Chop shops selling used-car parts, a massive public-housing project, and Hasidic high-rises with health-food stores offering “kosher cannabinoids” on the ground floor: these unlikely neighbors sit side by side in “New Williamsburg,” as Hasidim like to call the enclave they recently carved out of the northern part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn.
Over the course of a decade of research for our book on Hasidic Williamsburg, some of the most dramatic changes we observed were not on the serene, brownstone-lined streets in the center of the long-standing Hasidic community, nor on the main Hasidic commercial drag of Lee Avenue, which is lined with kosher bakeries, butcher shops, scribes’ offices, and storefronts advertised with decades-old signage.
Change was just to the south of Williamsburg, in historically Black “Bed-Stuy,” where we witnessed in real time the emergence of an entirely new Hasidic enclave, in what is arguably the greatest neighborhood transformation New York has seen since the 1960s.
Crossing to the Other Side
Hasidim, who first arrived in South Williamsburg as Holocaust survivors during the 1940s, stubbornly remained in the neighborhood even as almost all other white people abandoned it. Regarding their urban refuge as sacred ground, Hasidim set down deep roots while closely enforcing its boundaries.
The southern border of what they termed “the Jerusalem of America” was Flushing Avenue, across which lay Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood that, like Williamsburg, had seen an exodus of white residents in the 1960s, becoming in the process one of the largest Black neighborhoods in the city, if not the country. While Hasidim maintained schools and other key institutions in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant over the years, they generally did not reside there. By the 1990s, however, gentrification in Williamsburg and the continuously booming Hasidic population brought the need for affordable housing to a head, and Hasidim began to develop new housing along industrial Flushing Avenue.
What began as the construction of affordable housing for Hasidim through selective zoning variances on Flushing Avenue soon morphed into a much wider plan to re-create the northern part of Bedford-Stuyvesant in their own image. During the 2010s, while taking our regular walks through the neighborhood, we saw the rapid rise of apartment buildings that catered to Hasidim, easily recognizable from the street by their caged-in windows and staggered balconies—in order to accommodate sukkahs—not to mention the dozens of children’s bikes and Hasidic kids hanging out in front. Many of these buildings were designed by Karl Fischer, a prolific architect whose “characterless” style earned him the title “New York’s most loathed architect” from the New York Post. A study hall even cropped up across the street from the Marcy Houses, the notorious public-housing project immortalized as “murder, murder Marcyville” by its most famous native son, Jay-Z.
A neighborhood full of apparent contradictions, New Williamsburg stands out, but only for a New York minute, before blending into the ever shifting mosaic that is Brooklyn.
Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper’s A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg is out now from Yale University Press