“I think that maybe we can’t see it now, but more time passes…they’re gonna say, “This could be Brooklyn’s equivalent to the Harlem Renaissance.”
In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, depending on whom you talk to, a Renaissance has ended, or it is just beginning. The brownstone-studded neighborhood of Fort Greene was once home to a buzzing circle of black creativity and ambition, detailed beautifully in Nelson George’s 2012 documentary, Brooklyn Boheme. Through recent changes, partially due to the meteoric success and departure of some of its residents (Renaissance man Saul Williams, for his part, now lives in Paris), as well as to the the inevitable progression of gentrification amongst its architecturally picturesque and (once) affordable tree-lined addresses, Fort Greene has changed.
George documents the end of a black cultural Renaissance, but other voices say Fort Greene’s Renaissance is happening now, as an explosion of corporate development, an influx of white professionals, and a rise in rent prices and property values drastically change the demographics of the area, and, these voices argue, lead to reduced crime, drugs, and overall threats to public safety. The association of gentrification with rebirth confers the status of “socially dead” upon an area and (what we are led to be believe are) its atavistic, and few, remaining inhabitants of a bygone era. As was the case with Native Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, subjected to a genocidal mythology that called them a “vanishing race” and thus legitimated armies of photographers, ethnologists, and even soldiers bringing about their disappearance, the assertion that a neighborhood like Fort Greene is only now being reborn risks erasing the cultural and human reality of the people who have been there for decades, giving it life and art and enormous energy, both raw and refined, and drawing upon that energy to illuminate (or darken beautifully) the worlds of film, music, humor, and literature.
The dichotomous employment of the Renaissance concept here is emblematic of what is happening in other cities as well. Detroit, for instance, a place variously called an “empty,” or “dead,” or “vanishing” city, is supposedly a city now being reborn. Such characterizations erase the people living there, and the incredible literature and art they are creating to this day, such as emcee Elzhi’s tributary masterpiece Elmatic, or the poetry of a young woman I heard read at The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop last summer. The visual component of the dead city discourse provides the postindustrial equivalent of early American colonizers’ “empty” plains and “virgin” wilderness. A representative text in this vein is Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit. A beautifully disturbing coffee table book, it offers ruin porn at its best and worst, since, the best images of ruin are, by definition, the worst.
It is, especially if you have not seen Brooklyn Boheme, easy to dismiss as hyperbole Spike Lee’s claim that the Fort Greene Renaissance will one day be compared with the Harlem Renaissance in terms of literary, artistic, and cultural significance. But when I think of the range of works, in a variety of media, by the artists, actors, and writers who breezed through or made a permanent home there, I begin to think it might even surpass the Harlem Renaissance in its impact. Several worlds will never be the same in the wake of what the neighborhood produced. We talk differently, and more, about race, because of Spike Lee’s films, such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Saul Williams, like no other single figure, helped to define and popularize the stylistic boomtown of spoken word poetry. Digable Planets won a Grammy with their jazz sample and slick slang combinations that still sound simultaneously current and vintage as they ever did. The legendary Black Star collaboration between hip hop superheroes Mos Def and Talib Kweli influenced me personally as a poet and emcee as much as any other album (except perhaps Illmatic), and I know there are many others, from here to South Africa to Japan, who would say the same.
Above, I’ve named a few of the artists who brought the sublime energy of Fort Greene into the bedroom of my adolescence, into a house lodged between a sod farm and a corn field just outside of Groveport, Ohio. These were alien images and sounds that I somehow could recognize and feel much more than the reality that surrounded me. There were others who have done significant work, almost too numerous to name, who called Fort Greene, or next-door neighborhood Clinton Hill, home at some point since the 70s, and helped build its legacy: Chris Rock, Branford Marsalis, Lorna Simpson, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Rosie Perez, Terence Howard, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Erykah Badu, Wesley Snipes, Notorious B.I.G., Touré, Colson Whitehead, and others. The work of Bill Stephney and his Squad alone, producers of Public Enemy’s early records, has had an international cultural, political, and sonic impact that is still only just beginning to be assessed.
Evan Hughes’ volume Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life provides some context for the creative activity of Fort Greene, but no book equivalent of Brooklyn Boheme has been published yet (as far as I know). Perhaps the documentary is the best “book” that could be written on the subject, as it captures the articulate faces and hands, the clothing, gait, tears, the grain of the voices of these artists in ways that photographs and text often struggle to do. In any case, I think enough time has passed for us to say, without hesitation, that while Brooklyn may have more rebirths in the future, it definitely had one that was as significant, and as new, as the New Negro movement, one that produced works that were, and still are, as challenging, reviled, and beloved by its America.