Crown Heights is the place in Brooklyn where West Indians and other African Americans, Hassidic Jews, Gentrifiers, Africans and new Hispanic immigrants mash together near the Brooklyn Museum and the Grand Army Plaza.
The part of Crown Heights that lays farthest north is in Community District 8, which also includes an area sometimes called Prospect Heights; other parts of Crown Heights lie in district 9, which is called South Crown Heights, and district 16 which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant. Here we will drill down into the part of Crown Heights that lays in Community District 8. It was one of the earliest free African American communities in Brooklyn. Today, it is both less West Indian and Jewish than South Crown Heights.
On the surface, the demography of Crown Heights is not changing much. The number of people there has been more or less 96,000 since 1990. However, underneath there are complex and momentous changes going on. The area is the leading edge of the tectronic movement of gentrification, bringing down old buildings, displacing people and destroying community organizations like churches and community gardens.
One of the earliest free Black communities in New York City
At first few people wanted to come to the area because it was pretty far out of central Brooklyn during the horse and buggy days. Free African Americans moved into the area because they had to and because they wanted space for their own community Weeksville, which was built in the 1830s around their church. and cultural institutions, including their own newspaper, The Freedman's Torchlight. The pastor and his wife, who occupied a prominent and always welcoming presence at the entrance of Weeksville, held large Sunday dinners for anyone who wished to come. Free African Americans also founded Carrville, which has disappeared. Weeksville continues on as a living museum of Brooklyn African American history.
The area became much more developed and fashionable as the 19th Century came to a close. West Indian immigrants arrived in the early Twentieth Century. They prized the area for its spacious brownstones and leafy streets. Indeed, West Indians in the more crowded and poorer Bedford-Stuyvesant area dreamed of moving westward into Crown Heights.
By the 1950s this desire lead to a substantial internal migration of West Indians in Brooklyn. Also, the Lubavitch Hassidic Jews were moving into the area, though mostly into South Crown Heights. After 1965, more West Indians also ended up south of Eastern Parkway. By 1980 Wingate High School which was south of Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard, was the most Caribbean in the city. The school attracted students from both the north and south sides of Crown Heights. It had changed from a school described by school administrators as “a heart-attack school” and “a rat hole” to a “born-again” high school, according to education expert Diane Ravitch. The high school established new courses on Caribbean-American culture and ESL programs for non-English speaking Caribbean students.
The gains in the high school were not matched by living conditions outside of it. Crime was rising, housing costs escalating and buildings deteriorating. The high school rejuvenation was mainly the work of one principal. The city government itself seemed lost in its responses. West Indians started moving out of Crown Heights toward East Flatbush, later to Flatbush.
As crime increased and competition for decent housing became fierce, the relations between the Hassidic Jews and African Americans deteriorated. Then, on August 19, 1991 a car in the entourage of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the leader of Chabad Lubavitch Jews, followed a police escort, running a red light, hitting and killing Gavin Cato at President Street and Utica Avenue in South Crown Heights. A passive city government and indecisive police leadership let an angry confrontation between Hassidic Jews and African Americans spin out of control into the worst riot in New York City’s recent history. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans streamed into the area. Radical leaders goaded the crowds into committing a veritable pogrom against the Jews. A few hours after the incident, African American youth stabbed 29-year-old Australian scholar Yankel Rosenbaum, who subsequently died. Mayor David Dinkins and his city government seemed slow to defend the Jews, exacerbating Black-White relations into a fierce opposition. The official report on the riot said that the mayor and his police commanders and prosecutors failed in their duties.
Many African Americans, particularly church people whom we have interviewed, were appalled at the way the riot got out of hand and the poor response of the mayor. Dinkins, the first African American mayor of the city, had promised that he would bring better relations between Blacks and Whites. Instead, his sometime campaign aide Sonny Carson was declaiming that he didn’t hate just the Jews, but that he “hated all white people.” In the subsequent mayoral election many African American church people, who felt that they had been let down by their own leader, didn’t turn out to vote for Dinkins. Consequently, the mayor was defeated by Rudolph Giuliani.
Since those troubled times, the neighborhood has undergone a revival and the relations between the Hassidic Jews and African Americans have become better. West Indians vest Crown Heights as the symbolic center of their community with the West Indian Day Parade, which is held on Labor Day and is the largest parade in the city. However, Crown Heights is also the leading edge of gentrification.
--- To be continued in "Illustrated Explorer`s Guide to Crown Heights, Brooklyn Part 2 ---