In Crown Heights, a Decade of Healing After Riots, but Scars Remain

New York Times/August 19, 2001
By John Kifner and Felicia R. Lee

Ten years after Crown Heights exploded in New York's ugliest spasm of racial violence in decades, the neighborhood's black and Jewish residents conduct joint picnics and ice-skating parties, even a police- supervised Halloween parade. There is a storefront mediation center, a black and Jewish mothers group, and an effort to add black youngsters to the private Jewish security patrols.

Black and Jewish leaders have one another's beeper and cell phone numbers. Prominent members of the Hasidim like Rabbi Jacob Goldstein and Rabbi Shea Hecht can ask Edison Jackson, the black president of Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York, for help and facilities for a computer training program and summer swimming. The area's black politicians, particularly Democratic Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., once at odds with the Lubavitchers, a Hasidic sect, have made their peace and in turn can rely on their solid bloc of something over 3,000 votes.

In the years since the chaos of August 1991, blacks and Jews in this densely populated, economically distressed Brooklyn neighborhood have made major efforts to create institutional and informal ties. But despite the efforts of the leaders, the elected officials and lots of the neighborhood's ordinary residents, many of the old differences and distrusts remain, buried just beneath the surface. These are communities that, almost by definition, lead separate lives even as they live side by side.

There are still strong emotions surrounding the night exactly 10 years ago when a car in the entourage of the Lubavitcher rebbe spun out of control, crushing 7-year-old Gavin Cato as he played with his bicycle. Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29- year-old Hasidic scholar from Australia, was fatally stabbed three hours later, caught by a mob racing through the streets shouting "Jew, Jew."

For two more days and nights hundreds of black teenagers rampaged unchecked, burning police cars, looting, hurling bottles and beating people. Blacks and Jews clashed as the police stood by.

"I wish we had all these beeper and phone numbers for each other back then," said Chanina Sperlin, executive vice chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. "There seems to be little tension; it's not a crisis anymore," said Jesse Hamilton, executive director of the Crown Heights Service Center, who is black. "Everybody is much more in tune," said Assistant Chief Joseph Fox, the Brooklyn South police commander.

Crown Heights, a neighborhood of 134,140 people, is a quiet place these days. Like much of the city, it has less crime and more construction, although the city's decade of boom times has not produced appreciable economic gains for either blacks or Jews. On the blocks at the epicenter of the rioting, there are now fewer blacks and more Hasidim, and at the neighborhood's fringes, more affluent whites from adjacent neighborhoods have begun to make inroads.

Ten years of immigration, too, have infused the neighborhood with Koreans and Nigerians, many of them illegal immigrants. And the police, who a decade ago were the source of disgruntlement for blacks and Jews, are now praised by both.

On a recent hot August evening, near the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street, where the riot began, teenagers played raucous basketball. There was nothing to mark the spot nearby where Gavin Cato died. The makeshift memorials are long gone. A girl swooped from sidewalk to street on a fancy bike.

"There is a little healing so far, but not much," said Clemsford David, born in Guyana, a nurse at Kings County Hospital who lived through the rioting. "There are really two cultures that are different."

Today, there is to be a kind of ceremony - celebration would hardly be the word - marking the anniversary with a street fair for children and a banquet at the Brooklyn Museum. It is sponsored by Project CARE, for Community Alliance Revitalization Effort, a three-year-old group of dozens of black churches, Lubavitcher organizations, police precincts and government agencies.

And so while the neighborhood remains largely poor, with everyone struggling over scarce resources for housing, education and medical care, not every issue is viewed reflexively through the prism of race. When blacks met with commanders of the 71st Precinct to complain about the extra protection given to Jewish religious leaders and synagogues, they were offered the same accommodations, but realized they were not needed, said Owen Augustin, bishop of St. Augustine's A.O.C. Church.

The leaders are vigilant for possible friction points. Last year, for example, the Jewish Community Council won a housing rehabilitation grant in a traditionally black area. In the past, that might have spurred fears the Lubavitchers were about to jump the informal border. Instead, meetings produced assurances to black leaders that the housing would be preserved for the black residents.

But the new alliances also have their limits. Some blacks are still angry because they think Jews wield undue influence. Some see Hasidim buying the stately houses on President Street and sitting on the local school board even though they have their own school system. There are still grumblings that they are taking over the neighborhood and that the police are in their pockets.

Nowhere are the enduring differences more stark than the way blacks and Jews view the two deaths from 1991.

Many blacks feel that the driver of the car that killed the youth escaped justice; he is now living in Israel. "There is a segment of the black community that continues to grieve and feels that an injustice was done and there was not equal treatment," said Dr. Jackson.

Jews angrily reject any such equating of the deaths. "It's a tragedy what happened to the Cato family. But what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum was a murder," said Mr. Sperlin. "There are still murderers out there. The two incidents are very different."

Certainly, Carmel Cato, the father of Gavin, feels the sense of injustice most deeply. Mr. Cato still insisted that Gavin and his cousin Angela, 7, who survived being hit by the car in the rebbe's entourage, lay mangled and burned on the ground for at least 20 minutes while a Jewish ambulance whisked away the car's driver.

That version of events, contradicted by official city accounts, spread through the neighborhood that night.

"Every day I think about it," Mr. Cato, a hospital worker who has since moved out of Crown Heights, said of that night. "I cannot heal. I don't know how all these people can go around and say there is healing. They never reach for me."

The differences bubbled up, too, the other night, as a group of neighborhood women gathered at the mediation center to talk about a decade of change. They were proud of the roles that women played in groups like Mothers to Mothers, which since 1992 has brought together black and Jewish mothers to talk about their fears and dreams.

As a latecomer arrived, some women cooed congratulations for her new grandchild. Others ticked off the times they had exchanged family photographs and enjoyed interracial outings.

But then Carol Meltz, a black mother of four who is a retired social worker, spoke up. A 30-year neighborhood resident, she said the riots showed a rage among young blacks that too many still overlook or portray as the work of outsiders.

"The riots broke out because of frustration and despair," Mrs. Meltz said, her voice trembling. "I know how people felt. You had no power. Political power. Things don't happen in a vacuum."

"So why did they have to take it out on the Jews?" snapped Rivka Katzen, a Jewish woman. "Because they were there," Mrs. Meltz snapped back.

The women's exchange was quickly smoothed over. But it showed how close to the surface and how raw the feelings can still be. Mindful of the power of language, many community leaders simply call what happened in 1991 "the incident." Most others do not talk about 1991 at all.

But the rage among young black men with no jobs and few prospects is the same now as it was 10 years ago, says Richard Green, executive director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective. They are not the ones taking part in the new interracial coalitions. Mr. Green said he knew many of the young rioters from the neighborhood. He called them society's ghosts because they do not vote, work or attend school. Their children and their younger siblings, he said, often share their fate.

"Their anger is an outgrowth of idleness, a lack of feeling accomplished as human beings," Mr. Green said. "When it's compounded, it goes into rage. We have to be able to go after what caused these youths to do what they did." If anything, the flow of mostly illegal immigrants from Nigeria, Korea and the Middle East into Crown Heights has created new possibilities for conflict, he said.

"From Utica to Atlantic Avenue, do you have any idea of how many villages you travel through?" Mr. Green said. "And we don't have any ambassadors to these enclaves. They all carry their own nationalistic attitudes." He added, "At least now the Hasidic village is talking to the African village. What about the Korean village?"

When the No. 3 train disgorges at the Kingston Avenue station in the evening rush hour it is a stunning sight: bearded Lubavitcher men in black suits and hats climb the stairs alongside Rastafarians with dreadlocks.

"Even though we live together, we don't know much about each other," said Yossi Stern, one of the leaders of the Lubavitcher security patrol. Steve King, 29, who is black and works on Franklin Avenue as a barber, concurred: "Things are so-so. Everybody goes their own way."

Actually, of all the changes that have occurred in Crown Heights since 1991, one of the more significant happened within the Lubavitchers themselves. Menachem M. Schneerson, the charismatic rebbe, died without an heir at the age of 91 seven years ago. One side effect was that the huge crowds who gathered for his appearances - or even a rumor he might be at a window - no longer filled the surrounding streets, with the attendant police attention.

Outsiders thought the Lubavitchers might fall apart. Instead, despite some internal political and spiritual wrangling, they have thrived, sending thousands more emissaries abroad in their worldwide Chabad outreach movement. And their numbers are growing within the neighborhood.

"They can't build quick enough to cope with the growth in the community," said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Rabbi Schneerson's longtime secretary and assistant who functions as a kind of chief executive of the international movement. "We are building schools, our synagogues are overflowing. I'm very upbeat about it."

But the Lubavitchers' intense inward looking spirituality - some in Crown Heights still believe the rebbe may yet return as a Messiah - their devotion to family and religious ritual largely ensures they live separately from their black neighbors.

"The melting pot, it just doesn't exist. You're not going to have that social dynamic," said Rabbi Goldstein, the chairman of Community Board 9 since 1980. "People say to me, `You're living in a ghetto.' Well, I like my ghetto."

Mr. Hamilton, the director of a social services center, agreed, saying, "The Hasidic community is a very closed community. They don't socialize with the rest of the community that much." But, like some other black leaders, he expressed admiration for their ability to organize, saying "they do their homework better." He added, "They don't leave any stone unturned."

Dr. Robert Feldman, a Lubavitcher doctor who lives and practices at Kingston Avenue and President Street, where many of the clashes took place, thought back to the riots late one night, recalling his fear as he stitched up victims while a mob raged outside. "We didn't have any problems before. It was racially mixed, but it was nice," he mused.

What was it like in Crown Heights right before the riot, he was asked. "The atmosphere just before this happened was very calm," Dr. Feldman said. "Just like now."

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