When Spike Lee went on his epic rant about gentrification the other day, he mentioned something that caught our ears:
When Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said, “Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. Who’s coming to the neighborhood? They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.” Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show. There’s 20,000 dogs running around. Whoa. So we had to move it to Prospect Park!
Expletives aside, the issues Spike Lee raises are exactly at the heart of Diggs & Hillel's photographs, and especially their “Michael Jackson Memorial Wall.” The photographers' “Time in Harlem” was a four year project in which they exclusively captured images of the changing landscape of 125th Street in Harlem. One of these images happened to capture a special moment in history where neighbors paid tribute to Michael Jackson by the empty lot next to Apollo Theater after his death.
Among Diggs & Hillel’s other photographs in the series, the “Michael Jackson” image is unique as the only historical event. The photographers wanted to capture images that they knew would be impossible to capture as gentrification, rezoning and development projects effected Harlem. However, as an event, the impromptu memorial was unique for this very reason.
The latest street view (see: bottom image) shows that, while outdated, the lot next to Apollo Theater has already been taken over by a development. A search on Google Maps shows that it is now a Red Lobster. It would seem an odd space to erect a memorial for Michael Jackson outside of a Red Lobster. Indeed, the memorial was especially poignant in front of an empty lot because it served as a kind of sudden cemetery. No one stopped people from paying tribute to Michael Jackson in Harlem, but in an odd way, like the Fort Greene incident that Spike Lee mentioned, now that kind of memorial is also impossible.
Spike Lee was only speaking to the tension between the everyday reality of New York’s streets and neighborhoods - often contentious and always complex. His rant, while funny and at times arguable, rhymed compellingly with the work of Diggs & Hillel.
To see more of their Diggs & Hillel’s photographs, visit the gallery, and pre-order their book “125th: Time in Harlem,” which will be published next week.