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10/28/08

Taking Over & Ask A Chasid

Open Letter to Danny Hoch

Taking Over electrified the Brooklyn audience it portrays, but it also perpetuated certain myths about gentrification and crime.

By Adam Klasfeld

Dear Mr. Hoch,

I’m writing you this letter because when I saw Taking Over, your new one-man show in which you portray residents of a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn community, at the Grand Street Campus Auditorium, I witnessed something amazing. You went into a community in crisis, told its residents their stories, reflected their concerns and gave hundreds of audience members a voice largely denied them by their city, politicians and local press.

By offering it for free, you made the show accessible for everyone, and the community responded. The ushers scrambled to find extra seats for the theatergoers filed around the block thinking they would be turned away, and they eventually managed to accommodate nearly everyone.

Inside the theater, I saw a community energized, educated and entertained by your portraits of people and situations that are increasingly familiar in North Brooklyn:

A family throws a going away party after getting priced out of their home. A taxi dispatcher sends out cars to drunken hipsters pouring out of the neighborhood’s new bars. A local easily steals $4 croissants from a café that opened up across her street because she was “invisible” to the other glamorous patrons. A desperate ex-convict tries to find work at the film shoot he never imagined would visit his block, and a naïve Midwestern street vendor does not know why local families chase her table away from their homes.

People were visibly moved, laughed often, and eagerly shared their own similar stories with the moderators of the post-show discussion, but your show doesn’t need any more laurels from me. It already has glowing reviews on both coasts and has gotten an Off-Broadway premiere for what I hope will be a successful run at the Public Theater.

That said, I had some important criticisms about the show, which I do admire.

First, I have a confession to make: I am not a native Brooklynite. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in a town called Fort Lee, and I moved to Williamsburg two years ago – long after gentrification became a fact of life in my adopted community. In fact, as a playwright, I am one of the artists that your show criticizes. I knew little about the neighborhood before moving, and I rented here because I had found a relatively cheap brownstone in artistic community close to Manhattan, public transportation, shops and restaurants.

I don’t know who lived in my apartment before I did, whether they chose to leave, were pressured out or simply couldn’t pay the bills. They could have been other twenty-somethings attracted to a trendy neighborhood or a third-generation immigrant family priced out farther away from Manhattan. I did not think of them before signing my lease, and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I don’t think about them much now.

Still, I was surprised that you told the area’s new residents to go “back home.” I understood that you were being partly tongue-in-cheek and were urging people to rebuild their own communities before moving to new ones. But the message offended one of my friends, and we were both disappointed that the show offered no solutions to gentrification other than our leaving.

Not only will you never be able to convince every new resident to move, the talk about who “belongs” in a neighborhood can be toxic. Case in point, the last time that I took a cab ride in my hometown of Fort Lee, the driver complained that Koreans had “taken over” the town, and it’s harder to find storefront signs printed in English. While the situations are obviously different, it’s a shame that the language that many progressives are using in this important discussion mirrors that of right-wing nativists.

However we got to Williamsburg, my friends and I live here now. Rather than telling us to leave, it would be more helpful to tell us to notice the problems and work to change them. That’s the essence of belonging. It’s why I freelance as a community journalist and have reported on issues related to gentrification that the mainstream media has largely ignored, such as its relationship with crime.

You bring these issues to life in the scene in which you recall an experience you had in a Whole Foods. A twenty-something with a Midwestern accent told you to move out of the way, and you remembered that he was standing in a spot where you saw someone murdered at gunpoint. That memory, you said, understandably seemed more “real” to you than the experience of standing in an organic supermarket with faces you did not recognize.

It was a moving anecdote, and I’m sure it reflected the experiences of many others. Still, if you think crime disappears when Whole Foods moves in, I suggest that you pay closer attention.

Although it is not nearly as bad as in the 80s, crime continues to thrive in Williamsburg even as developers scramble to build more condos. My roommate’s car was broken into twice, and last week, someone cut through one of my (two!) locks to steal a wheel from my bicycle. A few months ago, a neighbor in my building had his house burglarized, and the thief smashed through his window to steal a laptop and other electronics.

The New York Medical Examiner’s Office has gotten no closer to releasing information about the a badly decomposed corpse that was found this past summer at McCarren Park Pool, where it had been rotting beyond recognition for months unnoticed.

Williamsburg has a reputation for great parties, but Brooklyn Papers reported that a recent Halloween festivity ended with one partier getting two bullets in the face.

Meanwhile, the local press constantly talks about the rise in gang violence, but few in the media have noticed that gentrification actually has been fueling crime. Community activist Luis Garden Acosta recently put it well in the New York Times when he said, “From the perspective of a young person, this is a community that does not care for him or her… Out of that milieu, you have some young people who rebel.”

The idea that people have to choose between crime-ridden “authentic” neighborhoods and safe gentrified ones is a false dichotomy, and one that gives ammunition to developers that sell illusory security as increased market value.

In reality, cops flood gentrifying neighborhoods to make new residents feel safe – to no avail. In Williamsburg, this paper has reported that people of color have been disproportionately stopped and frisked as a result. Civil liberties get lost. Racist policies continue, and crime continues to rise.

Imagine what could be accomplished if the energy used to vent frustration against new residents could be channeled to protesting these kinds of wrongheaded policies, pressuring local politicians to pass reasonable laws to protect residents and building a saner and more humane approach to urban development.

Obviously, gentrification is a large and complicated issue, and no one show can speak to the entire experience of it. Taking Over already covers a remarkable range effectively, but that particular issue was glaring in its absence.

In any event, I wish you the best of luck with your run because your show is important. The anger that you give voice to is very real, and I have been encountering it everywhere in my work as a journalist. Gentrification is not a polite phenomenon, and I would not expect the response to be. Thankfully, art provides a healthy space for people to voice a wide range of emotions, not only those that society sanctions as safe.

Whatever our disagreements I wanted to thank you for introducing me to some of my forgotten neighbors.

Sincerely,
Adam Klasfeld

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By Henshi Gorodetsky

After nonchalantly leaving strategically-placed issues of Block Magazine on the tables outsideFabiane’s and perusing the barrage of e-mails, I have decided to respond to the most frequently asked questions regarding the enigmatic customs of the Chasidic Men in Black and the women who love them.

Following this summer’s scathing article in New York Magazine alleging the alienation of a child from her non-orthodox mother and comparing Chasidim to the Taliban, the need for a tolerant and forthright discourse, beyond the blogging, is essential.

Plus, you will have material for those awkward moments on Saturday morning. Think of this column as your personal “guide to the perplexed”.

Most of you are particularly fixated on the Chasidic fashion statement. Chris was curious about what was underneath the black coats. Some of you might have noticed, as did Chris, that quite a few men appear to be wearing hose. This is not a cross-dressing phenomenon, but rather the ultimate in layering. If you stand near the grating of the Marcy Avenue station and watch a Chasid with his coat flapping in the wind a la Marilyn Monroe, you can see the little Lord Fauntleroy knickers worn over black or white tights. Add some funky shoes or boots to the outfit and … fashionistas, I feel a trend coming on!

Ellis wondered what brand of curling iron is used on the “payes” I, myself, am still amazed at the perfect symmetry that has been achieved even before the Industrial Revolution. The secret is a paste made out of sugar and water to hold the curls in shape. This also provides a continuous snack for the kids and doubles as an ADD solution in the classroom. The kids rhythmically twirl and curl all the time.

So do lots of the adults who are kids at heart.

One of our most attractive qualities is a sweet, child-like naiveté—particularly among the women. These mistresses of multi-tasking and patience run homes more beautiful, resplendent and spotless than five-star hotels—and achieve all this with families the size of baseball teams. They are sweet and loving to the core and, “Yes, Virginia, they do wear wigs”.

Since the most prominent distinguishing mark of a Chasid is his garb, I would like to elaborate on why we have maintained these seemingly archaic Eastern-European customs into this very modern millennium. Surprisingly, you might find some kindred spirits at this opposite end of the spectrum of society.

The primary reason for maintaining “old world” Eastern-European dress began as a post-Holocaust fear of losing the religion and identity that many had sacrificed their lives for. When the Chasidim emigrated from Europe, they saw many Jews who had left their traditions and religious observance behind and were fully integrated into mainstream American society. They opted not to.

Even within Jewish Society, there was contempt and bias towards them. This further exacerbated the “persecution complex” that is part of the Jewish DNA and caused great rifts among the Jewish communities. However, the Chasidim hold fast in their beliefs that their distinct uniform is one of the primary links to their ancestry.

I believe that everyone in the ’Burg can relate to the non-conforming aspect coupled with the pervasive tormented artist syndrome. On a lighter note, what self-respecting Williamsburg drag queen would be caught dead without the Jessica Simpson hair extensions and wigs?

I apologize for not addressing all your questions in this column—I will try to personally respond to those that are not published here. I look forward to sharing more insights on Life Beneath the Beard. Thank you for your terrific response. Keep it coming!

Please send all questions to allears@blockmagazine.com.

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