Saturday, November 08, 2008
Whose Symbol? The Star of David in Crown Heights
Walking down Franklin on the east side of the street, you'll encounter at least two six-pointed Stars of David carved out in the sidewalk, one with an R7 scratched inside of it (the first two photos). Given the rich history of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, you might think these symbols were a relic of much earlier days on Franklin, but you'd be wrong: they're actually gang symbols used by predominantly African-American groups in Chicago and Los Angeles whose iconography has spread to New York City. I've seen blue (the Crips' color) caps on the subway with the star juxtaposed with a skull, and I saw an enormous gold six-pointed star and chain on Franklin this evening. The use of the six-pointed star by these groups has even caused problems for Jewish students in schools that ban gang symbols. For locals I've talked to, the use of Jewish symbols by African-American gangs in Crown Heights is an odd thing to see, given the history of tension that boiled over in 1991.
There are a few explanations for the adoption of the central symbol of Judaism by these gangs. One is the story of of David Barksdale, the Chicago gang leader who founded the Black Disciples. Dubbed "King David" by his followers, Barksdale's death in 1974 was honored with adoption of the six-pointed star (referencing the Biblical King David of Israel) as a symbol for the Disciples or Folks, one of two major Chicago gang alliances. The Star of David is also used by the Crips, who originate in LA, though their connection with Chicago's Folks is sometimes cited as the reason for their use of the symbol.
Another explanation for the presence of this symbol in gang life (one not mutually exclusive with the first story) is one I heard Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall discuss, namely, that as African-Americans moved into formerly Jewish areas (something that occured across the country), they re-consecrated former synagogues as churches, complete with their existing carved stars. An example of this phenomenon can be seen on Park and Franklin, where the Temple Issac (photos above), across from what was once the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, is now the Faith Chapel Baptist Church (an unrelated phenomenon is the conversion of the massive hospital into apartments). As a result of these pre-existing carvings, the hypothesis goes, the church and the community adopted the Star of David as a symbol.
The last photo was taken at a local public high school. The mural is geared around African-American pride, containing quotes from Toni Morrison among others. This usage suggests that the use of the Star of David in the New York black community is not confined to gangs, which might imply that the historical argument above holds water beyond gangland. And of course, it's always nice to see a symbol recaptured from gangs and put to positive use by high school students.