SEPTEMBER 14, 2017
THERE IS A KEY SCENE in Federico Fellini’s Roma in which a developer leads a tour of the new subway system tunneling beneath the Piazza della Radio. We burrow through the subterranean layers of Rome and traverse about 3,000 years of artifact-rich dirt, before hitting a wall, on the other side of which awaits a huge archaeological finding. Will the past derail progress or will the earth-moving construction pave over history?
Filmmaker and critic Brandon Harris has found another Eternal City folding on top of itself, piled high, with Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: a Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City. The mode of self-exploration that Harris pushes in his wide-ranging meditation on race and class, film and literature, black history and crime reportage carves out its own space in American letters. The author takes on both himself and his place in the gentrification of the Brooklyn enclave known as Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“It wasn’t for no reason that the late great black crime novelist Chester Himes once opined, ‘Obviously and unavoidably, the black American is the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world,’” says Harris, who has written an entirely unsentimental obituary to the so-called post-racial Obama Era. Marketed as a hybrid, the writing style is a gonzo cousin to David Carr’s “narrative argument investigation” in his memoir The Night of the Gun, which Ta-Nehisi Coates (a Carr protégé) masters in his best analytical writing.
Within his set of neurotic concerns, Harris wanders on the page and in the streets. He channels what Aria Dean has called the “would-be black flâneur,” strolling his chosen ground in the boulevardier tradition of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, who walked expositionally through Parisian streets, free to float, though cognizant of being mugged. But a black person walking down the street represents, unfairly, the mugger, whose stroll is routinely stopped by police intervention. “For a black man, in the city of Guiliani, in the country of Bush, in the Bed-Stuy of our collective nightmares, safety seemed a silly concept,” he writes. He feels guilty when he feels threatened by other African-American men, poorer and blacker than he is. “The expectation that they’d pop off and try to provoke me never faded,” Harris writes.
For Harris and his Cincinnati family, class was a “slippery thing.” His adolescence was spent in the company of the hip-hop obsessed kids of liberal whites. Harris’s grandfather embodies a “lowercase black power, comfortable with white folks in person […] deeply distrustful of them in private.” As his godmother told him, “You were middle-class in college, but now you enter the world of a poor negro for the first time in your life.” The dream of making it as the next Steven Soderbergh was deferred, as it was for many of his generation. “‘Indie film is a rich kids game,’ a rich kid had told me,” observes Harris.
Graduating from SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory — located out past White Plains, where the raw energy of young filmmakers was still tethered to editing 16mm — Harris landed in Brooklyn as George W. Bush was getting reelected. Ripe for exploitation, he and Tony — a wealthy, white childhood friend from Cincinnati — moved into a renovated pad that was way out of Harris’s price range. Tony’s parents would partially subsidize the “hood adjacent” lifestyle.
While Tony read Thomas Mann and noodled the guitar, Harris had to hustle to make rent, first as an intern at a small production company, then as a summer camp film instructor, a clerk at Barnes & Noble, and finally, signaling his start as a critic, he earned $50 a pop reviewing movies for Filmmaker Magazine online. He had little to no interaction with the black folks who lived in the massive housing projects near his third-floor walk-up on Throop Avenue. His admissions reveal many ironies of gentrification. “I didn’t know that we shared a neighborhood, because I didn’t know where I was. Of course, where I was was Bed-Stuy, where I didn’t live.”
Harris began to recognize the “amorphous, systematic conspiracy concerning the geography of central Brooklyn,” as he began to pull away from his roommates. The fallout didn’t arise because his roommates were leaving dirty dishes, or because they were white, for that matter. The retreat into the folds of class and race is something that festers during financial woe and misfortune. The awareness of privilege (or lack of awareness) wore down any pretense of chumminess toward Tony, who may have loved boxing and jazz, but wouldn’t bat an eye when averring that some black celebrity “would squander all his money, they always do.” Harris wonders, “No one seems to call this double consciousness, but someone should.”
Harris eked out the life of a schlubby film critic, scrounging leftover room service trays in hotel corridors as he interviewed celebrities on the festival circuit. Back in Bed-Stuy, his water pipes froze and burst, ruining his mattress and forcing him to move (after a fight with the landlord). In a burst of rebellion, with his food stamps, he threw raging BBQs and served up state-sponsored D’Artagnan duck breast. “I had become the stuff of Grover Norquist’s nightmares, scraping by in central Brooklyn with the accoutrements of both the destitute and the refined.”
Like Walt Whitman wilding the DC streets aimlessly after midnight, Harris suddenly “didn’t mind drinking on the street with a recently laid off janitor and his blunt rolling friend.” Such doggerel moments make the code-switching romances ever more tragic. Near the book’s end, he lays bare his relationship with a white woman he loved. Speaking with the semantic prowess of a chameleon, different with his girlfriend, his mother, his buddies, his professors, Harris confesses this “was another type of shame entirely, but the experience of code-switching can also be exhilarating.” Is it exhilarating to be involved in something that is still taboo, or simply frustrating?
The chapters of Making Rent in Bed-Stuy are headed by street addresses — 551 Kosciuszko Street, 730 Dekalb Avenue, 158 Buffalo Avenue, et cetera — mostly Harris’s old digs. The apartment numerology follows a rough chronology, geographic portals teeming with the black middle-class experience. He reports on the bureaucratic mess of the hulking modernist Woodhull Hospital of Bed-Stuy. He sprinkles Talmudic footnotes along Jay-Z’s autobiography Decoded and the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious, underscoring the politics of hip-hop in Bed-Stuy with the neighborhood’s once-booming jazz scene. Compared to jazz, “live hip-hop performance and studio recording, hasn’t had nearly as much significance in the infrastructural life of the place, on the topography or the economy in Bed-Stuy.”
Harris also indulges in the defining trait of the New York memoirist: the digression. Devolving into the lofty, the confessional, or the absurd, the digression allows Harris to confront his history out of order: through the racist city planning of Robert Moses and the discriminatory redlining policies of FDR, all the way back to Weeksville, one of the four distinct neighborhoods within Bed-Stuy (the others being Bedford, Stuyvesant, and Ocean Hill). One day, in a bout of wanderlust, Harris discovered, in the middle of Brooklyn, a large green field. There, on the current site of the Weeksville Heritage Center, stands four homes built sometime between 1830 and 1881, the remnants of what is “likely the most significant free-black community in the pre-Civil War era.” Harris presents a history of black power, not victimhood, within his experience with Weeksville.
“The settlement first brought black-ownership and self-determination to Brooklyn […] ultimately undone as a predominately black enclave by forces that aren’t so different from those threatening to once again undo the wider area’s particularly negro character.” Artists, activists, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (who ran for president in 1972) fought to preserve the dilapidated structures starting in the 1970s. It took until 2008 to get a federal grant and donations from Goldman Sachs and the City of New York to break ground on the Weeksville Heritage Center. Like Fellini’s Italian neorealism and its subsequent digressions, Making Rent in Bed-Stuy exists in the subsoil, in Weeksville, where The Freedman’s Torchlight was read along unpaved country roads.
If there were another spiritual pillar in his book, it would be Harris’s erudite cinephilia. He belongs to the handful of critics that actually critique from a love for the filmmaking craft because they make movies (not only review them). This leads to the question: what type of movie would Making Rent in Bed-Stuy be? Within the post-collegiate malaise of pot smoking, culture vulturing, and a fair amount of angsty promiscuity, this book is a kind of mumblecore — the name bestowed on millennial flailing turned into high art. HBO has cashed in on this genre via Lena Dunham’s Girls, and, sure enough, Harris used to get drinks with Lena Dunham before she skyrocketed to fame, at which point the texting stopped.
The Brooklyn addresses eventually expand outward back to Ohio. Harris discusses his mother, a pickup-driving demolition executive who tried her hand at developing a black neighborhood before the recession slows her upward mobility. In the wake of the police killing of Samuel DuBose (a story he is still covering), Harris tells a short history of his hometown’s racial rebellions, conjuring James Baldwin, and leaving us “beneath black Cincinnati’s fragile calm.”
Then there is 200 Gholson Avenue, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Harris found himself at “Graceland Too,” an unofficial Elvis museum. “Here I was, a Northern Negro in a southern town I knew nothing about other than it had been developed as a site for cotton plantations, about to enter a home of a man whose antebellum space I was pissing on and who purportedly brandished guns.”
Though tempted, Harris doesn’t judge his subjects the way he judges himself. He exerts a sympathetic intelligence when dealing with Lena Dunham, his ex-friends, and his landlords, one of whom was Lil’ Kim’s brother, another a cut-throat Hasid who worked for B&H Photo Video. This sympathy extends to the address of Spike Lee’s production office — 75 South Elliott Place. Harris writes that Spike Lee has a “striver centric social anxiety.” He shares this angst with Lee, and perhaps this allows Harris to critique the titan of American cinema in ways his “pallid, work-a-day film reviewers” simply cannot. He feels Lee mishandles the delicate portrayal of class in his post-9/11 films. But something Harris didn’t mention is that Lee’s family comes from a long line of educators with deep ties to Snow Hill, Alabama — a free-black town and school, which a Tuskegee graduate Dr. William J. Edwards founded in 1893 and where Lee’s cousin, historian Donald Stone, still resides.
Harris feels pained that Lee has “gone the full Kanye: maximum spectacle, minimum coherence.” His overlapping reviews of Ganja & Hess (1973), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), and Chi-Raq (2015) morph into an open letter to Lee, Hollywood, and young filmmakers. “In an America that seems to prefer a single black arbiter of negro feelings and beliefs,” Lee “liked being the only iconic American film director among black males.” His tough-love take — which includes a tense interview with Spike and baddest line in the book, “Fuck George Jefferson, it’s Spike Lee who has moved on up” — warns us that the influx of emerging black filmmakers in 2016 is a massive pivot in the right direction, but the proof of change comes when black directors continue to get hired as they get older.
While Harris was pledging his time, Lena Dunham crossed over to fame years ago. Skeptical as to what it means to “cross over,” Harris writes, “There were people who crossed over every year, but the expectation was now that, like Ryan Coogler [director of Creed] they would go make work for the man.”
Has Harris himself crossed over? Festival programmer of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, writer for the New Republic and The New Yorker, former professor of film at SUNY Purchase — Harris has become one of the gatekeepers of whom he was once suspicious. Since he wrote this, he has moved from Bed-Stuy to find more affordable rent, but he’ll probably be back.
The divisive hyper-financialization of American population centers has turned the working-class artist into a roving time bomb. Harris, in his struggle to make it big, doubled as a pawn in the gentrification puzzle. “We had been gentrifiers,” he writes, “more humble and open than most, we assumed, and now our time to be called back into service had come again.” We don’t call that double consciousness, but we should.