Guest Post: Landwar in Williamsburg

by Yoseph Leib

Williamsburg belongs to who? Whoever holds out, eventually. That’s what my father maintains.

The history of the land war in Williamsburg means a lot to me, as does the question of the ultimate relationship between the Chassidim (or “Hassids” as the hipsters like calling them) and the Latinos depends so much on Who Cares to stay, once the offers are coming in for lots of money, and/or once the pressure from others to move on starts to overwhelm. What’s going to be?

The natural tendency in a community should be to unify over common priorities, needs, and goals, and it’s a bit of a challenge when one part of the larger community feels needs that are completely divorced from those of others there, if not outrightly hostile to those expressed needs.

This, in my experience, has been the challenge of Chassidim in Williamsburg: how to deal with how much is wanted, at the expense of everyone else. As a kid, it was a profound mystery to me how religious Jews could be so unapologetically insensitive to the needs and worries of other people, in terms of housing priorities.

The situation was such: Chassidic leadership would co-opt large amounts of public money and property for their exclusive use. City officials would grant them these boons, and more, in exchange for the large block of votes that would come with a Rebbe’s support. That’s politics, so what? So what is the shocking contempt and disrespect with which the Chassidic leadership would react to requests for co-operation or help for other people in the neighborhood, mostly Latino, with regard to their public housing needs and conflicts.

As a kid, I could not fathom how religious Jews could act this way. What about Love Your Neighbor As Yourself? What about man being in the image of G-d, and deserving to be treated as such? I was young then, and blissfully unaware of how the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy end, and ultimately unaware at how central enclosed tribal selfishness was to the ethos of Israel, how bound up caring about Your Brother at the expense of Other People was to the idea of virtue in the Chumash, and how that priority endlessly justified a spiritual tunnel vision, where the God of Israel really was identified as the God of Israel’s Priorities only.

I don’t think this ethos needs to be inherent to Chassidis, not once Chassidim have a sense of security and enough of it to turn around and feel a bit more concerned for the local Midianites, rather than infinitely threatened. But the situation now, where politically, the politicians and judges who side with the Hassids over certain issues (notably the Broadway Triangle Development) are on opposite sides of the political spectrum from the ones who make their names by identifying with the priorities and needs of the Latino community (most of which is Affordable Housing for the Poor)

The Poor people in a gentrifying neighborhood are always a bit of a cultural absurdity. Why are they still here? How could they still be poor? Embarrassing relics to a gentry that might like to identify as relatively liberal and progressive, it was as heartbreaking to me to learn how selfish and unconcerned with others the Liberal philosophy was, as the Religious one is.

Every time I go into North Williamsburg, I am hoping to find Art! And Culture!, but instead all I see is quick moving, expensive food eating trolls, unapologetically and disinterestedly prowling and scowling. The music is as shallow, so is the theatre, cruel and exotic like imported baby seal meat. And I’m tempted to think that all this could change, given the right cultural catalysts. A good dance culture, a good conscious restaurant, a good synagogue: but I wonder how much every neighborhood only allows a culture as perfect and shallow as it itself is, and positive change is unattractive to a monster people, all to aware of their own crimes in the name of comfort and security.

I am tempted to think a day may come, where a common need and common humanity could bridge these different powerful elements into a relatively common interest and a healthier relationship to humanity could grow out of it… But maybe it’s just the physical space itself that attracts all the ugliness. Williamsburg/Greenpoint is one of the least green, radioactive places in Brooklyn, one of the few atomic radiation storage facilities (“radiac”) But that could and should change as soon as wealth and developmental interest comes into the neighborhoods, just like it did on the waterfront along the Northside, where those free pool parties have been going on in the summer.

This is one of the reasons that the Chassidic priorities are so disturbing: they don’t want local parks, bike lanes, community centers that can benefit everyone, because the official ethos identifies benefit so exclusively with the benefit of Only us. This mono-myopia might be changing a little bit, in light of the split between the two Satmar Rebbes, but the more short sighted and cruel of the two brothers (Zalman) is the one that rules Williamsburg, and I can’t see any good coming out of That Williamsburg for as long as there is political profit in isolation and power politics.

Now, the day might come where that could change, and the question is, will there be any good will left for the Chassidim when that happens? Because the Hipsters will leave once the neighborhood becomes Too Unpleasant to be worthwhile, but the thugs and angry poor people won’t, and it remains to be seen what good can actually happen here.