Brandon Harris describes himself as a “high yellow Negro,” the light-skinned offspring of a middle-class family from Kennedy Heights who attended Seven Hills School, a private K-12 institution that educates the children of the city’s wealthiest families.
That unique set of circumstances informs much of Harris’ Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make it in New York City, an engrossing mix of personal anecdotes, incisive reporting and criticism published last year by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, which has steadily found an audience.
Enthralled with movies since childhood, Harris studied film at State University of New York (SUNY) in Purchase in the early 2000s. Afterward, he intended to move 30 miles south to New York City and start a moviemaking career in the mold of his onetime hero, Spike Lee. He indeed moved to New York City, rooming with his childhood buddy and former Seven Hills classmate Tony — whose well-to-do parents helped finance their living situation — in the historically black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But things don’t always go as planned. As is so often the case in an art form that requires access to large amounts of money, Harris had trouble getting his filmmaking career off the ground. Almost by accident, he began writing movie reviews and the occasional feature for Filmmaker Magazine, which eventually led to more freelance journalism work for a variety of publications, from IndieWire and The New Republic to n+1 and The New Yorker.
Making Rent in Bed-Stuy draws from pieces he has written over the years as well as new takes on topics as diverse as gentrification and poverty, the rise of Bed-Stuy native Jay-Z, and the troubles filmmakers of color have in getting their work financed and distributed.
The book toggles between Harris’ thoughts on his struggles to make rent over the last dozen years and his political and social commentary of rare insight. Everything is delivered via an evocative, transportive prose style that illuminates the issues of minority life in Bed-Stuy and beyond.
“It was an emotionally tumultuous period of my life and I chose to document it firsthand in ways that I could scarcely imagine,” Harris says. “At the same time, it was a period of self-discovery; it was also a journey into the heart of this sort of mecca of black America that I was living in that is greatly imperiled by forces beyond any of our individual control.”
Harris visits his Cincinnati hometown periodically — much of his family still lives here and it’s where he filmed his one and only full-length feature, Redlegs, a semi-autobiographical indie that drew praise from The New York Times. Harris sees parallels between Bed-Stuy and Over-the-Rhine, each of which has changed radically in recent years.
“What has taken place in Over-the-Rhine since I made Redlegs in 2010 is the complete transformation of a historically landmarked urban space that was blighted in the years of white flight and has been coveted by the city’s elite since at least the 1970s as a place of urban renewal,” he says. “It has been utterly transformed in a way that makes it a clarion call for those who’d like to do the same thing in urban spaces that were ceded to blacks and disinvested in and overly policed and denied services and shamed by the news media for two or three generations.”
The transformation of urban centers all over the country is a complex, often controversial topic, one that spurred what would become Making Rent in Bed-Stuy.
“It’s a major American story,” he says. “I think it’s as significant a story as the deindustrialization of the middle of the country and the hollowing out of the white working class. It’s a significant national crisis. If poor people who are disproportionately brown had any political agency in this country, it would be at the top of the agenda of any politician who wanted to keep their job. But that is not the world in which we live.”
While Harris was originally hesitant to delve so deeply into his own experiences as they relate to issues of race, class and moviemaking, he’s now grateful he was pushed to do so by the various editors he worked with in bringing Making Rent in Bed-Stuy to publication.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I always saw the book as a high-wire act. I wanted to be very unsparing of self. I wanted to be harder on myself than anyone else, and I felt that if I did that I would have the liberty to be hard on pretty much anyone: black people, white people, politicians, my parents, my grandparents, my girlfriends, Spike Lee — the list goes on and on.”