I had a chance to check out Nelson George’s Brooklyn Boheme (BB) last week at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance Theater. I’d urge everyone interested in the concept of the creative class, in black late twentieth century artistic life, and Brooklyn to go check it out.[foot]If you’ve Netflix you can stream it.[/foot] Long before Richard Florida popularized the idea that cities could be revitalized through attracting “the creative class” black men and women have believed that black artists had both a particular responsibility and a particular opportunity to uplift the race, to create new ideas of what blackness could be, to create new ideas of what blackness should be. With BB, George is arguing that the artistic production of folks like Saul Williams, Spike Lee, Branford Marsalis, Chris Rock, Jessica Care Moore[foot]Detroit stand up! [/foot], Touré, Vernon Reid, Rosie Perez, Russell Simmons, Lisa Jones et al, are comparable to the Harlem Renaissance and represented the beginnings of what we’d call the modern black aesthetic. And he’s arguing that Fort Greene (and Brooklyn in general) was the hub of this movement. And he’s arguing that movement/moment is gone.
It’s hard to argue with him. We don’t have modern black cinema without Spike Lee and She’s Gotta Have It. We don’t have Jazz at Lincoln Center and the modern jazz movement without the Marsalis brothers, we don’t have modern black comedy without Def Comedy Jam and Chris Rock, we don’t have the black alternative music scene without Living Color, we don’t have the slam poetry movement without folks like Saul Williams and Jessica Care Moore, we do have alternative hip-hop without Talib Kweli and Mos Def but arguably it wouldn’t have lasted as long without them. Further, it’s clear that there was something particularly unique about Fort Greene as a neighborhood. Bill Stephney (record executive and Fort Greene resident) tells the story of Spike biking his Do The Right Thing script up ten blocks to him so he could get PE to do part of the soundtrack (Fight the Power was the result). Mike Thompson, owner of the Brooklyn Moon, talked about creating a spoken word night as a way to make money and then seeing it become something much more powerful.[foot]George’s interview with Thompson led to one of the more interesting tidbits of the documentary–Thompson noted that the snapping finger thing that spoken word audiences now do routinely came from the fact that he had a large lawyer living above the joint…and that lawyer wanted quiet. So instead of clapping, Thompson came up with an innovation, finger snapping.[/foot] And it’s clear that this generation of black artists were both assured of their blackness–they had none of the double consciousness psychoses some associate with black folk, and none of the fears of not being able to be successful in their art because of racism. Chris Rock might have worried about whether his comedy was good enough, but he never seemingly worried about whether audiences and comedy execs would ignore him because of his race.
It’s also hard to argue with the argument that that particular moment is gone in part due to gentrification. In the beginning of the documentary George traces the neighborhood’s working class feral (after dark) nature through discussions with Spike Lee (and his brother David), Vernon Reid, and Rosie Perez. Ground on the new Brooklyn Nets arena had just been broken as Nelson George began filming. And there’s no way non-established artists could buy into that neighborhood now. In talking about the neighborhood Branford Marsalis argued that it was full of black and Latino artists who were “upwardly mobile in their thinking, but not their wallets.”
But the reason the documentary was shown in Baltimore was because the Creative Alliance and other entities in Baltimore and cities like it are interested in replicating that type of success. In fact after the documentary there was a panel discussion (featuring Baltimore artists and moderated by Don Palmer[foot]My friend, incidentally.[/foot], who lived in Fort Greene during the movement but is now an adopted Baltimore son) on the subject of replication.
And the fact is that what happened in Fort Greene simply can’t be replicated in Baltimore. For two reasons, both related to the larger political economy.
One reason, brought up by Palmer, was that the specific real estate shifts that made Brooklyn attractive to artists couldn’t really happen in the same way in Baltimore in part because Brooklyn is a dense island, whereas Baltimore is much more spead out and less dense.
The second reason, brought up by me, is that the capital of the music industry, the film industry, the publishing industry, and the art industry, is NYC. The artists didn’t just come to Fort Greene because it was affordable, and then later on attractive. They came because it allowed them to be close to the movers and shakers in their industry–Spike only had to ride his bike a few blocks to get a record executive to cut a deal. Chris Rock only had to take a subway to tape Saturday Night Live.
George doesn’t address either of these dynamics in the documentary. He also ignores the role the artists themselves played in the gentrification process. We’re led to believe that gentrification occurs when the white wealthy move in. But Spike is one of the first Fort Greene residents to get seven figures for his place (spurring the dynamic he then critiques in the doc in a hilarious moment George captures perfectly). Furthermore all of the artists were not only “upwardly mobile in their thinking” suggesting a certain social class, they all had enough money (made off of their art) to purchase homes in the neighborhood. Chris Rock talks about getting to a point where he could buy his residence with one gig. That may not sound like gentrification largely because the people are black, Latino, and have some working class affinities. But it sure looks like it.
While the literature on the creative class grows by leaps and bounds, even as empirical evidence suggesting its affect on cities appears weaker and weaker, the literature on the black creative class is more or less non-existent. I consider Brooklyn Boheme one of the first “texts” to address this class. It’s flawed yes, but flawed in the same way the concept itself is flawed.
(oh. one more thing. for reasons mired in ideology the harlem renaissance is viewed as the single most important artistic moment in african american history. it was not. a far better comparison would’ve been to the Black Arts Movement–a movement that was far more productive had a broader geographic reach and had a far greater impact on black life.)