Crown Heights and the 1991 riots

Crown Heights was subject to the same rapid racial turnover that affected Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, and other neighborhoods in the decades following World War II. But there was one major difference: one white group in Crown Heights didn’t leave.

The area was originally known as Crow Hill, one of many rises in a chain known as the Green Mountains. The hill sat in the City of Brooklyn, just north of the Flatbush border; as with many other natural features of Kings County, the terrain would be altered, leading to a flatter landscape.

“Crow” might have been a euphemism for the blacks who lived there; the area was the first in Kings County known to have slaves, and many former slaves purchased land in Weeksville to the north after the 1827 emancipation. It might also have been a term for the inmates at the Kings County Penitentiary, which was built in the mid-1800s*. The present name came into common usage in the early 20th century.

The fortress-like Kings County Penitentiary. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

By the time the penitentiary was shut down in 1905, Crown Heights was an affluent community; in fact, its closure might have been motivated by the value of its property. This transition from farmland to an upper-class area had received a huge boost from the opening of Eastern Parkway in the 1870s. Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, it was the world’s first six-lane thoroughfare; special rules prohibiting commercial ventures like slaughterhouses attracted members of the upper class. Residents could stroll its elm-shaded promenades while enjoying easy carriage access to downtown Brooklyn via Flatbush Avenue. (Here is what might be the earliest map of the plan, from 1868.)

It was also around the turn of the century that Caribs began to live in Crown Heights. They joined Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, and other Europeans until white flight accelerated in the 1950s. In the meantime, a new group had moved in: adherents to the Orthodox Jewish Lubavitch movement.

The Lubavitchers’ headquarters moved to Crown Heights in 1940, when the group’s leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, escaped from Poland. (It’s still located at 770 Eastern Parkway.) While whites were moving out of the neighborhood in droves, Rabbi Schneersohn’s successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendal Schneerson, decided to stay, and his flock followed suit. As you might expect, such a strange juxtaposition of cultures – and the lack of understanding between them – resulted in repressed hostility.

Rabbi Schneerson addresses a crowd at Lubavitch headquarters. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

An unfortunate incident brought these currents to the fore, and led to the only anti-Semitic riots in U.S. history. On August 19, 1991, Rabbi Schneerson was heading back from his weekly prayers at a cemetery in Queens. In front of his car was a police escort; behind him was a station wagon to protect his rear. Falling behind, the station wagon allegedly ran a red light at 45-50 mph, colliding with a crossing vehicle. It careened into 7-year-old Gavin Cato, a child of Guyanese immigrants, pinning him underneath. He died soon after.

The Carib population in Crown Heights had a list of grievances against their Jewish neighbors. There was their special treatment, as evidenced by the police escort: why should Rabbi Schneerson receive protection usually reserved for visiting diplomats? (Defenders answered that he was the worldwide head of Lubavitch, and thus a global figure.) The driver’s alleged neglect of the red light was just another example of Jews’ disdain for laws they didn’t like.

Then there was the perceived slight at the scene. Soon after the crash, a Hatzolah ambulance arrived to help. (Hatzolah is a volunteer Jewish ambulance service, but its members tend to gentiles as well.) By that time a crowd had formed around the wreckage, and some had begun to beat the driver of the station wagon. Police told the Hatzolah ambulance to take the Jewish men to safety; a newly arrived city ambulance would help the boy. This last detail was, naturally, lost in the rumors making the rounds.

If these complaints – and other wild-eyed conspiracies – had been brewing for a while, Gavin Cato’s death bubbled them over, with extremists providing the heat. Patrons leaving a B.B. King concert that evening at nearby Wingate High School were exhorted to “get the Jews”. A large group cornered Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian Hasid who was in New York to do research for his Ph.D. dissertation. Rosenbaum was beaten, then stabbed. While his death was due more to the poor care he received at Kings County Hospital than to his wounds, he was still a victim of the thoughtless aftermath.**

Yankel Rosenbaum’s casket during his Crown Heights service. (from the New York Daily News)

The riots had far-reaching impacts. Radicals like Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson (the black nationalist who had fanned fires in Brownsville) hijacked Gavin Cato’s funeral. They accused Mayor David Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown, both black, of cowing to white interests. The event probably had an effect on the 1993 mayoral election, in which Dinkins lost his rematch with Rudy Giuliani. Two black extremists ran for city council later in 1991, causing headaches in political circles (we saw a replay of sorts this year). Several scathing official reviews were done of Kings County Hospital’s procedures and of the city hospital system as a whole. Jews were incorporated as a protected class in existing civil rights laws.

But as with Carnival, the climax of the year in Crown Heights, we shouldn’t let the unfortunate actions of a few make us forget what good has been done. A few examples: after the riots, a cross-cultural musical group, Project CURE!, began. (It was the focus of a 2004 made-for-TV movie starring Howie Mandel, which I’m intrigued to check out.) Every August sees a “day of unity“, where both cultures come together to have fun. Because of the differences of these two main groups, Crown Heights is still one of the most dynamic communities in Brooklyn.

Bound sources:

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Crown Heights and Weeksville by Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly (Arcadia, 2009).

Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn riot by Edward S. Shapiro (Brandeis University Press, 2006).

A history of the city of Brooklyn : including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh by Henry R. Stiles (Heritage Books, 1993 reprint, orig. 1867-1870).

*I’m vague here because my sources disagree: 1846 (Jackson), 1847 (Kelly), between 1851 and 1855 (Stiles). I found an amusing representation of it in a 1926 map claiming to be a reproduction of a map from 1841 (“with some slight indifference to anachronisms”):

“Gaol for felons and evil doers”

**A few ironies here. Yankel Rosenbaum was Orthodox, but not a Lubavitcher. The 16-year-old who used his knife on him, Lemrick Nelson, was stabbed in the head with an ice pick nearly twenty years later. (He survived; presumably, he received better medical care than did Rosenbaum.)

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