Can We Talk About Black Gentrification?

Jay Woodworth
Jay Woodworth

Recently, filmmaker Spike Lee stirred up a lot of controversy when he delivered an expletive-filled rant against gentrification in Brooklyn. While hardly a new conversation, Lee’s outrage has provoked new dialog and insight on the subject, and for better or for worse, returned the troubling phenomenon of gentrification into the national spotlight. Speaking out of rage and impulse, Lee painted a very clear, vivid picture of the frustrations many in the black community experience in regards to the erosion of a neighborhood’s native culture.

The thing Lee forgot to mention, however–the thing that many people have rightfully pointed out–is that his parents had a hand in the original gentrification of Brooklyn in the 1960s. It’s true. Prior to his family moving to Fort Greene some forty odd years ago, Brooklyn was a natively white borough. As many have already mentioned, the only thing that white people are ‘bogarting’ or appropriating is the act of gentrification itself–something that blacks invented in the 1800s when they began stealing the surnames of white Americans so they could all sound like cool southern generals. To many, Brooklyn is synonymous with the displacement of the whites who once called it home.

“My family moved to Fort Greene in 1912 from County Donegal,” says 87 year old Magdelene O’Rourke, an aging matriarch who commands respect even as she requests that you simply call her Maggie. “We had to fight to be accepted by the resident Italian population. Quite literally actually,” she laughs. “My father used to beat dago children to death with a pipe wrench and leave their bodies in barrels outside of the pizzeria.”

In a bygone Fort Greene, the influx of Irish immigrants continued, and it didn’t take long for them to make their mark. Eventually, Fort Greene became, well, predominantly ‘Green.’ The Irish had taken an undiscovered neighborhood, save for a few racist Italians, and made it into something unique and prosperous. This period of ethnic harmony lasted for almost half a century.

“Things were almost perfect. Everything was monotonous and drab,” explains Maggie. “You’d wake up in the morning to the droning of bagpipes and the dainty, sing-songy pips of fair skinned chorus boys belting out Celtic folk songs,” she recalls, placing her hand on a framed picture of the n-word. “It was a simpler time.”

Everything changed for Maggie in 1962, when a mass migration of rich southern blacks displaced the now-native Irish population. They used backhanded tactics like lowering property values and establishing their own sense of community through artistic expression. Where there was once a town drunk, stood a jazz musician.

“They used those saxophones like fire hoses, spraying us with Dorian modes and chromatic progressions. It was like they were sicking the dogs on us,” she says, pulling her Romney 2012 afghan close to her chest. Her eyes narrow and her gaze seems to penetrate through the roast beef on the table, beyond the vomit green linoleum, and right through the earth itself. “It was just so… syncopated.”

Eventually, Maggie’s family left Brooklyn, settling into a little nine bedroom, three quarter million dollar home on a tree lined cul-de-sac in New Jersey. “I like it here alright,” she says with an air of acceptance and reluctant optimism. “I just hope black people don’t move in.”

But Maggie’s greatest fear is soon to be realized. With nowhere to go, impoverished, systematically oppressed blacks have no choice but to occupy the large swaths of upper middle class mansions that speckle the exurbs of our nation’s urban cores. Just as great pendulums swing east, they return west, and perfectly measure the passing of time, like a disregarded metronome in a jazz ensemble’s practice room. Before long, the last bastion of white America will be stolen, like the White House, from hard working melanin deficient individuals, to be handed over to the one group of people that refuse to know their place.

For many in Maggie’s generation, this recent gentrification in Brooklyn is anything but. To her, it’s simply a reclamation of something that was rightfully owned by whites, after they took it from the Native Americans and the Italians in the nineteenth century. Is it really fair to say that the rightful owners of a property are the people that moved there 40 years ago, when there had already been another group of people there for 40 years prior? What is a rightful claim to a space if not the color of your skin or where your grandparents happened to live before microwaves were invented?

For Maggie herself, she understands that things change, neighborhoods are torn down and rebuilt, and people come and go. She just wants there to be more emphasis on legacy, and more realization on the part of young people that the recognition of cultural roots is integral to the understanding of ourselves.

“It’s just about history,” she says. “If black people want to take Brooklyn they can have it, I’d just prefer that they go about it the right way. Throwing a garbage can through a window is good and all, but it takes a lot more than that to break a wop’s spirit. You gotta use pliers.” TC mark

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