The “Artists” and the Chasidim:
The reasons behind a culture war in Williamsburg

[A translation of my article in Forverts from a few weeks ago.]

How many Satmar Chasidim live in the U.S.? Their number is variously estimated between fifty and one hundred thousand – but everyone knows that a significant proportion live in Williamsburg, known by some as “Jerusalem of America.” Where do these thousands of Jews hang their shtreimels, and how can there be enough room in Williamsburg for all of them?

When the Satmar Chasidim, then not yet a mass movement, moved into Williamsburg in the 1950s and 60s, the economic decline of Brooklyn had just begun to gather speed. The reasons are many, but the story began with the construction of the BQE in 1954, an expressway which lowered property values across the area, particularly in Williamsburg. A three-fold crisis – economic collapse, drug use, and crime – embraced the region, and both business and middle-class apartment dwellers took flight.

This exodus was a favorable development for several ethnic groups, which took advantage of the depressed property values and began to move in en masse. But a sort of social paradox here came into play: although City Hall, in an attempt at urban renewal, had knocked down a number of dilapidated apartment buildings in the 1950s and 1960s – the plan was to build new ones – the number of new apartment houses was not enough to fill the needs of new arrivals. So it was that the residents of Williamsburg were forced to compete over a limited number of apartments.

From the 1950s until the mid-1970s, the Democratic political machine gave the upper hand to the Chasidim over Hispanic residents. That period also saw the development and maintenance in the Satmar community of a high level of political discipline, which voted en bloc according to directions from their rebbe. But when the Hispanics began to organize politically, and the Voting Rights Acts forbade excluding voters on the basis of English proficiency or education, the balance began to shift. The Chasidim and the Hispanics were at something approaching political equilibrium.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chasidim and the Hispanic community were the political bosses of Williamsburg, and their frequent conflicts spilled over more than once onto the front pages of New York newspapers. The groups clashed over a matter of life and death (or at least real estate): where can you live, and how can you get the government to sponsor housing projects that are appropriate for your group (and not, God forbid, the other guy)?

The 1980s: the beginning of the end?

Several factors in this period noticeably worsened the real-estate situation for Williamsburg Chasidim. First, in 1979, came the demise of the then-Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Though his nephew took over the leadership of the community, the grandchildren (Aharon and Zalman Leib) began quarreling some years after, driving a suspenseful soap opera that’s going on even now in Kiryas Yoel, Jerusalem, and Williamsburg. That Satmar split, together with the growth of other Williamsburg Chasidic groups (for example, Belz and Klausenberg), weakened the control of Satmar.

Secondly, “pioneering” bohemians, refugees from overpriced Manhattan real estate, began to move into Brooklyn. And third – perhaps itself caused by the bohemians’ “first wave” – came the legalization, in 1985, of loft rentals in Williamsburg. It may be that future historians of Chasidic Williamsburg will record that change as the beginning of the end of the community in its ultra-Orthodox incarnation.

The newest Williamsburg Kulturkampf: The War of the Artists

Those bohemians who began moving into Williamsburg in the mid-80s have one name in the Chasidim’s Yiddish. They’re called “artists,” and many Chasidim (who wish to remain anonymous) are suspicious of their ways. The “artists,” on the other hand, pay the Chasidim the same compliment. Any Web surfer literate either in Yiddish or the ways of Williamsburg hipsterdom can quite easily find Web sites, where young hipsters insult their Chasidic landlords, or Chasidim drop juicy hints about the undomestic habits of the artists.

Who are these “artists”? The group includes two types of people: first, actual practitioners of the visual or performing arts, real artists who’ve moved into Williamsburg to take advantage of the gallery, exhibit, and fellow-artist scene: all for prices that would be impossible in Manhattan. Artists, of course, want to be with other artists, and New York (and its various far-flung neighborhoods) is famous as a city which makes such communities possible and affordable. But the category “artists,” as understood by the Chasidim, also includes plain ol’ hipsters, young folk drawn to Williamsburg by a free-and-easy and entertaining way of life, full of clubs, bars, and all sorts of partying.

The current controversy centers precisely on this contrast between this youth culture and the culture of the Chasidim. In the past few weeks, small, independent (one could even say “marginal”) groups of Chasidim have mounted several demonstrations against the “artists,” or, to be more exact, against the owners of the apartment houses that are renting out to the outside hipsters. When one asks Chasidim why they do not approve of the “artists,” the responses are various: some say, that they are just “too different” – for example, they don’t have curtains on the windows, they have outlandish art on the walls, they walk dogs on the streets. Some say, on the other hand, that they’re “generally honest people” (“not like the criminal element” of other ethnic groups), but they’re taking over potential living spaces of Chasidim. They’re replacing Chasidic Williamsburg with theirs – a hipster-bohemian variety.

The demonstrations, and the future

It’s hard to get representative responses from the “artists” themselves, because they’re a variegated community. It’s quite plausible that they want the same thing that every New Yorker wants: cheap, attractive apartments that are fitted to their way of living. The problem is just that their lifestyle is quite different from that of the Chasidim – and that the owners of apartment buildings earn quite a bit more money by renting lofts to multiple occupants then they do by renting entire apartments to large families.

The demonstrators (who are actually small, non-official groups, “two or three people with a fax machine,” as one highly-placed Chasidic source put it) chose as their main target the Gretsch Building, the only one of the major Williamsburg apartment buildings whose owner is a non-Chasidic Orthodox Jew. It seems that the protests have indeed accomplished some of their mission: they prevailed upon the owners to assure that only “normal” businesses (i.e. no bars or clubs) occupy the lower floor, that no terraces be built, and that no swimming pools be visible from other buildings. But protesters have also attempted to influence other owners, non-Jews or non-religious Jews, who are likely to be less impressed by scrawled signs in imperfect English.

In certain Chasidic chat rooms people are waxing nostalgic about the “good old days” of Chasidic Williamsburg. Perhaps the invasion of the artists is only the first wave of the new population which will drive out the Chasidim, leaving them to wander in the desert until they find a new home.

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