On a corner of Kingston Avenue, along the row of stores that serves as the center of what is colloquially known as “the Jewish side” of Crown Heights, a young chasidic woman with a sheitel atop her head banters with a middle-aged black man wearing a wool stocking cap.
A block away, in the small office of a Jewish-owned car service, a black dispatcher gives out work assignments to the black and Jewish drivers at his side.
A few blocks in the other direction, in a kosher gourmet shop, a black customer with a Caribbean accent looks over the store’s selection of coffee blends before deciding on a half-pound of Colombian Supremo.
These are scenes, Jews and blacks living in the Brooklyn neighborhood say, that were ordinary even 20 years ago. Before, that is, the start of the anti-Jewish riots, triggered by the accidental death of a black child. Those riots, which took one Jewish life, put the area’s black-Jewish relations under a microscope for a generation and established Crown Heights, in the minds of many people, as an event instead of simply a neighborhood.
This week, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the riots, the violence that polarized the community and the city beyond it seems to be on residents’ minds — but also, concurrently, to be a distant memory.
Other than a police van at the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, there is no visible police presence in the neighborhood. At the sites where 7-year-old Gavin Cato and 29-year-old yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum died, several blocks apart on President Street, there are no markers or memorials. On the streets of Crown Heights, on the pizza shop bulletin boards, on the signs in front of the neighborhood’s many churches, there is no mention of the anniversary.
“This is not a date that we remember” each year, unlike the yahrtzeit of the late Lubavitcher rebbe’s death in 1994, says one chasidic woman who has lived in Crown Heights for four decades. “I don’t think it’s on people’s minds.”
While the historical memory of the violence of 20 years ago is well known in Lubavitch circles, it is less known among the neighborhood’s blacks who grew up after the riots, says Sharon Ife-Charles, a native of Crown Heights. “I don’t think there’s any [collective] history that’s passed” from generation to generation. “I don’t believe that many [young blacks there] will know what you’re talking about if the Crown Heights riots are mentioned.”
But the anniversary is not passing completely unnoticed in the neighborhood.
In a conference room of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, an institution on the outskirts of Crown Heights, some two dozen community leaders — evenly divided between blacks and Jews, with a sprinkling of college students and so-called “hipsters” who have started moving into the area in recent years — met for two hours Monday afternoon to finish planning for an anniversary event that was to be held Thursday night at the museum.
This week’s “Crown Heights’ Summer of Celebration Reception” featured awards given to black and Jewish activists, music performed by members of both communities and refreshments reflecting the neighborhood’s eclectic tastes, with lobster and kosher snacks on vendors’ adjacent tables. The Aug. 18 reception was the culmination of a series of events held in the neighborhood this summer, including a kickoff picnic sponsored by the 71st Precinct Community Council, educational programs and block parties, which were designed to show, to the residents and to outsiders, that Crown Heights is not divided.
“It is time to reframe the story” of Crown Heights, says Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.
The meeting symbolized the changes that Crown Heights’ blacks and Jews say characterize the area today: it was under the auspices of the Crown Heights Community Leadership Council, an informal group of “community activists, politicians, law enforcement and other stakeholders.” Representatives of government officials and grass-roots organization were present. Around the table were men and women from various local organizations that have taken the initiative in bringing the community together — Crown Heights’ new leaders have emerged from activists in the museum, the city-funded Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and the Dreams Youth Build training program for young adults.
Most notable at the meeting was the easy camaraderie, the participants joking with each other. A black leader at the table stressed to the college students who were to record the reception that they should not try to hug or shake hands with Orthodox people of the opposite gender because observant Jews eschew such physical contact with people outside their immediate family. And an Orthodox leader at the table emphasized the importance of having a local Christian pastor — i.e., a black member of the clergy — deliver an invocation at the reception.
Such a meeting, and such familiarity would have been unlikely 20-plus years ago.
Crown Heights’ black and Jews “have spent a lot of time listening to each other” since Aug. 19, 1991, says Rabbi Bob Kaplan, who does coalition-building work for the Jewish Community Relations Council.
What’s changed in Crown Heights? Nothing and everything, residents say.
While some inter-group tension flared up occasionally before the riots, relations were basically civil and peaceful, blacks and Jews say. Both put much of the blame for the 1991 violence on outsiders like Rev. Al Sharpton.
Crown Heights’ Chabad-Lubavitch community has significantly grown and spread out throughout the neighborhood. The number of chasidic families has nearly doubled, to an estimated 2,600-2,800, over the last two decades, Rabbi Cohen says. A growing numbers of mezuzot are visible on streets that had few Jewish residents in 1991.
This includes the north side of Eastern Parkway, the so-called “black side” of Crown Heights, where the upscale kosher Basil Pizza and Wine Bar attracts a mixed, but majority Jewish, customer base.
As early as the 1960s, when there was an increase in black attacks against Jews, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, declared that his chasidim were to keep their neighborhood intact. No “white flight,” as elsewhere in the country.
When the riots came, the Lubavitchers stayed. “If we’re not leaving, we have to live with our neighbors,” says Bronya Shaffer, a Crown Heights resident since 1968.
No official statistical data on the neighborhood’s current demographics are available, says John Mollenkopf, professor of political science and. sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in an e-mail interview.
However, his “impression” is that Crown Heights has gotten whiter as the Lubavitcher community has grown. “The surrounding area has remained fairly stable in middle-class African American and West Indian composition, although some younger whites have moved into the streets north of Eastern Parkway. Except for the Lubavitcher community, which is not to be found in such numbers elsewhere in New York City, these trends are more or less common for such neighborhoods.”
Then there’s the gentrification factor. The price of Crown Heights housing stock is rising — as in many parts of the city — and making home ownership difficult for blacks and Jews alike. Much of this is because of the young professionals — “hipsters” in the local argot — who are moving to Crown Heights, mostly to outlying sections of the area, largely spilling over from nearby neighborhoods like Park Slope where available housing is more sparse and more expensive, blacks and Jews agree.
“It’s no longer [just] blacks and Jews” who are competing for the neighborhood’s limited number of houses and apartments, says Ife-Charles. “It’s blacks and Jews and gentrification, Asians and Middle Eastern [immigrants].”
Caroline Nagy, who moved to Crown Heights a year ago, fits the outsider description. “I don’t think the ‘hipster’ label is accurate to describe myself or most of the people who move to Crown Heights,” she says. “I don’t think people move here for a ‘hipster’ scene, and this certainly isn’t Williamsburg,” where a young, artsy community lives near the established Satmar chasidic community.
Nagy, 28, a policy analyst for a nonprofit agency, came to Crown Heights from Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood. “It was a simple question of finding a place I could afford that was on a convenient subway line,” she says. “I knew about the history of Crown Heights, including the riots, but that didn’t affect my decision to move here.
“I really fell in love with the neighborhood,” Nagy says. “Particularly, I liked the strong community feel of the neighborhood. In Carroll Gardens … there weren’t really opportunities to get to know your neighbors. Here, however, I participate in a number of community groups and activities.” She has taken the Mediation Center’s leadership training courses.
After the 1991 riots, Crown Heights was described as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. It’s not now, Lubavitcher after Lubavitcher says. They insist they don’t live in fear.
“I’m very comfortable shopping on Nostrand or Utica [avenues], which are mainly black-owned businesses,” Shaffer says.
Ife-Charles, who works as deputy project director for the Mediation Council (led and staffed on an inter-racial basis, it serves as a clearinghouse for information on government benefits, and offers leadership training seminars), says she has noticed a steady improvement in the tenor of day-to-day relations between Crown Heights blacks and Jews. The exchanges of “good morning.” The “smiles.” The “eye contact.” The simple signs of mutual recognition that were less common 20 years ago. “These are subtle changes I have seen. There’s a lot more of that happening now. It’s a change in people’s mindset.”
But, she says, some blacks, a small minority, continue to believe that Jews get treated better by the police or have an easier time finding affordable housing. “This is a community still healing.”
“There is still some tension,” says Rabbi Kaplan of JCRC. “It’s not what it was in the 1990s. There’s a greater sense of understanding.” Some chasidim, while not blatantly racist, continue to refer to blacks by the derogatory Yiddish term “schvartzers,” says one Lubavitch resident.
“It’s a very different community” than in 1991, says Rabbi Cohen of the Community Council. “A lot of people have put in hard work to bring people together. As a community we learned it is important to have good channels of communications. The city is a much better place to live in than it was 20 years ago. Crime is down, the quality of life is better.”
If he hears someone talking about “two communities” in Crown Heights, the rabbi offers an immediate correction. “There aren’t really just two communities,” he says, pointing out that the neighborhood’s black and Jews and newcomers from other ethnic groups have made an effort to present a united front in the last 20 years.
Could Crown Heights explode again if another unfortunate traffic accident took place?
It’s unlikely, says Rabbi Kaplan, citing accidents that have taken place without incident over the years since 1991. “People know whom to talk to.”
The emerging young leaders in the black and Jewish communities, who meet regularly, have built up trust, Ife-Charles says. “I don’t see [a repetition of the 1991 violence] as something that is capable of happening again. There is a structure in place that prevents this from happening.”
The people with painful memories of the 1991 riots “are 20 years older,” more mature, more invested in Crown Heights’ joint future, Shaffer says. She doesn’t fear another flare-up in her streets. “It hasn’t happened since, and it won’t happen again.”
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