‘Brooklyn Boheme’ begins in the duplex apartment of author Nelson George, who lives just across the street from Fort Greene Park, the magnificent public space that gives the community its center. George ventures out into the neighborhood talking about the great artists who lived and worked there.
George then will speak to the brothers David & Spike Lee about “the bad old days” of New York City in general, and Fort Greene specifically, in the ’70s where white flight, crime and budget cuts damaged the city psyche. They both talk humorously of being terrorized by Half-Head, a local thug, and of playing sports in a Fort Greene Park neglected by the Parks Department. Rock guitarist Vernon Reid, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School in the ’70s, talks about the prostitution that was rampant in the area.
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who now lives in North Carolina, talks about being urged to move to New York by his brother trumpeter Wynton. After visiting some other jazzmen in Fort Greene to play basketball Branford fell in love with Fort Greene and ended up buying a house. He fell in with other young jazzmen like trumpeter Terrance Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison. He also met Spike Lee, who was raising funds for his film ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ They would form a friendship that would result in Branford becoming an actor and playing music for many of Spike’s projects – a connection typical of the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill community. George, who met Spike around the same time, would go on to invest in ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’
The success of that independent film in 1986 would make the neighborhood a magnet for enterprising African-Americans with actors like Wesley Snipes, Lawrence Fishburne, and Rosie Perez moving there to be close to Spike and the vibe. Celebrated visual artist Lorna Simpson was personally recruited to Fort Greene by Spike.
Since everyone was in their ’20s parties and dating were central occupations of the area. Spike held famous block parties that drew attendees from all over the New York area and from around the country. Wesley Snipes held smoky jams at his brownstone. Collaborations and love affairs began at these events.
While Spike’s offices at 40 Acres & A Mule were one center of activity, other artistic scenes were developing in the area. The feminist theater collective Rodeo Caldonia, which included playwright Lisa Jones, singer/actress Alva Rogers and artist Simpson, were active. So was M-Base, an avant garde jazz group led by Steve Coleman. The roots of the Black Rock Coalition and the founding of breakthrough black rock band Living Colour were in Fort Greene, where guitarist Vernon Reid
One of the most vibrant artistic scenes in the ‘hood was based out of the Brooklyn Moon, a café that became the Brooklyn home base for the spoken word movement that was exploding around the city. Poets who would become recording artists (Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Common), authors (Kevin Powell, Carl Hancock Rux) and actors (Saul Williams, Sarah Jones) all emerged from the Brooklyn Moon.
Because he performed at comedy clubs in Manhattan many folks don’t know how important Fort Greene was to Chris Rock’s development. But his first apartment was in Fort Greene and throughout his years on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the recording of his breakthrough ‘Bring the Pain’ HBO special, he lived the area. George and Rock wrote ‘CB4′, the rap parody film that Chris starred in and Nelson produced, in their apartments a few blocks from each other.
The neighborhood began changing in the late ’90s as crack driven crime chased some away (Branford Marsalis). Others moved for work (Lawrence Fishburne.) Too much fame made it difficult for some (Spike Lee, Chris Rock) to live there, though both still held onto real estate there.
After the 9/11 attack, which of course profoundly changed much about New York, the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area saw an influx of young, college educated white families who purchased the brownstones that had been cheap rentals for black artists just a decade ago. Banks began investing in the area as crime fell. Today Fort Greene/Clinton Hill is now associated with white children playing in the park than cutting edge African-American culture.
George ends the film with a melancholy look back and some speculation about the neighborhood’s future.