Monday, January 19, 2009

Stars over Crown Heights







To the eyes of anyone familiar with some not-so-distant history in Crown Heights, the use of the Star of David by African-American street gangs might seem a little unexpected. I didn't know much about the Crown Heights riot before I moved here, and that link to the Wikipedia page doesn't help much, because it changes almost every day. It may have taken place 18 years ago, but wounds from that riot, if not immediately apparent in day-to-day community life, haven't completely healed, either.

Awhile back, I devoted a post to this use of the Star of David in graffiti along Franklin Avenue, as well as in a mural at a Bed-Stuy public high school. My interested in this topic was born of a presentation that I heard artist Kerry James Marshall give in Chicago a few years ago. During his talk, Marshall showed several images of Chicago graffiti depicting the Star of David, confusing for Chicagoans who know a history of tension as well. He explained the graffiti as part of an historical phenomenon: Chicago's African-American "black belt" had previously been a Jewish neighborhood, and as the demographic transition took place during the Great Migration, the local synagogues became churches but retained their iconography. By way of example, he showed slides of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, originally a Louis Sullivan-built synagogue. Another source of Star of David imagery in the American black community, Marshall noted, was the use of the star by Rastafarian migrants from the Caribbean.

Students of Brooklyn history will recognize similar trends in Crown Heights--still a Jewish neighborhood and simultaneously a center of West Indian life in Brooklyn--and sure enough the Temple Issac (on Prospect across from the former Jewish Hospital of New York) is now the Faith Chapel Baptist Church. On the other side of the old hospital on St. Marks, I took these photos of six-pointed star grafitti along the shuttle tracks and an adjacent apartment. Whatever local gang or tagger painted them might well be a part of the historic trend Mashall talked about in Chicago, at least at some level, because the six-pointed star has since become a national symbol for the "Folks" family of gangs, whose most prominent associate gang is the Crips. However, gang-studies sites like the one linked above cite a more specific history, also based in Chicago: an early leader of the Gangster Disciples (a massive Chicago street gang that developed national connections), David Barksdale, was known as "King David," and his followers adopted the symbol to honor him after his death. The "C"s featured in and around the graffiti above suggest a potential Crips affiliation.

Incidentally, the grafitti on the hospital itself features five-pointed stars. These could be the work of a rival gang, but in this case, they seem more like the flair of taggers. However, the star carved into the doorframe of a locked-up brownstone on Lincoln (last photo above) might well be gang-related.

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