooklyn, Lee did more did more than his share when it came to goosing the changes to Fort Greene he now laments. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lee bought a townhouse on Washington Park for $650,000 in 1990, around the time he was soaring to stardom, cranking out films like “Malcolm X” and “Clockers.” In 1999, he sold the place to a couple (a banker married to an attorney) for about $1 million and moved to the Upper East Side.

A decade later, the house was back on the market with a $2.75 million asking price, more than quadruple what Lee paid in 1990. And why not? Fort Greene started sizzling in the 1990s and never stopped, thanks in no small part to the area’s international reputation as a mini-bohemia, home to a colony of talented, ambitious black artists.

That Spike Lee seems to double his money with every deal should be good news to his Kickstarter investors… Assuming he’s as good at movie producing as he is at real estate, that is.

Spike, the most commercially successful of the bunch, used some of his earnings to become a significant property owner in the area, buying and renting out residential and commercial properties and marketing the neighborhood with gusto. As recently as 2010, he partnered with Pernod Ricard, a French vodka company, to create Absolut Brooklyn, a booze drink sold, according to marketing materials, “in a specially-designed bottle reminiscent of the ubiquitous Brooklyn Stoop Life,” complete with a label depicting a brownstone bearing the number 165, the address of Lee’s old home.

By this time, of course, Lee had been living in Hatch House for years, and had long since put his famous 40 Acres headquarters, a converted former firehouse, up for sale (asking price: $6 million). That is what happens when the efforts of a marketing genius like Lee add rocket fuel to the blazing fire of gentrification.

This isn’t to bash Spike Lee, even though I do think he’s kind of a dope (the kind of dope who would go on a 10 minute rant about how there’s nothing good about gentrification when he himself has earned millions from it, specifically). It’s more that I hear lots of people complaining about gentrification, but very few offering anything in the way of a solution. Don’t sell your property for market value? Don’t move into the neighborhood where you want to live? Ban people from moving places? None of those options seem particularly realistic, as the example of Spike Lee himself shows. Credit where credit is due, though, his “don’t be an asshole” suggestion is actually pretty constructive.

Also, try complaining about the evils of rapidly rising housing prices to some people in the rust belt, I’m sure they’re very interested to hear all about it. “I traded my house for a Pontiac Fiero!” -Someone in Detroit.

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