Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Monolithic and regal, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch towers over pedestrians and traffic at Grand Army Plaza. The bus roars down Eastern Parkway to Crown Heights, past the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. I’m with a friend who has made the long trip from Staten Island. “I’m hungry,” he says. “Staten Island’s so far. Think we can get some Jamaican fare in Crown Heights?”
If the neighborhood lives up to its reputation, we’ll be tasting Caribbean spices soon.
We leave the bus and stand on the Parkway. It’s a pleasant spot: Trees and rows of three story brownstones and pre-war apartment buildings line the long road. We cross Eastern Parkway, going south. Right away we’re in the middle of a busy scene of street vendors and discount convenience stores. The bottom of my friend’s right sandal is tearing off with each step. We think maybe we’ll find cheap sandals in one of these stores.
Inside, there are rows of T-shirts and shorts; soap, brooms, even priced-down air conditioners line the shelves. Slow, indulgent reggae plays.

“Negative,” my friend says. No sandals.
We move on. Walking along the street—somewhere around New York Avenue—we notice people doing weekend shopping. Children chase each other down the block yelling and laughing. At a corner a mother scolds her child. Her language is austere, even frightening.
“You see this stern Caribbean parenting,” my friend says. I warn him not to generalize, but from our perspective the evidence is there. We’ve seen more than one parent very harshly berate a child.

As we walk, the neighborhood becomes overwhelmingly quiet. On the upper jambs of front doors we see mezuzot—Jewish religious objects placed at the entrances to homes (and rooms inside the home). This must be the orthodox, largely Lubavitch section of Crown Heights—a community for which the neighborhood is famous. Down a tree-lined side street we find a building with Hebrew letters over the door. Under the Hebrew is an English translation: “Beth Rivkah Schools Lubavitch.”

Rivkah (Rebecca) is a matriarch. This must be a girls-only yeshiva—a school of Jewish religious learning.
It’s Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath—so we’re not surprised that the streets are so still. Occasional groups of men wearing black suits and black hats stroll down the sidewalks. On one porch a middle-aged woman in a tight headdress, long sleeves, and a long skirt reads a newspaper. On many homes a banner hangs that says, in Hebrew, “Welcome, King the Messiah.” This message regards the Lubavitch Hasidic belief that the late Hasidic leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the messiah.

The layout of the neighborhood is pleasant, peaceful; architecturally homogenous: You see straight streets of two-story, red-brick, single-family homes with front yards about ten feet deep.
As we continue down a block between Brooklyn and New York Avenues, a multi-generational group of Lubavitch Hasids is walking toward us. There are an elderly man who looks to be in his eighties, a middle-aged man, a young man in his early twenties, and an adolescent boy. They’re all speaking energetically in Russian. They are garrulous with each other. A voice rises; one throws up his arms over his head; another grabs the shoulders of the ancient man and, smiling, fires speedy, animated sentences—his voice resounds, slashing the block’s quiet.
We turn a corner to find an RV parked on the street. On the driver side there’s a large picture of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, serious and sage in his voluminous white beard and black hat. Beside him, the message
Moshiach [the messiah] is coming Now! Beside that message are the words MITZVAH TANK. Then there’s the license plate: TANK ONE.

We walk north across Eastern Parkway. There are no more Hasids; no more black hats and beards; no more Yiddish and Russian and Hebrew characters on the buildings. This is now a neighborhood of Caribbean immigrants. Walking down the street we hear what sounds like the English dialects of the West Indies. Groups of men and teenagers talk loudly on the stoops of buildings. Kids play catch with a football on the sidewalk. I can’t ignore the feeling that people seem to be watching my friend and me. There is a burdening tension here. I sense that we are seen through aggressive stares. I ask my friend about this. He feels the same unwanted attention. And I wonder whether this feeling is valid, or whether it’s a product of our unfamiliarity with the neighborhood.

Since my friend hasn’t eaten, we wander into an Associated Supermarket. An employee asks me if we’ve been skateboarding. We tell him no. His accent is heavy; he sounds Jamaican.
“You see these days a lot of the black kids is skateboarding. But the white kids has been doin’ it since the eighties,” he says.

He goes on to explain: Because black kids are new to skateboarding, as a rule, they aren’t as good as people who’ve been doing it for a decade or more. So it’s very dangerous, and he thinks they should bike instead. Neither my friend nor I are skateboarders, so we can’t really offer opinions. We say goodbye. My friend buys a peach, and we’re back outside.
There is a big block party on Lincoln Place. Monstrous speakers are set up angled toward the street. They blast reggae. Tied to metal banisters and street lamps are balloons in all colors. Kids running and smiling and playing. And the reggae—the loudest reggae in New York must be on Lincoln Place.
Finally, a fish market. My friend orders the fish and rice plate. When it’s ready, I see the server put one, then two fish on the plate. That’s pretty generous, I’m thinking. Then the server throws on a third! The plate is heaping with fried fish, and then yellow rice. All for five dollars. We sit on a bench on Eastern Parkway, and my friend devours the feast.
Later, after we’ve left the neighborhood, we’re discussing the places and the people of Crown Heights. My friend says, “You know, I got the sense that at any moment the shit could hit the fan.” I want to disagree, but I can’t: Being honest with myself, my thoughts return to that encompassing sense of tension.

1 comment:

Ben said...

A fine piece, though I must suggest that the record be ammended to reflect the fact that I did not devour that fish; I pecked at it, flirted with it, ultimately turned it away