Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Spike Lee


Urban decay: The peril of Hipster economics?

Fighting Urban Blight With Art

When urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticized.

On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.

Called psychylustro, German artist Katharina Grosse’s project is a large-scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia.

The city has a 28 % poverty rate – the highest of any major US city – with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.

Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask North Philadelphia’s hardship with a delightful view. The Wall Street Journal calls this “Fighting Urban Blight With Art“.

Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it “an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day”.

The project is not actually fighting blight, of course – only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.

“I need the brilliance of colour to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence,” Grosse proclaims.

“People”, in Grosse and Thomas’s formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. “People” are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.

Influx of hipsters

In February, director Spike Lee delivered an impassioned critique – derisively characterised as a “rant” by US media outlets – on the gentrification of New York city. Arguing that an influx of “… hipsters” had driven up rent in most neighbourhoods – and in turn driven out the African-American communities that once called them home – he noted how long-dormant city services suddenly reappeared:

“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? The garbage wasn’t picked up every day when I was living in 165 Washington Park… So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

Lee was criticised by many for “hipster-bashing”, including African-American professor John McWhorter, who claimed that “hipster” was “a sneaky way of saying ‘honkey'” and compared Lee to television character George Jefferson.

These dismissals, which focus on gentrification as culture, ignore that Lee’s was a critique of the racist allocation of resources.

Black communities whose complaints about poor schools and city services go unheeded find these complaints are readily addressed when wealthier, whiter people move in.

Meanwhile, long-time locals are treated as contagions on the landscape, targeted by police for annoying the new arrivals.

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing.

The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them.

This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents.

Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

Impoverished suburbs

In a sweeping analysis of displacement in San Francisco and its increasingly impoverished suburbs, journalist Adam Hudson notes that “gentrification is trickle-down economics applied to urban development: the idea being that as long as a neighbourhood is made suitable for rich and predominantly white people, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else”.

Like trickle-down economics itself, this theory does not play out in practice.

Rich cities such as New York and San Francisco have become what journalist Simon Kuper calls gated citadels: “Vast gated communities where the 1% reproduces itself.”

Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics.

Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices – choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.

In an April blog post, Umar Lee, a St Louis writer and full-time taxi driver, bemoaned the economic model of rideshare services, which are trying to establish themselves in the city. Noting that they hurt not only taxi drivers but poor residents who have neither cars nor public transport and thus depend on taxis willing to serve dangerous neighbourhoods, he dismisses Uber and Lyft as hipster elitists masquerading as innovators:

“I’ve heard several young hipsters tell me they’re socially-liberal and economic-conservative, a popular trend in American politics,” he writes. “Well, I hate to break it to you buddy, but it’s economics and the role of the state that defines politics. If you’re an economic conservative, despite how ironic and sarcastic you may be or how tight your jeans are, you, my friend, are a conservative …”

Lee tells me he has his own plan to try to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, which he calls “50-50-20-15”. All employers who launch businesses in gentrifying neighbourhoods should have a workforce that is at least 50 percent minorities, 50 percent people from the local neighbourhood, and 20 percent ex-offenders. The employees should be paid at least $15 per hour.

Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s “success” is the removal of its poorest residents.

True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.

When neighbourhoods experience business development, priority in hiring should go to locals who have long struggled to find nearby jobs that pay a decent wage.

Let us learn from the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, and build cities that reflect more than surface values.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.


Free Mandela

From the Prison of Fantasy)!

Monday July 2005 was Nelson Mandela’s 87th birthday.
And on these shores, I sometimes feel Mandela is in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics.
Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I’ve ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age, and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa.
Tony posted on July 20, 2005

That maybe why the “Mandela” I’ve encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable.

Herewith, the 3 most egregious versions:

Mythical Mandela #1:

“Like Gandhi, Martlin Luther King and Nelson Mandela…”

How many times haven’t you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacificism in the face of a nasty regime. Don’t take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase.

I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading.

Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist.

When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight.That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”

He played a leading role in setting up the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.

Mandela was no terrorist, however: Under his leadership, the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants.

And most importantly, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.

In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that

“between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed.”

(It didn’t ever work that way– the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.)

Mandela, like the rest of the movement’s leadership, never hesitated to take the opportunity to find a political solution for the greatest benefit of all South Africans — but that was the same spirit with which he’d embarked on his armed struggle, telling the court,

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela and his organization suspended the armed struggle only once the apartheid regime conceded to democracy.

He was no pacifist. On the contrary, he never hesitated to pick up arms when he perceived his people were confronted with the choice between submission to tyranny and armed resistance.

Nor was he a militarist: He never hesitated to take the political path when that presented itself. And in that example, he has much to teach the world.

Myth #2: The “Mandela Miracle”

Google Mandela and Miracle together, and there are at least 86,000 citations.

This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the “miraculous” generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.

The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is pretty racist. (Remember Gandhi’s arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: “That would be a fine idea,” or words to that effect.)

But let’s not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, of which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual’s strength of character.

The basic political architecture of the process of reconciliation always inscribed the internal politics of the ANC, which was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership, and whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people.

It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I’ve written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule. Inside the ANC the communists played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonial-style minority rule.

When some angry youths who had left to join the guerrilla forces wanted to respond to the regime’s rampant bloodletting in the townships in the 1980s by targeting white civilians with terror strikes, it was the communists — led by Chris Hani, the commander of the ANC’s military wing and later leader of the SACP, who walked the ANC back from the brink.

And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC’s communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible “rejectionist” backlash.

Viviane Ghoussoub's photo.

Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like “In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there’s just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it’s just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone…” And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it.

Uh, let’s just say he was a product of a different age, shall we?

But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome. There were no angry hordes baying for revenge. Everyone understood what freedom meant, and it had nothing to do with revenge. To imagine otherwise is to insult the millions of ordinary South Africans who struggled and sacrificed to free Mandela, and bring him to power.

Myth #3

Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela and Me — It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

Action Man

When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown in 1991, I laughed out loud. (And actually, when watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie at ANC fundraising premiere in Cape Town, I’ll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final “Spartacus” scene, intoning “I am Malcolm X.”

(The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.)

Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.

My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo.

I should have known trouble was coming when girlfriend said to me “So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?” I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.

But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy — a Jew, to boot — had been in the ANC. “Mandela didn’t work with white people,” he insisted.

Uh, actually, of the 8 men on trial with Mandela in 1964, 3 were white (all of them Jewish, actually).

By the time the regime fell, there were thousands of whites in the broad liberation movement led by the ANC. A minority of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC.

Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe.

Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.

Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian and from Ramallah, where he’d been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. “And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization,” he said. “Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews.

And so it went on. The South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela’s basic non-racialism to the hip-hop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. Only in New York.

Skilled Artists are the most expensive portion in film making: Open letter to Ang Lee

In 1993 Ang Lee premiered his second movie, “The Wedding Banquet,” at the Seattle International Film Festival.  At the time, Lee was an unknown in the U.S., an anomaly as a Taiwan-born immigrant director in the United States, mostly notable for having been the NYU classmate of the more famous director Spike Lee.

Ang Lee is up at Sunday’s Academy Awards for Best Picture (his fourth nomination) and Best Director (his third), for “Life of Pi.” And in terms of overall tally, “Life of Pi” (11 nominations) trails only Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (12 nominations).

Phillip Broste, Lead Compositor, posted this Open Letter to Ang Lee:

When asked about the bankruptcy of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects house largely responsible for making your film “life of Pi” as incredible as it was, you said (Ang Lee):

“I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive].”

I just want to point out that while, yes R&D can be expensive and yes it takes a lot of technology and computing power to create films like yours, it is not computer chips and hard drives that are costing you so very much money.  It is the artists that are helping you create your film.

So when you say  “I would like it to be cheaper,” as an artist I take that personally.

It took hundreds of hours from skilled artists and hard-working coordinators and producers to craft the environments and performances in life of Pi.

Not to mention the engineers that wrote all of that proprietary code and build the R+H pipeline.  That is where your money went.

I’d say, judging from the night you just had, you got one hell of a deal.

Incidentally, those were the same gorgeous sunsets and vistas that your DP Claudio Miranda took credit for without so much as a word of thanks to those artists.

And the same animated performances that helped win you the best director statue.  Nice of you to mention the pool crew, but maybe you could have thanked the guys and gals who turned that pool in to an ocean and put a tiger in to that boat?

It was world class work, after all.

And after a fabulously insulting and dismissive introduction from the cast of the avengers, at least two of whom spent fully half of their film as a digitally animated character, R+H won for it’s work on your very fine piece of cinema.

And just as the bankruptcy was about to be acknowledged on a nationally-televised platform, the speech was cut short.  By the Jaws theme.

If this was meant as a joke, we artists are not laughing.

Mr. Lee, I do believe that you are a thoughtful and brilliant man. And a gifted filmmaker.

But I also believe that you and everyone in your tier of our business is fabulously ignorant to the pain and turmoil you are putting artists through.

Our employers scramble to chase illegal film subsidies across the globe at the behest of the film studios.

Those same subsidies raise overhead, distort the market, and cause wage stagnation in what are already trying economic times.  Your VFX are already cheaper than they should be.

It is disheartening to see how blissfully unaware of this fact you truly are.

By all accounts, R+H is a fantastic place to work; a truly great group of people who treat their employees with fairness and respect.

Much like Zoic Studios, the fabulous company that I am proud to work for.  But I am beginning to wonder if these examples of decency will be able to survive in such a hostile environment. Or if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers “would like it to be cheaper.”

I for one won’t stand for it.  Please join me.”

The math of favors

Finally, a post of Seth Godin that I like.  Expressions in parentheses are mine, and I edited the post sightly for added comprehension. It goes:

“One of three things is going on in your head when you’re entering into a transaction of any kind:

  • I’m doing you a favor, bud
  • Hey, this guy is doing me a favor
  • This is a favor-less transaction

It’s interesting to think about how this internal monologue affects the way we do business.

A favor, after all, is an investment in a future relationship.

(Mostly, whoever made you a favor, such as lending you a small amount of money, particularly money, and occasionally referred you to a position, he is not about to forget you: He did you a favor and he insists on reminding you that you owe him a favor in return…best way of retaining acquaintances…  Most of the time, when you lend money and you cannot pay back in currency, you usually keep paying back in different kinds of favors that amount to many fold the money you borrowed.  I have witnessed this behavior and experienced it to know that exceptions are pretty rare.)

At the famous old-school pizza joint, they act as if they’re doing just about everyone a favor. (You love pizza, and you like their pizza.  Where else could you get what you love?)

No need to answer the phone nicely, smile, or add just a little bit extra to that pie.

Godin’s first law of pizza joints:  Quality is often inversely proportional to niceness.

(I recall a movie by Spike Lee about an Italian-origin family feeding a Black community pizza.  The juvenile delinquent grew big, and the owner of the pizzeria boasted that the community owe him a favor because they lived on pizza.  Soon, the youth in the community caught up with the spirit of the time, civil rights movement, and realized there is more to life…than eating pizza…)

Whether or not they are actually doing you a favor by selling you this pizza, they believe they are, and act accordingly.

On the other hand, when your buddy Lorne Michaels does you a favor and gets his friend Steve Martin to stop by your kid’s birthday party, it’s really obvious that a favor is being done. So you bend over backwards, you’re dancing at the edge of obsequiousness, putting as much extra on the table as you can get away with. After all, he’s doing you a favor.

And most of the time, it’s the third category: business as usual.

My hope is that during business as usual, you’re aggressively over delivering, but still, it’s not like they’re doing you a favor by transacting with you. It’s an exchange, a sustainable transaction, where both sides win.

The disconnect happens when one party in the transaction thinks he’s doing the other guy a favor… but the other guy doesn’t act that way in return.

In fact, when both sides think they’re doing the other a favor, it’s a meltdown. The flip-side is great–when both sides act as if the other guy is doing them a favor.

The shortcut to success is this: why not always act as if the other guy is doing the favor?” End of quote


Indeed, “why not always act as if the other guy is doing the favor?”  On the individual level, this is a great attitude and very profitable.

On the flip-side, it is the worst case scenario among States.

The third alternative is more effective:  Each State in the negotiation table thinks of doing the other parties favors, but act neutral.

For example, why western States, European and the US think that they are doing developing States favors by launching preemptive wars, strikes, and financial embargoes?

Why after developing countries successfully win a mass revolution, and in non-violent revolts, do western States butt-in to grab the largest piece of the favor pie?

As if in this wretched poor countries nothing can be done without prior planning of the intelligence agencies of the veto-power States in the UN?

After all, it is the Egyptian citizens who got killed, injured, and stood steadfast in mostly non-violent sit-ins and marches…Why the US Administration feels that it has to propagate the message that the upheaval was successful because it sided against Mubarak, finally?

Why does the US Administration encourage power sharing between the military and the religious Sunni “Moslem Brotherhood” political parties and movements, in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt…?

Is there any role to the secular and liberal factions in Arab/Islamic States withing the western propaganda?

What kinds of “alternative democracy” has the US created? How it is described?

Michelle and Barack Obama; (Jan. 26, 2010)

            The journalist Peter Nicolas of the Los Angeles Times followed Barack Obama on the Presidential campaign trails and wrote: “I cannot say with any certainty who is Obama.”  Law professor Mark Sawyer who once attended Obama’s law classes said: “Barack is how you see he is.  Barack is enigmatic in his positions, brilliant, able to defend the positions of opponents, and he is distant (as if called somewhere else).”

            Barack planned for his presidency since 2002, even before being elected Senator to Illinois: Anthony Lake (Bill Clinton’s National Security advisor) aided Barack forming his “diplomatic team”.  Obama knew in the minute details George W. Bush 2004 campaign. Obama has no need to prove (like Clinton) that he is the smartest among his team members and counselors: he has the capacity to dominate without provoking.  The few instances of weariness are results of experts expounding indefinitely on issues Barack knows about.

            A young lady wrote an article saying “we are fed up of drama”.  Obama picked up the message for his slogan “Obama- No drama” and then the next slogan “Changes we can believe in”.  Obama said on CBS: “I tolerate no ego trips in the team for personal promotions.  I tolerate no back stabbing to go ahead.  A few warnings and then you are out of the team”.  With Obama the crux of the matter is “Problems are complex: There is no unique resolution.”  Obama is very conscious that he is a public figure and thus, “What I say or do is what I mean”.

            Michelle Robinson Obama was a successful lawyer and a Harvard graduate when she married Barack in 1992.  Michelle focused her energy, as recommended by the campaign advisors, submitting to interviews for family magazines.  Mark Sawyer stated “People were not yet ready to admit that highly educated black women have potentials to make any difference in society: they are accepted as assistants and dedicated to family.”  Michelle is fundamentally a sarcastic person and skeptical that black personalities are taken seriously: she frightens audience when she looks serious.

            Michelle’s brother Craig was basketball star in Princeton when she applied and admitted in 1981.  Her sociology thesis was on how black students integrated in white socio-cultural structure and how blacks ended up feeling alienated of their community of origin after graduation.  The skeptical tone of her thesis was that Michelle felt that she will always be relegated to the peripheries of the successful elites.

            In 1989, Michelle was a lawyer at a firm and she was asked to take care of new recruit from Harvard.  She and barrack had their first kiss at Baskin-Robins on 53rd Street: they had first seen a Spike Lee movie.  Michelle quits private practice and joined Chicago’s Mayor Office. She was Vice-president of external relations at the university hospital in Chicago when Obama was elected Senator in 2004.  Michelle’s salary climbed from $121,000 to $317,000 in 2005.  The couple was living in a single family home worth $1.65 million: the two published books of Barack Obama were best sellers at the time.

            “Do you want to know how Barack prepares for debates? He spends a few minutes with me and Barack is set and ready” said Michelle.




March 2023

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