“Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights, for the facilities to get better?…What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore!… They can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now, because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word?”
There are two correct answers to Spike Lee’s question: The first, of course, is “East Williamsburg.” The second answer to what “they” call Bushwick now—” because of “motherfuckin’ hipsters”—is “gentrified.”
It isn’t particularly surprising that Lee’s gentrification rant appears in film critic and director Brandon Harris’s Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City. Harris’s eleven essays—which also star Lena Dunham, Jay-Z, Lil Kim’s brother, a couple of Harris’s white girlfriends, and a twelve-year-old drug dealer—are rife with instances of brown and black folks being pushed and plucked in order to make room for white people.
Gentrification itself isn’t the most surprising of topics, either. Last spring, Kai Wright’s podcast There Goes the Neighborhood investigated the shady ways in which landlords have been ousting minority residents from their homes for decades, and countless think pieces have pummeled Girls for its nearsighted treatment of race for years. Nevertheless, Harris’s part-memoir, part-criticism collection of essays—some of which have appeared in places such as the New Yorker, n+1 and VICE—adds a refreshing voice to the conversation.
We first meet Harris in the early hours of Independence Day 2006 when he is being followed by a stranger wielding a sawed-off bike handle. Harris is on his way from a camp counselor gig to his apartment in Clinton Hill (but actually Bed-Stuy), donning a polo and tight shorts. “I’m a high yellow Negro who weighs over two hundred pounds,” he admits. “I used to play offensive guard on a half-decent high school football team. But I was dressed like a buffoon, almost never got in fights, and had a man-purse with a brand-new black MacBook in it.”
Harris does what any smart ex-football-playing NYC-transplant carrying an Apple product might do in 2006: He runs, narrowly making it inside his apartment and slamming the door on his foiled assailant’s arm. “Fuck you, fuck you, yella-ass nigga, I gonna get y’all mothafuckin shit, this is Bed-Stuy, bitch,” the man shouts, and retreats—but not before Harris acknowledges the tears in his assailant’s eyes, and how much worse off this man is than he.
Conflicts similar to these recur throughout the rest of the book: inside vs. outside, city native vs. city newbie, Bed-Stuy vs. Clinton Hill, the haves vs. the have-nots. In each instance, Harris thoughtfully examines what happens when privilege and lack of privilege are forced to coexist in the same neighborhood—and, occasionally, in the same apartment.
Take Tony, a wealthy white friend from college who becomes one of Harris’s first Brooklyn roommates. Tony’s parents pay two-thirds of their rent; Tony doesn’t have to rush to find work. Harris has to hustle. (In an observation that would feel quite at home in a Baldwin work, he recalls his godmother’s words to him: “You were middle class in college, but now you enter the world a poor Negro for the first time in your life.”) Almost inevitably, the class and racial divide between the two young men becomes too much for their friendship to bear.
However, while our narrator isn’t nearly as well-off as Tony, he doesn’t share the perceived struggles of the man with the sawed-off bike handle in the first essay, or of his twelve-year-old pot dealer in the third. Harris proclaims how he is very much a “cultural mulatto.”
My upbringing had shown me how to talk like any common ghetto street kid when I had to make someone on the street respect me, but I bottled up that side of myself… certainly on the rooftops and at the bookstore or wherever I was the only black person in the room. I had internalized, through careful instruction, that this was the way to proceed in life… to swim with niggas and Negroes and mulattos and gringos, of varied classes, at ease.
I navigate American apartheid. It isn’t without breaking a sweat.
Yet while Harris may code-switch to get through “American apartheid” in real life, he doesn’t shy away from dropping slang often used within black and brown communities into his writings. By casually including words like “nigga” and “Negro,” Harris presumes a sense of familiarity with audiences, daring readers to consider their own relationships with these terms. This dare isn’t unlike the one presented by Chris Rock, whose 1996 standup routine is referenced by Harris himself: “There’s two sides,” Rock says. “Niggas and black people. Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant-ass-niggas fuck it up.”
Arguably, Rock’s routine is a humorous—albeit controversial—nod toward the issue of black-on-black crime. After all, of the many skills Harris’s mother imparted upon her son, the most important was the ability “to distinguish between a Negro who seem[s] a threat and one who [doesn’t].” Harris himself fails to do just this while he is stopped at an intersection back in his home state of Ohio:
I glimpsed out of my eye a tall Negro dressed in a white tank top, his skin high yellow like my own, crossing the street in what seemed like a beeline toward my car. He was coming from a corner where much wasteful bravado and ennui take place, and I felt it immediately, that familiar sensation, the need to secure my body against potential predators.
Harris locks his car doors, watching the light-skinned man—a man, remember, who is the same shade as he. The light-skinned man looks back. “We didn’t stop looking at each other the whole time,” Harris tells us. The light turns green. “I ain’t trying to roll up on you, bruh,” the man promises him, and continues on his way.
It’s an uncomfortable moment, one that speaks to the extent at which prejudices against minorities have been embedded into all members of society—not just white people. “Why should I have to be afraid of my fellow yellow brother,” Harris shamefully wonders as he continues his drive through Cincinnati, “or any brother for that matter, in the fucking first place?”
Making Rent in Bed-Stuy goes beyond gentrification in Brooklyn, enlisting film and TV of past and present and occasionally zooming out of New York City to touch upon communities in Ohio and Mississippi. With each new anecdote, and each new apartment switch, Harris puts his and our own beliefs on trial. Even Spike Lee, Brooklyn connoisseur, isn’t let off the hook.
One particular instance finds Harris ambling through the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in which Do the Right Thing takes place. Startlingly enough, he can’t seem to find a young man who has actually seen the classic film. Even more startling, though, is the fact that the block itself doesn’t resemble the vibrant one from the big screen. “It’s almost always empty in the middle of the summer, that block. The busy and bustling community depicted in that film was a fantasy,” Harris observes. The neighborhood in Do the Right Thing was “a vision of Bed-Stuy as much less poor and desperate and sad than it actually must have been in those years, a Bed-Stuy that was more like the liberal, middle-class neighborhood where Lee himself grew up: Fort Greene.”
“A fantasy.” The markers of gentrification reflect a kind of fantasy, too—an illusion that begs one to reject what was and accept what is. Not only does Harris remind us just how blurry this line between past and present can be, but he also reminds us that if we squint just a little bit, gentrification can look less like brunching hipsters in Bushwick and more like a black Ohioan walking through Bed-Stuy, searching for a neighborhood from a Spike Lee joint.
Squint even harder, and it can look just like us.