Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thinking About Race and Community in Today's Crown Heights

(photo from "The Gentrification of Brooklyn" via Flickr)

With Crown Heights Gold opening tomorrow, I thought I'd post a piece that tackles some of the same issues that this exhibit considers. Way back in January, ILFA took part in a reading featuring alumni of the Crown Writes writing workshop, where I read a long, overwrought post I'd put together about a series of local encounters with race and neighborhood change, including a visit to MoCADA's "The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks." After I finished, a fellow alum and lifelong Crown Heights resident, Baruch Tauber, read a reflection of his own that included a reaction to some of the same artworks in the MoCADA exhibit that I had written about.

I much preferred Baruch's piece to my own (it exhibits none of the discomfort-drowned-in-overanalysis that mine does), and I've been waiting for an occasion to post it. Since both "The Gentrification of Brooklyn" and "Crown Heights Gold" were curated by Dexter Wimberly and feature some of the same artists, and since Baruch's work also deals with the legacy of the Crown Heights Riot, this seems to be just that occasion. It's long, but well worth the read, and if you've really got time on your hands (calling all students), you can do a little compare and contrast with my own (as always, ILFA loves comments). Without further ado:

The Other Side

by Baruch Tauber

Part 1

One early spring afternoon, I sit in Lefferts Park in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The park is familiar from youth... The children’s playground, where in the dog-days of summer, the squealing and splashing in the sprinkler can still be heard, the towering concrete walls of the handball courts, a sport once more popular in the ‘hood, now lie dormant, covered with debris and leaves from last fall.

The baseball field. A grassy haven in a world of concrete, where on hot summer days you could lie on your back, stare at the clouds, and run your hands through the grass while dreaming of school’s end and sleep-away camp in those exotic Catskill mountains where soft meadows, thick pine trees, and cool lakes were as abundant as the grime a grit of the hot, sweaty city streets. The grass on the field is gone now, replaced by a synthetic green carpet, and soccer seems to be the more popular sport nowadays... Come to think of it, baseball never quite was the ideal sport for this space. Often, multiple games would be going on at the same time, each group with its back to the other on the improvised field. In the outfield, you’d often here an urgent call of warning: “HEADS UP!” but you didn’t know which way to turn!

In addition to being the only large open, “green” space in walking distance, the baseball field served as the only public space that defied the community’s social and racial boundaries. Crown Heights is made up of mostly Caribbeans and Afro-Americans, and a minority of Hassidic Jews and Latinos. During the turbulent 80’s and early 90’s, it was a breeding ground for racial conflict, and since the riots of ’91, and the tense calm that endured, Blacks and Jews tried to keep out of each other’s way. While most of the local kids attended public school, us Jewish kids attended a religious school. This limited our interaction, and we seldom socialized on the street nor saw the interior of each other’s homes. The public shared space of the park forced us to interact. It was here we clashed over who had the field first; it was here we learned how to mediate.

Part 2

Twenty years ago, Crown Heights was crumbling and carried little resemblance to the up-and-coming community of today praised for its rich diversity and co-existance. Boarded up windows and junk lots were yet to be replaced by coffee shops and art galleries... just another blighted neighborhood in a city brought to its knees by the crack epidemic and staggering rates of violent crime. Yet, unlike the dozens of other Hasidic groups that fled with the White flight, my community turned a blind eye to the blight and destruction. Just like our ancestors back in Eastern Europe (who’s clothing styles we still prefer today), we turned inward for meaning in our lives; what happened on the streets was irrelevant. At the same time, this introverted lifestyle insulated many of us from the growing racial tensions. For decades, leaders of both communities turned a blind eye to mounting accusations, always just subtle enough to be ignored. For example, for many Jews, the words “crime” and “Black” were almost always synonymous. Some Blacks perceived Jews to be recipients of preferential treatment, active in red-lining and indifferent to people who are different than they. Given the strict religious laws that Orthodox Jews adhere to, this perception is not surprising. A religious Jewish man will not shake the hand of a woman, and a woman will not shake hands with a man, regardless of his or her color. To keep things simple, they usually stick to their own.

In August 1991 the dam burst. After Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants was tragically killed by a Hassidic driver, angry mobs rioted the streets for three days, vandalizing Jewish businesses and homes. One Jewish bystander was surrounded by a group of angry men and stabbed to death by one of them. The outburst was shocking to say the least, and a wake up call to those who thought race was a question of the past. In the years that followed, unprecedented efforts were made to close the gap and bring awareness. Today, while tensions still linger, many see Crown Heights as a prototype for progress and coexistence. Heavy gentrification has also affected the landscape in recent years. Real estate developers and artist communities offer praise for the rich diversity of cultures that welcome them. In Lefferts Park, it is not uncommon to see a pickup basketball game between Caribbean and Jewish kids. Their baggy pants and tzitzit, flat-brimmed baseball caps and skullcaps, whirling and twisting to the beat of the ball on the concrete floor.

Part 3

Two years ago I was studying at Kingsborough Community College. Many Kingsborough students commute long distances to attend this City school on the eastern edge of the south Brooklyn peninsula. Some hail from Brooklyn’s toughest projects, including the Ebbets Field and Albany Houses projects in Crown Heights. Participating in heated debates regarding racial profiling in Sociology 101 was an ironic introduction to the other side of Crown Heights. But my most shocking encounter with was to present itself in the subject of gentrification. On a field trip to an art exhibit relating to the subject, I was exposed to some of the raw emotions and resentment expressed in reaction to the quickly changing (north) Brooklyn landscapes, including the personal takes of several Crown Heights artists. In one I recognized the familiar grid-scape of the neighborhood, depicted in three colors -as I interpreted the image- representing the neighborhood’s three main demographics. As if to say, South of Eastern Parkway is home to the Jewish community, most of the surrounding area to the north and east, Afro-American, and a trickle coming in from the west and north representing the migrants from New York’s pricier neighborhoods. On top of the map the artist drew barbed wire, and above it a sign with a hand pointing read “DONT MOVE TO CROWN HEIGHTS!” I stood staring, confused: WHY?! WHERE was this coming from?! Another artist targeted Franklin Park, a local bar popular with the young and hip of the “new” Crown Heights. In the artist’s depiction, the quaint bar scene was juxtaposed with torrid one depicting racial profiling by police Under the police scene, the artist had written “Remain Indifferent”, under the bar scene: “Remember they are indifferent.” Are these people for real?! Could this be the same Franklin Park the New York Times once described as “typical of a diverse neighborhood that these days, in the words of one resident, exudes a ‘great sense of peace.’”?! Are these artists only reflecting an extreme, artistic point of view, or could the new White community of today who claim to embrace the nabe’s diversity wholeheartedly, be living in a bubble similar to the one I grew up in, in a community that wanted nothing to do with diversity?

Surprised at the image -which I perceived to be offensive- I blurted out “Oh my God! I know that place! I go there all the time!” my classmates’ response was a loaded silence. Suddenly I am aware that I am the only white person in the room. I am aware that no one, including the “objective” tour-guide, has verbally entertained the notion that gentrification can be good for a community. Suddenly I am aware that while I’ve made it clear that I live in Crown Heights, they don’t assume I’ve lived there my entire life as the people being forced out have. And even if I did, would it matter? The lines have already been drawn... clearly, I am one of THEM.

Part 4
Another memory of warm spring afternoon comes to mind. This time, I am running towards Lefferts Park as fast as my 11-year-old legs can carry me, and my heart is heavy with trepidation. At the time, my dearest possession is my bike (which I usually guard with my life for I am convinced that a moment unattended would result in its theft) but today, I had forgotten it in the park, unchained, free for for all to see! As I approach the spot from a distance, I can see the bike, unharmed, lying on its side on the ground near the bench I had left it leaning against hours ago. As I approach the bike a Caribbean boy about my age and twice my height approaches. He says he’s been watching the bike lying there for a while, concerned with its vulnerable position: “Yo, I saw your bike lying there....I was about to pick it up and lean it against the bench” he says, “but then I saw you running, and assumed it was your bike… so I stayed put, not wanting to give the wrong impression..”
I was too overwhelmed to thank him.


  1. Thank you for sharing this.

    If you haven't read this article on gentrification in The Believer, yet, I highly recommend it:
    It's a thoughtful consideration of many of the conflicting emotions around neighborhood change, even if it is not specific to Crown Heights.

    For a detailed look at the recent history of Crown Heights and the ways in which it is remembered by our neighborhood's diverse communities, Henry Goldschmidt's Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heigts is essential reading.

  2. There are many things I'd like to say about this piece, but the one that sticks out the most is the attack on Franklin Park. I understand that the author was reacting to a piece of art by the artist. I wonder if this artist has ever set foot in Franklin Park. I myself am a new transplant to Crown Heights and am a woman of color. I find the artist's work to be lazy. I have seen both old and new residents of the area in that bar. Has anyone ever been to Franklin Park after a Target Free Saturday? It's packed with tons of different people and I'm sure the owners of the bar are thrilled about that. The point I am trying to make is why is Franklin Park the root of all evil? There are plenty of other new spots that attract new residents. My father has lived in Brooklyn all his life and when he comes to spend time with me in the area he is shocked and pleased at how much it has changed. Yes change can bring about both positive and negative change, but don't place all of your hang-ups on one new establishment that reaches out to all.

  3. I think what the artist's piece on Franklin Park meant to convey is the inner feelings gentrifyers may have but not talk about. They are using Franklin Park as an extreme example but it's not Franklin Park directly, or is it? Ha.

    It's the deep seeded white "liberal" view of race...race makes white people anxious and defensive...doesn't matter who you are or what you believe.

    It's all about our individual perspectives...but if we're not honest about them, they get lost.