• Garth Wolkoff

Whose City is It?

From 2015

➜Of course the answer is, it's everyone's city. Isn't it? Or is it?

➜Williamsburg is the Brooklyn neighborhood to the north of Bed-Stuy, where I live. The part of Williamsburg that borders Bed-Stuy has an Orthodox Jewish community, which originated in Romania and Hungary, called Satmar. Of all the different schools of Jewish orthodoxy in New York City, they appear as the most insular, and that is saying something. If you're from Brooklyn, you'll identify the Satmars by their fur hats, even in the summer, fancy fringed socks, and the fact that they don't talk to anyone who doesn't look like them.

Now, I was raised as a Liberal or Reform Jew--on the other side of the Jewish spectrum from the Satmars--and, while I am an atheist, I consider myself Jewish (some people might not understand that paradox, and I cannot explain it here, but maybe in a later story). One hot summer day, I was riding my bicycle from Crown Heights where I taught summer school, to Williamsburg, my home at the time; I lived in the Polish quarter--there is also the infamous hipster Williamsburg, Puerto Rican Williamsburg, Italian Williamsburg, and probably other Williamsburgs (although with gentrification...). . I was parched. I stopped my bike at a Satmar corner store to buy a bottle of water. I parked it on the sidewalk, probably impolitely, so I could see it while in the store, as I didn't bring a chain and lock. I ran in and out. As I was coming out, a Satmar man walked up to my bicycle and pushed it over. I asked him why he did that. He told me to "get out of here," that "I didn't belong here." I told him I lived in Williamsburg. He walked angrily away.

➜During Reconstruction, white Southerners used to call people from the North carpetbaggers, especially exploiting the South for economic purposes. I think this a staple paragraph in every high school U.S. history book. (Southerns who supported Federal Reconstruction were called scallawags).

➜An angry mob of young white men swinging baseball bats chased and eventually shot and killed Black teenager Yusuf Hawkins in 1991 in the Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. As many newspapers reported at the time, the young men from Bensonhurst confused Hawkins with another Black man who was dating a white woman in the neighborhood. When Black protestors arrived in Bensonhurst three days later, and whites yelled "Niggers go home" and held up watermelons.

In 2007, the city painted a bike lane up and down Bedford Avenue. It was the longest bike lane in Brooklyn. The bike lane traveled through Satmar Williamsburg. Religious law prevents the Satmars from gazing at "scantily clad" women, which was a description used to describe some of the bike riders. The Satmars complained to the city. The city erased the bike path through the Satmar neighborhood, between Flushing and Division avenues. A rogue band of bicyclists repainted the bike path. The city painted over the path’s second coming.

➜ As a white man living in the historically Black neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, I am writing about how I fit in, or don't. I have not come to any conclusions. Yes, as a 52-year-old man, I am still trying to fit in, just like I did in high school, 3,000 miles to the west, 34 years to the past.

For close to 100 years, Bed-Stuy has been the second largest Black neighborhood in New York City, next to Harlem. How significant is Bed-Stuy? It has about 150,000 people, which would make it about the 150th largest city in the country--larger than Bridgeport, CT, Syracuse, NY, and Savannah, GA. I went to college in a California town that was 1/3 the size of the neighborhood I now live in. (Other sources put the Bed-Stuy population higher. Another estimate, 223,950, makes it the 89th largest city in the U.S., just ahead of Reno, Nevada).

How much of a Black neighborhood is it? When the state lists the "many famous people" that have come from Bed-Stuy, they are all Black people from the last 100 years: "Shirley Chisholm, Lena Horne, Lil’ Kim, Tracy Morgan, Floyd Patterson, Jackie Robinson, Chris Rock and Jay-Z." Perhaps more importantly, as of 2015, 75% of Bed-Stuy's population was Black, or about 170,000 people.

According to a NYC Planning document, my particular New York census tract, #263, which is two city blocks long by three shorter blocks wide, has 1,865 people living there. In 2010, 80 percent of the population in tract #263 identified as Black or African American. In 2018, that number is down to 65 percent

I know that some people don't like to call neighborhoods Black anymore than they like to call music Black. I do. I call out race quite often, in fact, because race--and all kinds of other lenses like sexuality, gender, class, education, etc.--is way to look at how power functions and how people function within communities and societies and institutions. Those ways of reading are not the only ones, of course. And I know some people who only use race, class, gender and sexuality as their analytical tools; but I also know people who don't use any of them, or only select a single way of thinking.

To look at a city, and a neighborhood, one has to see the effects of gentrification in terms of different social tools, like race and class. Otherwise, the answer to every question is a phrase I hear all too often, an empty phrase, one I do not like: It is what it is. That phrase postulates the absence of causation, and ignores the damages of effect.

➜A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend and I walked along 23rd Street and Broadway to witness Manhattanhendge. The New York Times described it this way: "For two days every spring and summer, the sunset lines up with Manhattan’s street grid, creating a gorgeous celestial spectacle. For a brief moment, the sun’s golden rays illuminate the city’s buildings and traffic with a breathtaking glow."

It was quite spectacular, as you can see. Just after I took this picture, a taxi tried to make a right turn west on 23rd. He inched his way and honked his horn. A woman who I thought was white yelled out at the taxi driver, "Go back to where you came from" and then screamed some profanity. My girlfriend told me later that she thought she might have been Latino. The cab driver might have been Arabic, but definitely had olive skin. I then yelled at yelling woman. I yelled in her face, using similar profanity, but called her a racist pig. Then a man, possibly her boyfriend, a Black man, got in my face, a started threatening to do egregious bodily harm. I had asked for it, yelling at a yelling woman in public. I think, like everyone around me, I was supposed to let her epithets pass. Her friend continued, in my face, telling me that the woman had "freedom of speech." To him, the offender carried the freedom of speech, not the offended. Fortunately, the donnybrook ended there. Hundreds of people watching the sunset stepped in between us.

How do you do the right thing?

(picture at the top from

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