New Skool Travels to Crown Heightsby Knox Robinson and Meghan McDermott
The 2004 session of the New Skool Journalism Workshop went to Crown Heights, where our team of young journalists worked to capture scenes of daily life that exist beneath the various stereotypes by which the place is known. Crown Heights is not in a constant stand off between blacks and Jews, nor is it a monolith of Caribbean immigration. It is a living neighborhood, with all of the complexity that marks real places everywhere. Special thanks to Poets & Writers. Without their support this innovative program, an ongoing collaboration between Urban Word and The Brooklyn Rail, would not be possible.
—Knox Robinson and Meghan McDermott, editors
by Queen Snooky Mos Hated
It was a loud train ride from the hard-knock boogie down to way down in Brooklyn. Crown Heights was at least an hour and a half from my home, and it felt as if half of New York was in the train with me. Holding onto the rail above the seats, swinging side to side with the motion of the train, I thought of the adventure ahead. I heard that Brooklyn was nothing like the Bronx, and I was anxious to see the difference.
Lost in my thoughts, I almost missed my stop. Pushed out of the train station in one hell of a New York rush, a sign said “Crown Heights” in big blue carved letters, but I felt as if I was lost; when I finally reached the streets it was strange to have seen so many people come out the train and have the streets seem empty.
It was a foggy day, but being in Brooklyn made it seem foggier. As I walked up Utica Avenue, I realized this was a different culture that didn’t resemble the one I was brought up in. I live in the definition of the Spanish ghetto, while here was a West Indian civilization.
The smell of burning corn filled the air, and there were stores on Utica that you would rarely find in my section of the Bronx, such as roti shops and Indian restaurants. If you had a good sense of smell, you could tell the different kinds of food cooked in curry, even standing outside.
by Arkima Carter
Statistics say that the largest population in Crown Heights is white, but when you enter it, the aroma of roti shops, the powdery residue from nail salons, and the fruit and vegetable stands welcomes you warmly. Walking down the streets of Crown Heights at any time of day, you’ll come across black youth, black seniors and Caribbean Hispanics of all ages.
There’s also a large population of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Perhaps Jews are put in a “white” category, and their families are counted as making up the majority of the culturally diverse neighborhood, while illegal aliens emigrating secretly from the Caribbean aren’t counted at all. So when a representative from the U.S. Census knocks on the door looking for Jean-Pierre, lies are told. Jean-Pierre doesn’t live there. Perhaps this is why blacks of West Indian and Caribbean descent—with their dynamite languages and cultural festivals and other community happenings—are not recognized in the race-based census of NYC.
by Kristina Lopez
It was cool inside the small Caribbean restaurant on Empire Boulevard. The tall man wanted coconut water to quench his thirst; the restaurant owner wanted to make a quick buck. The tall man rushed to the refrigerator for the refreshing beverage. He proceeded to the counter and the storeowner told him the bottle cost three dollars. The man’s eyes widened with disbelief.
The tall man was a neighborhood average Joe, so when he began to yell at the restaurant owner about the “ridiculous” price of the beverage, no one took notice. It wasn’t until each man’s voice got louder with every statement that people ceased to eat and grew silent watching to see what would happen next. The tall man argued that he could purchase coco water for a dollar at another store. The owner disagreed and told him that it was impossible. The tall man argued that three dollars was “ludicrous” for coco water. The owner bet him 20 dollars to find another store that offered such a price.
“People don’t support each other, businesswise,” the restaurant’s owner, Michael Charles, said later. “They all want to get rich out of greed, ignorance, and a lack of education. It’s not so difficult [to get rich], but the ignorance [holds people back].” Charles says a lack of respect is one of the reasons why many small businesses in Crown Heights do not thrive, and he argues there should be more support in the community. Michael Charles came to the U.S. from Grenada “with nothing” 16 years ago; now he has his own business. Even in a community where the average annual income is $27,664, one sees how economic gaps can cause conflict between people of the same ethnicity (both the tall man and Charles are black).
The tall man proceeded to pull a rolled-up stack of cash out of his pocket and paid Charles the three dollars for the coco water before mumbling to himself as he exited the store. “Success and longevity is what everyone wants, and they all think they know how to get it,” Charles said after the tall man’s departure. “But they never think of what they have to do to keep it.”
by Chyann Le Sapp
Troy Rogers’s long day of headache and aggravation began the moment the first child skated into the Empire Roller Rink. When the rink opened to cheerful children and their already annoyed mothers at precisely 2 p.m., the 18 year-old employee who wore jelly cornrows and a referee shirt chased after the clumsy children falling left and right at his feet; at other times he moved femininely round and round in circles, skating aimlessly in a daze for a while before he had to refocus his attention on the kids.
The rink was thick with must and humidity and lit loudly in red, yellow, and orange; its walls were adorned with elaborate paintings of a blue sky, large, hovering willow trees, red rocketships, and a hand-painted map of Brooklyn. Troy has worked at the Empire for four years. “I don’t see any tension between the races here in Crown Heights,” he said plainly. “The only tension I see is between the police and the people.” I couldn’t believe my ears—was Troy oblivious to how a dispute between a black man and a Jewish man sparked violent riots in 1991? Was it time for me to educate Troy on how these riots made Crown Heights notorious for crime? “Empire is a great place,” Troy argued, looking around for his boss and hoping not to be caught talking to me. “The police just need to treat the people better.”
A few minutes into the conversation, Troy revealed that he wasn’t even a resident of Crown Heights anymore—he now lives in Jamaica, Queens. Could this be why Troy had never experienced any ethnic tension between the people? Or was it Empire’s influence on his perspective? Troy may have been wrong about the lack of ethnic tension in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t lying when he said that Empire Roller Rink is a great place to be: The only feuds I had seen since I had arrived at Empire were the never-ending gender fights between the kids. Any ethnic or religious conflict had been left with the humidity at the door. As I exited through the entrance, I breathed in the fresh air of the neighborhood, realizing it was not stiff with a sickening reminder of what had once occurred there. With my notebook clutched tightly to my chest for dear life and my pen in my hand, I left Empire Roller Rink with a smile on my face and a headache.
Tale of Two Hoods
by Tamara Leacock
It felt like I had entered a new country, or a new world. Prewar houses were the backdrop for synagogues and coco-water stands, and the calypso blasting and the billowing curry spices modeled the musky air of distant homelands. This was the first time I felt at home in New York, the first time where I felt like I had a community to connect with, the first time I felt the ties to my West Indian background, more than I had ever felt in Harlem, where I live now. At one time, Harlem seemed to have an ambiance of success. In the same way West Indians carved out their culture in Crown Heights, Black Americans carved out their place in Harlem with self-owned businesses and homes. But the Renaissance and cultural nationalism in America really didn’t last. Today, 125th Street is a carbon copy of Times Square’s monopolized sidewalks, with only hints of the Renaissance’s former glory. Tourists stamp down the border of Harlem into the Upper West Side at the sound of Donald’s Trump.
Crown Heights still feels like a neighborhood, while Harlem feels like a neighborhood in the process of being made into an extension of the trendy downtown urban-socialite scene, as blacks emigrate out into New Jersey and back to the South.
Crown Heights and Harlem can’t be so simply compared, of course. Not all residents of Crown Heights are entrepreneurs, and not everyone in Harlem lacks the drive for success; being a Harlemite myself, such generalizations couldn’t be farther from the truth. But Crown Heights allowed me to see the strength of people maintaining their values through the heat of American commercialism.
by Stephanie Pottinger
The air is light for Brooklyn. Calypso blasts from the stereo of an old man’s shop, and a guy selling mangoes right outside has a gentle smile and a relaxed laugh that outshines the traces of black/Jewish conflict. There is no overt tension here, but amidst the calm there is a very apparent separation. A gold-toothed Jamaican man hiding from the rain inside a shop on Nostrand Avenue has the same broad nose and black skin as the pack of American boys standing outside 290 Empire Boulevard. But in their minds and in reality, they are two different peoples leading two different sets of lives.
“We [Caribbean immigrants] like to work and fight [for success],” says Joe, the Jamaican with the gold tooth. “And I come along and see people who don’t want to own a home because they don’t want to pay gas prices. Some Americans similarly look at the immigrants with disgust. They’re scabs, coconut-heads, coming to this country and outshining the rest of us,” Joe continues, and the calm, content front of Crown Heights is shaken away. Beneath his easy yardman grin, there is anger and there is hurt. “We are not coconut-heads. We are not dumb. We are as black as them,” he says, before maniacally rattling off names of cousins, children, and friends who have made it—graduating at the tops of their classes, working as chemists for the government. “We discriminate against ourselves, and that’s a no-no.”
What happens in Crown Heights reminds me of the Battle Royal in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where blindfolded black men fight each other in hopes of winning some minuscule prize while in reality they are only entertaining white spectators. The divisions in Crown Heights—the anger, the hurt, the fight to seem bigger than everybody else—blinds its residents against each other, so that (in Ellison’s words) “no group fights together for long. Two, three, four, fight one, then turn to fight each other.”
Crown Heights sits calm and content like the old men scattered along the park benches, shamelessly bearing the signs of age through old flyers and countless signs missing letters—does that say “shoes” or “hoes”? Here, the men’s eyes are decorated by crow’s-feet and their mouths relax into smiles. Crown Heights is chillin’ with its flabby arms stretched out, its shirt unbuttoned, letting a few nappy white hairs peep through, its heavy head rolled back and its mouth gaping open.
About the Authors
KNOX ROBINSON is an editor-at-large at The Fader and a mentor at Youth Speaks.
Meghan McDermott is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.