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Welcome, Gentry

by Reihan Salam

Development and affordable housing go together

A short while ago, Spike Lee, the celebrated African-American filmmaker, gave a wide-ranging lecture at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Among other things, he discussed the ongoing transformation of Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Fort Greene, where he was raised. At one point, he was asked whether there was an upside to “gentrification,” in which more-affluent residents settle in neighborhoods that once were the preserve of low-income households, and he offered a spirited reply. Lee granted that gentrifying neighborhoods have better schools and police protection than they did in earlier eras. Yet he attributed the improvement in local public services to a kind of racism.

Neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Harlem, and Bedford–Stuyvesant had been plagued by low-quality services when he was young (“the garbage wasn’t picked up . . . the police weren’t around”), Lee recalled. But then, in Lee’s imaginative retelling of recent New York City history, the influx of white residents suddenly led city officials to get their act together. Picture police officers taking naps as black people get mugged, then suddenly springing to life as white Park Slope moms start scolding them. Lee seemed to have forgotten that right-thinking liberals have been attacking the NYPD for being overzealous in poor black neighborhoods since at least the Giuliani years, not underzealous.

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