This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of one of New York City’s most violent episodes of racial unrest: The Crown Heights Riots. On August 19, 1991 a car at the rear of a motorcade escorting the Lubavitch grand rabbi, Menachem M. Schneerson, fatally struck a seven year-old boy, Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants. The accident unleashed three days of neighborhood violence, the culmination of longstanding tensions between the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and their African-American and Caribbean neighbors. On the first night of violence, 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed four times and later died.
For years, black residents had complained that Jewish landlords and shopkeepers mistreated them, and that the NYPD and other government agencies gave the Jewish community preferential treatment. Jewish community members said that they were the victims of muggings by their black neighbors.
Devorah Halberstam, who is Jewish, was a young mother at the time. She lived on Eastern Parkway, the throughway that divided Black Crown Heights from Hasidic Crown Heights. She remembers looking out her window at the brigade of NYPD officers in riot gear. “They were facing straight ahead, not speaking to anybody,” she said, “There were so many of them.” And she remembers people running down the sidewalk yelling anti-Semitic slurs.
Halberstam, now the Director of Foundations and Government Services at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, took part in organizing a Sunday, August 21 neighborhood festival in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the riots. The festival, named “One Crown Heights,” is a celebration of unity in the neighborhood—a collaborative effort involving more than 20 organizations and elected officials including the Brooklyn Borough President Adams, the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and Weeksville Heritage Center. They are working under the umbrella of Project CARE, a coalition of Crown Heights community leaders.
“I truly believe that you have to remember,” Halberstam says. “We need to remember what happened then, so that we can continue to move forward now.”
Twenty-five years after the riots, the black and Jewish communities of Crown Heights have made great strides in easing tensions, and now face a common reality: a Crown Heights many can no longer afford to live in.
Building a bridge
Like most urban neighborhoods in America today, Crown Heights is not entirely free from racial tensions. “But these issues aren’t smoldering ashes under a blanket of despair, which is what it was many years ago. People went to their own corner. And anger festered,” says Rudy Crew, president of Medgar Evers College, a City University of New York college in the heart of Crown Heights.
The positive legacy of the riots, Crew says, is a framework for communication between the communities, created by community leaders both black and Jewish, to prevent such an episode from happening again.
“Really important and powerful people within the community looked at this as a major crisis,” Crew says. “And they invoked both their own moral authority as well as institutional support at being able to take aim at some of the issues that were prominent at that time—and to some degree are still prominent now.” And he adds, “These crises do not necessarily happen if people are willing to lead people into the dialogue, into the fear, not away from the fear.”
Richard Green, founder of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, was one of the early leaders to step up. To Green, who is black, it was immediately clear that lack of communication was what allowed the animosity between communities build up to the point of boiling over in 1991, and that misinformation propelled the three days of violence. Then 43, and a lifelong Crown Heights resident, he had already laid some of the groundwork through earlier work with the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and a local organization that aided Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, but the riots added fire to his peace building efforts. He reached out to clergy, business owners, and otherwise engaged community members, both black and Jewish. In 1994 he founded Project CARE, a “Negotiating body of people, sort of like the United Nations,” Green says.
Over the years the coalition has come together to organize commemorations such as the one this weekend, and to address “emergency situations,” Green says. For example, the coalition took action following a violent crime in 2014 had the potential to spark racial tensions: A black man yielding a knife entered a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue on a Tuesday afternoon, threatening a dozen rabbinical students who were studying. He stabbed one in the head.
Green called an emergency meeting at the synagogue. His top priority was that that everyone understood that the assailant was an emotionally disturbed individual, and that his actions were not representative of any prevailing attitude. “People at the synagogue were receptive,” Green says, “Everyone just talked it out.” Together, they got the facts out to their neighbors.
Halberstam was at that meeting, and many similar ones over the years. “We started to become a community neighborhood. It’s conversation, a dialogue,” she says. “It’s not like kumbaya, it’s a work in progress. It’s an effort,” she says.
United by economic threats
In both communities, a major economic shift over the past decade or so has made even longtime neighborhood roots vulnerable to rupture. The rising cost of housing has forced many renters to leave, and has made it difficult for their children to strike out on their own in the area.
According to the Furman Center, between 2000 and 2015, the price of buying a two- to four-family home on the north side of Crown Heights, traditionally the black neighborhood, outpaced the city average three-fold, rising 115 percent from about $140,000 to just over $360,000.
The cost of buying rose at a slightly less dramatic rate in south Crown Heights, where the Hasidic community lives, but still twice as fast as city average. There prices rose from about $166,000 to $360,000, a 116 percent increase.
Rents have rapidly risen, too. The average rent in north Crown Heights jumped from $857 in 2000 to $1,168 in 2014. The rate was again, a bit slower on the traditionally Jewish side: rising from $949 in 2000 to $1,241 in 2014.
Kevin Phillips, 44, who is black, is a third-generation Crown Heights resident. He owns his home, but has seen the effect of gentrification on his neighbors. “I talk to people in the neighborhood who are losing the apartment that they’ve lived in for 30 years,” he says. “It’s not quite a takeover, more like a take back,” he says, “A lot of the people in the neighborhood didn’t own their property, so if you don’t own, it’s easy for your apartment to be taken back.”
Many renters in Crown Heights have been displaced by legally rising rents. And, tenant advocates say, some have been bullied out by landlords through harassment, the withholding of repairs until the apartment is uninhabitable, or the use of eviction.
Between 2000 and 2014, the black population in north Crown Heights dropped by 13 percent — from 78 to 65 percent. During this time the white population more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 18 percent.
“I don’t see it as a community anymore,” Phillips says. “Five years ago I could walk out the house and I would know everyone on the avenue. Now I walk out the house and I’m a stranger. I’m a stranger on that avenue.”
The barrage of solicitors offering to buy his house over recent years has not tempted him to sell. He won’t sell in part because he sees his house as an asset that will grow in value, and doesn’t want to blow the money by renting a place elsewhere. But also, he has felt the effect of gentrification as a double-edged sword: he mourns the loss of his community, but he also recognizes that the neighborhood he lives in now is a good place to raise his five kids. “When I was growing up you didn’t really want to be on Franklin Avenue, there was a lot of drugs, abandoned buildings,” he says. “Now everything is cleaned up.”
The traditionally Hasidic section of Crown Heights has been going through a parallel process of gentrification—here, too, mostly white newcomers are flocking in and the cost of living is soaring. But gentrification in south Crown Heights takes on a different dynamic. Not only is it the where Hasidic people live, it is also the center of religious and cultural life. It’s where the schools where they send their children are there, the synagogues where they pray and gather socially are there.
Mordechai Lightstone, a 31 -year-old rabbi, was married in 2009 after he had been living in the neighborhood as a renter for several years. Looking at listings for his new family home at that time, he experienced severe sticker-shock.
“It happened really, really suddenly,” he says of the rising home prices. “There was almost a line between people married in 2009 — anyone who was married before that were able to find housing,” whereas he and his Hasidic peers married in 2009 and after, have not been able to.
Many people are looking for apartments in East Flatbush or Brownsville, he says. And some young families are leaving the city to go upstate, or out of state. Living in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is not central to the Crown Heights synagogues provides a logistical problem on Saturdays, when religious law prohibits driving a car. Some families walk miles to get to synagogue, Lightstone says.
Yitzchok, a 30-year-old Hasidic man—who asked that City Limits use only his first name—lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the traditionally Jewish section of the neighborhood with his wife and kids. Yitzchok says he makes about $50,000 a year at an online retail company. For the past three years, he and his wife have been looking for a place to buy in the neighborhood, but haven’t been able to find anything in their price range.
His rent recently spiked, too. His landlord recently informed him that his current $1,400 rent would jump to $2,000 if he renewed his lease in October.
“To move out is not an option because we don’t want to lose our family, and to stay there is not an option because we’re paying rent through the roof,” he says. He pauses. Realistically, he says, he will have to convince his wife that they must move out of the neighborhood, “Which is not something that I want to do, but I have no other option,” he adds.
For now, he is enjoying the peace that Crown Heights has found. At the local park, his three children, “Play with black children, white children, Russian, the occasional Pakistani or south Asian child,” he says. “There is no animosity. Children are children, they play comfortably.”