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Spike Lee: 'Cobble Hill Was Mobbed Up'

In an interview with New York magazine's Vulture column, the director says the neighborhood of his childhood was very different from today.


Cobble Hill has become Brooklyn Heights, at least according to director Spike Lee.

In the runup to his newest film, Red Hook Summer, the creator of Brooklyn-based movies such as Do The Right Thing was featured in a lengthy interview with New York magazine's Vulture column in which he discussed growing up in Cobble Hill and how it has changed.

Lee lived at 186 Warren Street, between Henry and Clinton Streets, from 1961 to 1969. Back then, the director said it was "mobbed up," dominated by a strong Italian-American community. But he told the magazine that he doesn't take issue with new businesses selling "wheat germ and Pilates."

"That does not bother me," Lee told Vulture. "What bothers me is that these kids do not know the street games we grew up with. Stoop ball, stickball, cocolevio, crack the top, down the sewer, Johnny on the pony, red light green light one-two-three. These are New York City street games."

Lee goes on to say that his was the first black family to move into Cobble Hill.

"And we got called “n*****,” he told Vulture. "At that time, Cobble Hill was strong—I mean, strong—Italian-American, because of the docks. But as soon as the neighbors understood that there weren’t any other black families, it was not like a mass of black families moving in behind me, I was just like everybody else. It was a great time to grow up in Cobble Hill."

Lee told the magazine he would compare current-day Cobble Hill to Brooklyn Heights. 

"But when I was growing up, the demarcation line was Atlantic Avenue," he said in the interview. "Brooklyn Heights was rich, Jewish. Atlantic Avenue was like the train tracks, and on the other side of Atlantic Avenue was Cobble Hill. It was mobbed up. When you crossed ­Atlantic Avenue, that was like going to another world."

Lest locals take offense to any negative connotation that Lee's words may have, rest assured his opinions of most other Brooklyn neighborhoods are pretty much the same.

"It’s all different," he told Vulture. "There’s gentrification of Cobble Hill. Fort Greene’s gentrified, Harlem was gentrified, Bed-Stuy’s gentrified, and Williamsburg is gentrified."

What do you think, readers? Has Cobble Hill become another variation on Brooklyn Heights? How do you feel about Lee's memories and description?

Carmen July 09, 2012 at 02:55 PM
i think there should be agree and disagree buttons along with the reply option.
Carmen July 09, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Umm, there's still drug dealers, stabbings and shootings, maybe not as much but the point was that many of the natives are being pushed out of their homes and businesses. I have seen many many people that I grew up with leave. This was once a community where everyone knew eachother by name. Now there are strangers pushing their way down the streets. I've been here since the 70's, born and raised. And there is no denying that the area has changed dramatically.
Carmen July 09, 2012 at 03:05 PM
And by the way, Mr. Lee didn't talk about "yuppies", he talked about culture and history of the neighborhood being lost. Please make sure your points are aimed in the right direction.
ANONYMOUS July 09, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Great stuff...I grew up on Pacific Street..one block across Atlantic Ave. And, yes Spike is right. One block made a difference. It was Brooklyn Heights, then everything on the other side of AA was South Brooklyn and then the names changed to Cobble Hill. Yes, Cobble Hill is more like the Heights and now Carroll Gardens is on its way. I miss seeing the kids play the street games, instead today its play dates. It's just a process, every neighborhood changed. The children of the homeowners did not want to live in "railroad apts" and moved to Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Staten Island..it wasn't the landlords who drove them out. They really didn't want to stay until they realized how much the values had grown. I spend many nights talking to friends and family lamenting "if only I bought my mom's house, my aunt's house"...if only, yes.
Sue July 09, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Spike Lee is a spoiled child of St. Ann's who sterotypes everybody. Not a nice guy
Salvatore Ferraioli July 09, 2012 at 05:58 PM
This is a 2nd, almost verbatim, posting which I hope is not censored. What a case of gullible "reporting". Shelton was 4-12 years old when he lived in CH. What an amazing, precocious social awareness he must have possessed. His comments are more self-important, self-serving "recollections" form a first-class stereotyper with pretensions of having survived a rough upbringing in a rough neighborhood.
Lola July 09, 2012 at 07:18 PM
"Stoop ball, stickball, cocolevio, crack the top, down the sewer, Johnny on the pony, red light green light one-two-three. These are New York City street games." I loved stoop ball when I was little!
Joanna Prisco (Editor) July 09, 2012 at 07:33 PM
You know what would be great, is if someone could organize a block party where all of these games were played instead of a big bouncy tent. Something different!
Mary A. July 09, 2012 at 11:29 PM
Hi Carmen, you speak about "the natives." The "natives" aren't the people who lived in Cobble Hill in 1961. The natives were pushed out by whites long ago. The groups that Spike called "the locals" previously dislocated the groups that were the locals before that. Our area was inhabited by Norwegian (sailors and their families) and a few other ethnic groups before the Italians and Irish settled in. It's been a changing landscape for years.
Tony July 10, 2012 at 02:58 AM
Anthony and Carmen are just dumb locals that we would love to have them leave it. Oh yeah those unassumed racists, those pure meatballs race lovers that just hate everyone that don't live like them. And please don't tell me your "We were there first", that's not true look a bit at your history book, which I doubt you have one, so just google it then, stupido.
Carmen July 10, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Really, with everything else I said, the only thing you latch on to is the word "natives"? Okay, please excuse my verbal type-o. But what about everything else I said? Like about the loss of community and local small businesses that have been shut down because of skyrocketing rents? Anything to say about that?
Carmen July 10, 2012 at 04:09 AM
As for you, not once did I mention, race, creed, religion, color, height, weight, sexuality, or hating anyone, or "those unassumed racists, those pure meatballs race lovers that just hate everyone that don't live like them." My problem is with the people moving into the neighborhood with no community values. With the strangers who don't care or bother to get to know their neighbors. The rude ones who act like they are entitled to whatever they want and don't care who they step on to get there. Like the woman who pushed me down the stairs to the "F" train when I had a baby in my arms... I was raised to say please, and thank you and excuse me. That is the loss that I mourn. We once had a community that looked out for each other. Now its everyone for themselves.
Mary A. July 10, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Carmen, just saw your last posting. I don't know what block you're on, but on my block in Cobble Hill, I have nice neighbors, we say hello to one another, and watch out for each other. And we still have manners. It has not turned into the rude hood you are talking about. If one person pushed into you on the subway stairs, that does not exemplify an entire neighborhood. Enough said.
Carmen July 10, 2012 at 02:16 PM
I only mentioned one instance of rudeness out of many. It must be different closer to Smith Street than it is in your part of Cobble Hill.
Carmen July 10, 2012 at 02:17 PM
And you also never said anything about my original reply to you directly...
Tito July 10, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Wow! Nice comment, Tony. Sounds like you're the racist. Look, all neighborhoods in NYC change as a result of immigration, migration, and Americanization. There is no neighborhood intact today as it was in 1960, the period Spike Lee remembers. The Italian presence in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill is really a 20th century phenomena, getting started around 1910 and then building from there. Dock work was the major draw. Immigration from Italy in the 1960s injected new blood into the area, but dock work ended and people moved on (and Italians settle alongside family, so when one family goes it usually means that many more do). I liked the area when it was poor, working class, and Italian American, but that ended 30 years ago. If you're an ethnic person, then you understand what it's like when your neighborhood changes, because there's few other places like it. The whole we were there first thing doesn't mean anything. Neighborhoods take on a character. Look at gentrification in Harlem. African Americans weren't the first people to live in Harlem. In the 1800s it was a wealthy Anglo Saxon area. But, who remembers that? When African Americans complain about gentrification, you don't say they're racist and they weren't there first. No, you understand that it's a complex issue. Gentrification started sweeping through South Brooklyn (aka Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill) in the 1980s. It's at the point of no return now. Still, we can lament the passing of what once was.
Joanna Prisco (Editor) July 10, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Just a reminder to keep comments polite and civil, everyone. I encourage you to engage in a dialogue that explores our differences as a community. But any racist, profane or violent remarks will be removed. Thank you.
Carmen July 10, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Thank you Tito.
Anthony July 11, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Thank you because you look like a dumb racist yourself. Nothing in my above comment even resembled racism. Then again, your meatball was not racist either. Not at all.
Denise F. Mignosi July 11, 2012 at 01:56 AM
We knew Spike growing up, & liked him a lot. Spike was always actively outspoken/candid and funny. We lived on eother side of him during 1962-1969 @ Warren St between Court & Smith & later Baltic St between Henry & Clinton St. His assessment of the area is spot on, although below Court St near Smith St we did have black families which were home owners.Unfortunely many areas of Brooklyn were territorial , its the way immigrants were treated when they arrived here, so they kept to themselves in communities of others like them .
Bruce Freilich July 11, 2012 at 02:40 AM
In some ways, our side of the tracks (columbia St waterfront) lagged Cobble Hill by 10 years. Gun shots and Federal raids were common. The piers were gone but the wise guy feuds continued. And the names, the names. Charley Cadillac.
Tony July 11, 2012 at 02:48 AM
People that hates the others based on appearences or just because they are not like them to put it in simple terms, are RACISTS to me. The problem with people hating the newbies is that they say they understand or embrace change but they don't, they are fooling themselve. Hey Tito, rent a brain, read my post again and see that I was talking about constant change in NYC.
Anthony July 11, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Speaking of reading post again, Tony, why don't you read my post again. No where in my post did I hate on newbies for not looking like me. Hey, you want to wear dress like a box of Crayola Crayons, that's your business. But when it comes to the snooty attitude, check it at the door. Or when it comes to not saying thank you when someone holds the door, or letting your brat kids run wild in a store..... Now that needs to stop. Or how about when the newbies don't want to sing a block party petition? Please... All I'm asking is for the yuppies to assimilate a little and not call the cops because the coffee aroma coming from D'Amico's is bothering them. ASSIMILATE. That's all. I've become used to their habits and I even take when by newbie neighbors offer me some of their vegan whatever the heck it is. Now it's time for some more newbies to embrace our traditions.
Carmen July 11, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Yay Anthony!
Tito July 11, 2012 at 04:38 PM
@ Tony - "Rent a brain, read my post again." Wow. You sound like a real nice guy. I'd love to meet you some time. Why don't we read your comment again together? Tony writes: "Anthony and Carmen are just dumb locals that we would love to have them leave it. Oh yeah those unassumed racists, those pure meatballs race lovers that just hate everyone that don't live like them. And please don't tell me your "We were there first", that's not true look a bit at your history book, which I doubt you have one, so just google it then, stupido." So, Tony, you use phrases such as "dumb locals" and "pure meatball race lovers" and suggest that these two folks take a look at the history book they "don't have" and "stupido." No, I got your message loud and clear, Tony. You didn't say anything about constant change in NYC. You didn't say anything intelligent at all. You just wrote a racist rant, the kind of thing that I would challenge you to say in a face-to-face public forum instead of safely ensconced behind your computer. It's unfortunate that so many people, given the anonymity of their computers will just write the most hateful drivel. But, maybe you just want to get a rise out of me. Puerile, to say the least.
Furtgo July 12, 2012 at 02:39 PM
Yes, his family moved, he moved to Fort Greene as a young adult during the (still cheap) cultural renaissance of that neighborhood, he married, and then he moved to the Upper East Side. He earned enough money to have a nice place on the 'Vineyard, a beautiful island that has historically welcomed people of African descent. What's wrong with that? Please point out the problem. You don't have to be rich to stay on the 'Vineyard, by the way…
Furtgo July 12, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Everything looks different to a kid.
Eddie hernandez July 13, 2012 at 03:00 AM
I was born and raised in cobble hill and I agree with what spike lee stated in his interview. From 1977 through 2007 my neiborhood was full of Italians and puerto ricans. Alot of abandon buildings and nobody wanted to live there it was a tuff area. But we made it home, this place was home of crazy joe gallo and special agent Diaz who brought down Nicky Barnes with his great uncover work. I'm proud growing up in cobble hill, it made me tuff and street smart and that is what makes u survive in new York. Now I go back because my parents still live there and it's not the same. Everybody is a stranger, no more tight community and kids do not play the games that spike talked about. My neighborhood had character now it's just bland.
Snurman July 16, 2012 at 11:59 PM
I was under the impression that Cobble Hill was largely Syrian/Lebanese back in the day
joecosenza March 12, 2013 at 05:52 PM
They called me peanuts, from clinton street.write me sometime.

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