Crown Heights: New York's Tense Racial Flashpoint

December 27, 1992|By IAN JOHNSON

NEW YORK — An article in the Dec. 27 Perspective section incorrectl characterized opposition to a court decision that freed a man charged with stabbing a Hasidic scholar. The opposition should have been described as a "demonstration."

The Sun regrets the errors.

New York.-- A few blocks over from the crack dealers and bottomless poverty of Albany Avenue, shoppers bustle along Kinston Avenue underneath giant banners proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. A strong wind whips old newspapers and garbage across the pedestrians' path. Although only mid-afternoon, it is already getting dark.

Suddenly a beeper goes off. Excited shouts fill the air and people start flying out of doorways and down Kingston to 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement. There, Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe Menachem Schneerson is due to greet his followers at afternoon prayers.


People are excited. After preaching for years that the Messiah's appearance is imminent, Rabbi Schneerson might reveal himself this mid-December day as the Messiah. As his followers greet him with joyful song, the rebbe nods -- a significant act of recognition in itself -- but does not speak or confirm their wishes. Still recovering from a stroke, Rabbi Schneerson has not said anything for months, which only heightens the excitement and tension in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

The Lubavitchers' intense messianic fervor, which is possibly unprecedented in the movement's 200-year history, would be enough to make Crown Heights a center of attention. Throughout Judaism's millennia, others have claimed to be the Messiah, but the devotion and respect that Rabbi Schneerson commands from tens of thousands of followers around the world may well be unique in this century.

But Crown Heights is probably better known around the country as one of the nation's hottest racial flashpoints: a simmering, ugly series of racial attacks, taunts and daily tensions. What began as a traffic accident more than a year ago has turned into gang violence and permanent mistrust between the neighborhood's Jewish and Caribbean communities.

For all their differences, the neighborhood's two elements -- religious devotion and racial hatred -- are not unrelated. One did not cause the other, but at their root lies a clash of cultures that crystalizes many of this country's basic racial problems, from irresponsible leaders to the politicization of race that encourages one people to turn on another.

If the neighborhood holds universal lessons for America and multiculturalism, it is the specifics that make it so fascinating and such an unending source of attention.

Crown Heights is not an average New York community. It has long been integrated -- not in the sense that Jews and blacks formed one whole, but they did live side by side and in relative harmony. Especially when the two groups were allied during the civil-rights movement, relations were largely peaceful.

Over the past 20 years, however, this has changed as the two communities have changed. The Jewish community is now 80 percent Lubavitch, a group that immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe along with its previous leader, Yaakov Yosef, who chose Brooklyn as a new base after narrowly escaping Poland on the eve of the Holocaust. The group's numbers have steadily grown through missionary work plus a steady flow of immigrants since World War II and especially since the old Soviet Union relaxed emigration polices in the mid-1980s.

Unlike other immigrants, however, the 20,000 Lubavitchers have intention of integrating or even moving out to the suburbs. A form of Hasidic Judaism, the Lubavitcher movement shuns modern dress in favor of the clothes that were worn when it was founded in Eastern Europe. Biblical rules are strictly obeyed, and contact with outsiders is limited.

Most important, believers have a strong sense of community and want to live in Crown Heights because this is where Rabbi Schneerson lives.

"People want to be close to him. They want to see him, to experience him at prayer. We are all over the world, but many want to center their lives here," said Rabbi Abraham Flint, a spokesman for the Crown Heights Jewish Council.

This has put a premium on housing in the neighborhood, especially the inexpensive housing that Lubavitchers need for their large families, and is a prime cause for conflict with local black residents, who also need the affordable housing.

The local black community has also changed. It is now dominated by immigrants from the Caribbean. Their need for inexpensive housing doesn't come from a desire to live in Crown Heights but because they have no place else to go. Poverty, caused by poor job skills and racism, keeps them in this grubby and gang-infested part of town.

"People here need a job and decent housing. There's a feeling that there is no way up for them," said Paula Johnson, a city social worker who works in Crown Heights.

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