Crown Heights, 25 Years Later

Eastern Parkway, the dividing line between north and south Crown Heights. (Photo by Shawn Hoke via City Limits)

Eastern Parkway, the dividing line between north and south Crown Heights. (Photo by Shawn Hoke via City Limits)

Crown Heights is today a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn, but many of the residents who witnessed the disturbances that came to be known as the “Crown Heights Riots” 25 years ago still live there. In numerous stories in the community and ethnic press, the history of tensions between the Hasidic and Black communities is reviewed, and a planned commemoration is coming under fire.

On Aug. 19, 1991, a vehicle that was part of a motorcade escorting the Lubavitch grand rabbi, Menachem M. Schneerson, jumped a curb and struck two boys, one of them, 7-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants, fatally. In City Limits, Maura Ewing writes about what ensued:

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.

nf-5951-496819-1471366189.jpgCommunity leaders, including Devorah Halberstam, who is Jewish, have come together as #OneCrownHeights to sponsor a commemoration and “Neighborhood Festival” on Saturday, Aug. 20 that will feature “games, music, festival rides, arts & crafts, live entertainment and kosher and non-kosher food.” The poster for the event also notes that it will provide “fun for all ages.”

The planned event has already drawn criticism. Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother Norman Rosenbaum wrote to CrownHeights.info:

“The decision to hold a ‘Community Festival’ to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots is shameful and a disgrace. It is an insult to the memory of Yankel Rosenbaum who was murdered in the early hours of the Riots for being a Jew.”

James Harney, writing in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, notes that many organizations and politicians are supporting the festival and praise its objectives.

…festival organizers both black and Jewish, counter that the purpose of the festival is to foster unity in the neighborhood. It’s being sponsored by local elected officials and civic groups, including the Anti-Defamation League; the Jewish Children’s Museum; City Council members Laurie Cumbo, Darlene Mealy and Robert Cornegy; and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Asked Tuesday about Norman Rosenbaum’s reaction to the festival plans, Adams conceded that “he has a right to be upset, and I respect his right to be upset. But not only was his brother impacted by the riots of Crown Heights, so was the entire community.”

To assess the events of 25 years ago, and how relations between communities have evolved since then, Garry Pierre-Pierre of CUNY TV’s “Independent Sources” spoke with three community leaders including Halberstam, Richard Green, founder of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, and Stephanie Wilchfort, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Watch the special edition of the show here.

Many community leaders, from both the Orthodox Jewish and Black communities of Crown Heights, have noted that there has been great progress in reducing local tensions in recent years. On “Independent Sources,” Halberstam noted that Black and Jewish residents play basketball together on the local courts.

Now, though, there is a different source of tension for longtime residents. As Ewing writes in City Limits, they “face a common reality: a Crown Heights many can no longer afford to live in.”

Saeed Shabazz, writing in the Amsterdam News, notes that:

There are several Kumbayah events planned for this weekend, but the real story in Crown Heights is the continuing gentrification that is displacing Blacks and low-income residents. One housing activist told the AmNews that Crown Heights is “ground zero” for community displacement; the core issue fueling it is market pressure.

Go to City Limits to read about how much rents and home prices have risen in both the southern, traditionally Hasidic part of Crown Heights and the northern, traditionally Black part of the Brooklyn neighborhood. And learn what Rudy Crews, president of CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, in the heart of Crown Heights, has to say about the lessons learned from the events of 25 years ago.

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