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The Story of Hasidic Vilyamsburg

Issue 267

A new book tells the story of one of Brooklyn’s most distinctive communities.

Bennett Baumer Oct 27

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a brief moment when thousands of people fled New York City, and market forces pushed rents and apartment-sales prices down, at least at the luxury end of the market. But it didn’t last. A pandemic that sickened over a million New Yorkers and killed over 34,000 could only keep rents down for so long.

The city’s post-COVID future will probably look much like its recent past.

There is probably no neighborhood more synonymous with New York’s rise from a crime-ridden post-industrial metropolis to a high-rent playground than Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Historians Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper offer a fresh take: Williamsburg’s transformation as seen through the Hasidic Jewish experience. A Fortress in Brooklyn arrives on bookshelves as the pandemic seems to be abating, but it begins with another dark chapter — the surviving remnants of Hungary’s Satmar Hasidim settling in Williamsburg after the Holocaust.

According to Deutsch and Casper, they only planned to stay in Vilyamsburg for a short time, as America was a “crazy country” full of assimilated Jews — they said the best profession was to be a painter, because “in America… everything is a lie, and people gloss over everything.” The Satmars’ start in industrial Williamsburg was so inauspicious that the sect quickly hatched plans to set up a shtetl in leafy New Jersey.

A Fortress in Brooklyn sets this stay-or-leave decision by a beleaguered Hasidic sect in a post-World War II outer-borough hinterland as a pivotal moment for the future Williamsburg. Jews had lived in the neighborhood for decades — the Williamsburg Bridge was nicknamed “Jew’s Highway” because of migration from the Lower East Side after it opened in 1903 — but postwar economic policies encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities. Puerto Ricans settled in Williamsburg in the same era, but if thousands of Hasidim had pulled up stakes, it might have suffered even deeper decay and collapse. The book describes crime as a main factor for white flight to the suburbs, but it would do well to include the roles of public policy, housing discrimination, subsidized mortgages and urban divestment, which were more important before the 1960s.

A Fortress in Brooklyn will delight with its Yiddish, and also offers a compelling and interesting take on real-estate development and the mosaic of urban life, including the early-aughts milkhemes artistn — “war against the artists/hipsters.”

After the planned New Jersey exodus foundered, the Hasidic rabbis decided to stick it out and put down roots in Williamsburg, and this included moving into publicly subsidized housing.

New York University’s Furman Center estimates that the city’s public housing needs over $40 billion in capital repairs — enough to gobble up the allotment for the entire country’s public housing in President Joe Biden’s current infrastructure bill. It is hard to imagine that in the 1960s, Williamsburg Hasidim sought to transform new housing projects into “paths of heaven” — places that would allow growing and mostly impoverished Jewish families to prosper. As whites left, Hasidim would share integrated public housing, and most important, the rent would be capped at 30 percent of their income.

A Fortress in Brooklyn does not sugar-coat the conflicts that occurred.

President Lyndon Johnson’s largely successful Great Society anti-poverty spending spurred intra-ethnic copetition as to which group got what apartments, program funding and resources, as decided by local City Councilmembers and boards. Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican community leaned on churches and a rise in activism to exert influence. Hasidim formed the United Jewish Organization and other groups, but mostly avoided coalition politics to fund their community, which, while encouraging work, emphasized men’s unpaid study of Torah and Talmud. That go-it-alone approach balkanized ethnic groups into camps, and alienated potential allies in campaigns for more affordable-housing construction and to repair dilapidated private housing.

No recent history of New York can be written without addressing the high-crime era of the 1970s and ’80s; the salience of crime helped Eric Adams become the Democratic mayoral candidate this year. A Fortress in Brooklyn includes anecdotes of thieves crossing into Vilyamsburg to snatch shtreimels (large, expensive fur hats) and “if they caught you, you were going to get an ass whuppin’.” Hasidim would yell chaptsem, or “get him,” when thieves both real and alleged struck.

A Fortress in Brooklyn will delight with its Yiddish, and also offers a compelling and interesting take on real-estate development and the mosaic of urban life, including the early-aughts milkhemes artistn — “war against the artists/hipsters.” Williamsburg rents skyrocketed, and Hasidic housing activists publicly targeted Jewish developers for not building affordable housing for the community. Newspapers and pashkevilin (broadside posters) warned darkly of gentrification pricing Hasidim out, and threatened Orthodox landlords with communal shunning. There was also the issue of bike lanes and the alleged moral outrage of scantily clad hipsters scandalizing Hasidic Bedford Avenue. A Fortress in Brooklyn dispels the moral outrage myth and ties the issue of bike lanes to Hasidic fears of further gentrification.

For those who yearn for the bad good old days of subway graffiti and opportunistic crime, but believe fervently in New York’s “success, excess, and transformation,” read Thomas Dyja’s breezy New York, New York, New York. Dyja keeps the pace quick with healthy doses of pop cultural references, while moving on to Wall Street bull markets minting yuppies and private-public partnerships cleaning up Bryant Park and Times Square.

New York, New York, New York’s scope is broader than that of A Fortress in Brooklyn. Dyja begins with the Emergency Financial Control Board’s 1976 takeover of the city government’s finances, as it teetered on the brink of insolvency and a Daily News headline screamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The city could no longer float municipal bonds to cover budget gaps, but the EFCB struck a deal: Public-sector unions’ pensions would buy bonds, and thus the underlying credit of those bonds would be tied in to balanced budgets and controls on wages.

Dyja rips into the vain Rudolph Giuliani, but celebrates the great crime reduction and the growth ma- chine the city has become, while grumbling about Occupy Wall Street. “Nothing fundamental about money, power, or politics really changed,” he insists, even as several socialists have defeated old-guard Democratic incumbents, including in Williamsburg. His book perhaps was published too late to include a full accounting of the George Floyd Uprising, which get mentioned only as “2020 riots.”

The feared permanent pandemic exodus from New York did not materialize. However, concerns about affordable housing and the cost of living remain omnipresent. Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jews have expanded the enclave’s borders south into Bed-Stuy, while also settling in the outer suburbs north of the city, and even as far away as my hometown in Indiana.

An Adams administration will need to address high housing costs by producing and preserving more genuinely affordable housing. It could start by converting foreclosed hotels into permanent housing, and shoring up public housing. How long has the city talked about doing this? Then as now, there are plenty of people ready to ascend that particular “path to heaven.”

A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and The Making of Hasidic Williamsburg
By Nathaniel Deutsch & Michael Casper
Yale University Press, 2021

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation
By Thomas Dyja
Simon & Schuster, 2021

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