When I was growing up in the Walt Whitman Houses—public housing in Fort Greene—this area was filled with drugs and crime. But my grandmother, a community activist who raised me, always used to say, “Don’t talk badly about the neighborhood. This is a great place.” Now, Fort Greene is the neighborhood that filmmakers, musicians, writers, and dancers call home. The streets are filled with boutiques and wine bars, though you still find the laid-back style and some of the Jamaican fast-food places from the old days.
Back in middle school, I walked past Spike Lee’s original 40 Acres and a Mule location every day. His studio meant something positive to us. A high school program landed me an internship at 40 Acres. Later, while attending college in Manhattan and continuing my work with Mr. Lee, I got my own apartment in Fort Greene. That was back in the ’90s—when cab drivers wouldn’t come here.
These days, all of northern Brooklyn is cool, but Fort Greene is the craziest of all. Why? We’re a ready-made, well-developed neighborhood. Even in the rough days, we had a strong, mostly black, family-oriented middle class that defined the area. Williamsburg and Greenpoint may be a couple of subway stops closer to the city, but we have the beautiful brownstones. We have Fort Greene Park, with its rolling hills.
And we have a celebrity A-list that starts with my main man, Walt Whitman, who lived here in the 19th century and whose name made me think “public housing” when I was a child. Later on, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and Truman Capote, jazz singer Betty Carter, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, and more recently Chubb Rock, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Rosie Perez, and Chris Rock have also called Fort Greene [and neighboring area Clinton Hill] home. All that’s a lot to live up to.
I learned filmmaking against a backdrop of a dozen visual and performing arts venues in the area, including BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. I got to shoot in the BAM Café, where we once held a film wrap party, back when the floors creaked and the walls were grubby.
Fort Greene is now racially diverse—maybe 50-50 black and white—though things have come almost full circle, with black professionals beginning to move in. You see cordial mingling among different races at the restaurants and clubs, putting us way ahead of most neighborhoods. But serious socializing still has a ways to go. Blacks returning to the neighborhood remind me that around here, the balance between the old and the new disappears, only to get reinvented.
Now, just when we’ve got it all, plans are moving ahead for building a sports arena for the New Jersey Nets at the edge of the neighborhood. The locals have objections, but I’m open-minded. Fort Greene has always been able to muddle through. We’ll prevail—and we’ll have a basketball team, too.
As told to Linda Dyett. Photo by David Land. This story appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.
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