What We Talk About When We Talk About Crown Heights

Crown Heights

Imagine for a moment that every time a media outlet covered Prospect Heights, a mention of the murder of Amy Watkins prefaced each description of the latest restaurant to open up along Vanderbilt Avenue. Or what if whenever the East Village was the focal point of an article, the 1988 riot in Tompkins Square Park was used as a descriptor, a way of orienting the reader, and reminding them about the true nature of the neighborhood at hand. It’s kind of hard to do, isn’t it? After all, in a city that changes as rapidly as does New York, the thought of relying on events that took place decades ago as a means of defining a neighborhood’s current state is borderline unthinkable and also, you know, journalistically irresponsible, right? Right.

And yet, once again, the New York Times has run a piece extolling the new-to-readers-of-the-Times-Real-Estate-section-but-old-to-anyone-actually-paying-attention-to-Brooklyn-for-the-last-decade-or-so virtues of Crown Heights and, within the first two sentences of the article, the writer finds it necessary to reference the “1991 riots involving blacks and Hasidic Jews,” as well as the neighborhood’s alleged resultant “reputation for intolerance and violence,” which, the Times insists, has continually “dogged” Crown Heights for more than two decades. And this is interesting for many reasons, not least because the last time the Times wrote about how Crown Heights was the next up-and-coming neighborhood in Brooklyn, while it also took the writer just two sentences to mention the riots, it still seemed like the paper felt that Crown Heights had moved beyond its turbulent past: “The neighborhood has finally overcome a reputation for intolerance and violence that had plagued it since the 1991 riots between blacks and Hasidic Jews.” It seems, though, that words like “finally overcome” just don’t mean what they used to. Anyway.

The irony of the Times announcing that Crown Heights has moved out of the shadow of its tumultuous past should not be lost here—media outlets being one of the primary tools, after all, used to promote the neighborhood’s reputation as a place of “intolerance and violence” in the first place—but even more noteworthy is what is lost by continuing to impose this specific storyline of violence and chaos upon Crown Heights—or, rather, what is gained by perpetuating this narrative, and by whom.

The constant reminder of the 1991 riots is not simply a product of journalistic laziness, a tool utilized as a type of shorthand for readers (though, also, it’s not not that), but is instead an attempt to present the ongoing gentrification of a neighborhood in a way that’s palatable to those who have—and will be—doing the gentrifying. It’s no coincidence that the riots are mentioned in Times articles about Crown Heights spawned in the Real Estate section: This type of insidious reminder of traumatic events in the neighborhood’s past is deployed in an effort to make it seem like the main reason Crown Heights was able to move forward—to “improve”—was because of gentrification. The continued mentions of the riots allows for the implicit shared acknowledgment that gentrification—which in Crown Heights has meant the systematic dismantling of much of the housing protections that longtime residents held, among other things—is an undeniably good thing because: Remember what it was like here before gentrification? There were race wars in the streets!

But, of course, the history of Crown Heights did not begin with the riots—you can even find articles in the New York Times from 1985 detailing the rise of this “up-and-coming” neighborhood as being a place which “now attracts many newcomers in search of affordable housing near the more prosperous Park Slope”—and its current status as a trendy place to live should not revolve around events from over 20 years ago. Much in the same way that labeling Crown Heights as a place where only “babysitters” and not “breeders” live, insisting upon this idea that Crown Heights has been some sort of no man’s land since 1991 is a dismissal of the community that continued to exist there and which is the foundation upon which the neighborhood’s current iteration was built. The reason, though, to insist upon a narrative which invokes the 1991 riots as the pivotal event in the rebirth of Crown Heights, is that if the riots are the sordid beginning, then the happy end to this story is gentrification; in other words, the big, glorious finish to this media-spun fairytale is a “revitalized” neighborhood, now shed of its violent past thanks to all the newly arrived, wealthier residents—a happy place of stoop hangs and dessert speakeasies. The people who gain the most from the continued mention of the riots are those who are selling this type of fairytale ending to a real estate-buying public. But this falsely benign version of Crown Heights not only ignores the many extant complications of living there, but also forgets all of the different positive things that have happened in the last 20 years, and instead reduces a neighborhood to something that happened decades ago; Crown Heights and its residents, both new and old, deserve better.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to suggest two literary books for people interested in the history of Crown Heights.

    First, Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” his memoir of growing up in Brownsville in the 1920s and early 1930s, in which discusses 1930s Crown Heights as the province of the “alrightniks,” the Jews who “did all right” and became affluent and secular. There’s some great passages there contrasting Brownsville and wealthy (nouveau riche) Crown Heights.

    Second, Paule Marshall’s “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” a novel about the early days of the incredible wave of West Indian residents to the neighborhood, in which the narrator says, “Every jack-man buying a swell house in ditchy Crown Heights.”

    You could say that Crown Heights has been gentrifying for a century. I lived near Crown Heights in the 1950s and 1960s and I recently lived on the corner of Nostrand and Crown, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. From my perspective, it’s not that the laziness of the journalists goes back so far to the 1991 riot but that it doesn’t go far back enough and so that trope is basically useless for readers today in characterizing the neighborhood.

    Nostalgia has its place, and I could go on about watching movies at the Carroll Theater on Utica and Carroll, or vegetarian dinners with my family at Famous Dairy Restaurant and then, at the same spot on Eastern Parkway at Utica, having high school lunches at the McDonald’s it’s been for years. Or taking the special bus that sat at that corner to the 1964-65 World’s Fair, or seeing my eye doctor in her office on President Street in the 1950s and thinking that she was a Nazi because she kept telling me that reading Hebrew in Hebrew school was bad for my eyes. (Now I realize she was probably a German Jew who got out before or during World War II.) Or wondering how the kids who called out to me knew my nickname was “Whitey” (because of my platinum blond hair) when I’d walk through the neighborhood: “Hey, Whitey!” Or that when I wear my Medgar Evers College T-shirt in Crown Heights today, I like to imagine people differentiate me from the *other* white people who’ve come to the neighborhood recently.

    Like all New York neighborhoods, Crown Heights is always changing. All the people in Crown Heights have their own stories. And there’s more to Crown Heights than one moment in time.

    • Richard, thanks for the intelligent and measured commentary and for the reading recommendations.

      The riots will always be part of Crown Heights’ history, but they don’t have to define it. As one of the families quoted as newcomers in the NY Times article, we love the diversity and history of the neighborhood and the warmness of our neighbors, and are hoping to weave some piece of our own future – our own story, as you put it – into that rich fabric.

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