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A culture explosion in Fort Greene

A culture explosion in Fort Greene — Spike Lee, Chris Rock, and other swap ideas in the New York City borough

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In a Brooklyn pizzeria, a black man called Buggin’ Out eyes the photos of Sinatra and DiMaggio that proudly line the walls and says to the owner, ”Hey Sal! How come you have no brothers up on the wall here?” *”You want brothers on the wall?” Sal retorts. ”Get your own place, you can do what you want.” *A few blocks away from where this scene from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was shot, ambitious young African-Americans have been doing just that. On the walls of the Greene Avenue Grill, a place as deliberately ethnic as Sal’s but much more slick and upscale, photos of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis face one of an intersection marked ”Dream Street.” Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack for Lee’s Jungle Fever bops in the background; Lee, White Men Can’t Jump‘s Wesley Snipes, Jay Leno’s music man Branford Marsalis, and Saturday Night Live‘s Chris Rock have recently dropped by to do lunch. Three thousand miles from the power noshes of Mortons, historic deals go down: At a party at Marsalis’ house a few years ago, lawyer Lisa Davis met her client Spike Lee; later Bill Stephney, currently the music supervisor of Eddie Murphy’s movie Boomerang, turned Spike on to a rap group he’d helped put together called Public Enemy. Davis got front man Chuck D as a client, Lee got down with the new street sound, and the world got to hear Do the Right Thing‘s rap overture ”Fight the Power,” an anthem that couldn’t have come out of Beverly Hills.

Welcome to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the New York neighborhood at the red-hot center of a national black arts renaissance. ”It’s a place where a lot of young African-Americans are trying to be about something,” says former resident Larry Fishburne, who played the father in Boyz N the Hood and is currently starring in the movie Deep Cover and on Broadway in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

”It’s a fresh approach,” says Bill Stephney. ”Instead of seeking to produce crossover products that sometimes dilute the black experience, this posse embraces its own culture and makes that the basis of its success. It’s about people coming over to us.”

Much of the action revolves around Spike Lee. ”Spike is the mayor of the neighborhood,” says Nelson George, a Fort Greene author and screenwriter (Strictly Business) who saved Lee’s first feature film from confiscation by a creditor with a last-minute $1,000. ”It’s almost like Prince’s complex in Minneapolis.” Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, and his gift shop, Spike’s Joint, help anchor the local entrepreneurial revival. ”Let’s start relying on ourselves and do more for ourselves,” Spike has sermonized. On the wall of Spike’s Joint, a framed old Brooklyn Dodgers pennant symbolizes what he has in mind: a scruffy Dodger bum hoisting himself by his rumpled jersey high above Ebbets Field, propelling himself to glory. On a rack below, there’s a baseball jersey for sale: In place of the player’s number is an ”X,” as in Malcolm, and the lettering reads, by any means necessary.

Lee is only the most noted local making the big time in his hometown, however. The concentration of talent — some of today’s most influential musicians, filmmakers, writers, and artists — echoes cultural movements like Paris’ Montmartre circle in the 1880s, Greenwich Village in the 1910s, or London’s Bloomsbury group in the 1920s. Though Stephney cautions that they don’t ”sit around in parlors and discuss everything from Kunta Kinte to Ice Cube,” their work voices Lee’s rallying cry: ”Black life is as important as white life.”

”I find it very civilized over here. There’s a lot of well-to-do black families, and some white folks, too,” says violist Maxine Roach, daughter of jazz legend Max Roach and leader of the Uptown String Quartet. It’s a specifically black civilization with characters right out of Spike Lee films, from curbside beer-bellied philosophers to sleek young geniuses laboring round the clock to perfect their art. Roach’s string quartet, for instance, which recently played James Brown’s ”I Feel Good” on The Cosby Show. ”We’ve all been classically trained,” says Roach, ”but we grew up listening to black music. Our music comes out of the African-American continuum in this country.”

And Fort G is the hottest, newest bandwidth on that continuum. ”It’s an eclectic mix,” says Courtney Counts, a manager at Spike’s Joint by day and, by night, a vocalist who has performed with Spike’s father, bassist Bill Lee, a former bandmate of Duke Ellington and a colleague of Fort Greene jazz greats Lester Bowie, Cecil Taylor, and Betty Carter. ”Performers, artists, and professionals live here right alongside working people and street people.”

But it’s an uneasy mix at times: Every night, Fort Greene Park, a landscape masterpiece championed by crusading neighborhood resident Walt Whitman and designed by Olmsted and Vaux, creators of Central Park, becomes a no- man’s-land patrolled by ”a crew of addicts and dealers who’d just as soon punch your ticket as light a match,” says one local. Every morning, tennis hacks in designer sportswear take over, and joggers crisscross the park’s paths. Down at the basketball courts, pickup games heat up, generating energy tapped by Nelson George, who hung out there to soak up local color for his book Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball.

”Sometimes I’ll just stop what I’m doing and listen to the sound of a lone saxophone drifting across the courtyard,” says Ernest R. Dickerson, director of Juice and Spike Lee’s longtime cinematographer. ”There’s a sense of neighborhood. People speak to you when you walk down the street.”

”Kevin and Robin Eubanks and some other musicians I knew lived here,” says alto sax player Donald Harrison, who (along with Terence Blanchard) replaced Branford and Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. ”Since these cats had moved in, I knew I’d be around people who were into the same thing I was.” Pretty soon Harrison and Blanchard were teaching Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington to look the part of jazzmen in Mo’ Better Blues.

Not that the interaction always involves professional networking; sometimes it’s just being neighborly. ”I stepped out of my house one day, and there was [jazzman] Gil Scott-Heron taking out his garbage. I didn’t even know he lived here,” says Terence Blanchard. ”He just smiled and went back inside.”

Largely black gentrification is getting parts of the ‘hood back to where it was in 1895, when The New York Times observed that most of the city’s ”wealthy Negroes live in Brooklyn.” Indeed, more of New York’s blacks live there than in Manhattan, and few areas seem as ripe for restoration as Fort Greene’s sycamore-lined streets and 130-year-old architectural wonders. ”There’s this big housing project a block away from quarter-million-dollar brownstones with elaborate chandeliers and elegant wood floors,” says Nelson George. ”One of the best things about the ‘hood is that you feel connected to all levels of black life here. You’re not isolated, living in a mansion somewhere with a bunch of guys telling you what’s going on. You’re in it, the vitality is all around you.”

Barbara Brandon, the creator of the syndicated comic strip Where I’m Coming From, promises to immortalize one recent Fort G incident she observed from her window: ”Since my apartment is right above Spike’s Joint, people think it’s not residential and nobody can hear them. Recently I overheard an argument between a man and a woman, and I was about to call 911 because I thought somebody was about to get hurt. Then I saw the woman had the man pushed up against a car, and she was literally kicking his butt.”

”I moved here because I wanted to be around black people,” says SNL comic Chris Rock, who was introduced to Fort Greene by Nelson George, his screenwriting collaborator on a movie project called Cell Block Four. ”I wanted a nice neighborhood. But I made it doing black material, and I wanted to be around the source of that material.”

”We hear 14-year-olds rapping at the back of the bus or the woman who just got off the night shift at Brooklyn Hospital complaining about problems at work or at home,” says Public Enemy cocreator Stephney. As he sees it, ”Whenever African-American institutions move away from their base — Motown and the Commodores, for example — they absolutely lose their success.”

Although the impact of its creative achievements already can be compared to cultural movements in the 1920s and 1960s, Fort G is distinctively ’90s. Unlike the aesthetically focused Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s or the intensely political ’60s black-power movement, it’s essentially about getting down to business. As Lee put it while making Do the Right Thing, ”If I’m dealing with the black lower class, I have to acknowledge that the number one thing on folks’ minds is getting paid.” George observes that ”as an artistic movement, we’re much more involved in marketing and merchandising than just creating the product. We don’t want to be ripped off like black artists of the past.”

For all its vitality and splendor, however, the future of the Fort Greene arts scene is open to some doubt. ”I’ll be interested to see if the community survives when a lot of us get married,” says George. ”Spike’s Mo’ Better Blues reflects the lives of a lot of young, creative people in the ‘hood — young, black artistic types trying to juggle their art and their personal lives, often choosing their art over their women. It’s a dating and couple group, not a family scene.”

Branford Marsalis reluctantly agrees, out of experience: ”In the park, I was walking along holding my son’s hand when a crackhead came up and, bold as day, told me exactly what she would do for $10 to score some rocks. I was in shock. The next day Spike called and asked how I was doing. I said, ‘I’m outta here, man!’ I didn’t want my kid dealing with that crap.” Spike knew just what to do: He used the incident as a scene in his next movie, Jungle Fever.

”If I was single, I’d still be in Fort Greene,” Marsalis says ruefully. ”I loved it. I didn’t just live there, I hung out. I played basketball in the park, ate at places like the Greene Avenue Grill and Cino’s.”

But like Larry Fishburne, who moved out several years ago when his wife became pregnant, and Vernon Reid of Living Colour, who left last year, he’s not loving it anymore. ”It’s nice to be able to talk to people like Terence Blanchard about music or rap with Spike about art, but the price you pay is high,” Marsalis says. ”The reality of the city gets to you.” Blanchard himself wonders about the long-term practicality of Fort G’s workaholic milieu: ”You always have questions about how much time do I spend at work, and how much with my son. When you see the level of commitment they have to their craft, it’s inspiring. Why is Spike Lee Spike Lee? Because he spends 24 hours a day working on his films.”

Other Fort Greeners equally devoted to art will be working elsewhere — Marsalis on the West Coast set of the Leno show, Snipes riding his rising star in Hollywood. By all accounts, the Mayor is committed to staying put: Spike’s got his dad’s stubbornness, and his dad was so stubborn he refused to go electric when his guitar buddies Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel made it big plugging in. Bill Lee insisted on going his own way unamplified until he was rescued from obscurity by scoring the movies of his son, who had refused to follow his footsteps into the music business. Around 40 Acres and a Mule, nobody is more mulish than Spike.

But for every big name who pulls up roots in Fort Greene, a new nobody moves there, bent on winning fame. ”We’re talking about young people who are just picking up the ball,” says Larry Fishburne. ”They see us and think, ‘If he can do it, I can too.”’