The Secrets of Jewish Brownsville
In the past five or six years, William Helmreich has walked a total of 6,048 miles in New York City, covering every block of the city landscape, at an average of 30 miles per week. It wasn’t just for kicks, it was also for research. The longtime sociology professor at the City University of New York insists that to fully know a neighborhood, he must traverse it on foot and at various times of the day.
Helmreich is the author of the best-selling book “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City” (Princeton University Press, 2013) in which he explores every last corner and crevice of the vast city, and he is currently working on a sequel about Brooklyn. So when the 69-year-old initially offered me a free walking tour of New York City, I jumped at the chance. After all, as a resident of New Jersey I don’t visit the city as frequently as I’d like. Helmreich’s choice was not your usual sightseeing destination. He took me along to explore Brownsville, a neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn bordering Crown Heights and Bushwick. It’s known as one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, with nearly 40% of the residents living below the poverty line. According to a 2014 report, Brownsville’s 73rd police precinct logged more shooting victims that year than any other in the city.
What fewer people know is that Brownsville has a vibrant Jewish history: When Manhattan’s Lower East Side became too crowded in the early 20th century, Jews moved to Brownsville, which was then considered suburban. They were followed by a large migration from the Deep South and Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The city, overwhelmed by the influx of immigrants, struggled to provide infrastructure. Unemployment and crime rates rose, and Jews began leaving the neighborhood in large numbers in the 1960s. They moved on to Canarsie, Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay. By 1970 there were almost no Jews left in the area, which now consists of a high concentration of housing projects, boarded-up buildings and bodegas.
“Look at that,” Helmreich said, stopping to admire a brightly colored mural on the side of a large building on Herzl Street. The painting depicts several African-American heroes, along with the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Underneath is a paraphrase inspired by Herzl’s famous quote — “If you will it, it is no dream.” The work was created in 2014 by a group of 20 teenagers as part of Project Groundswell, which works with at-risk youth through the creation of art on vandalized walls. Herzl’s quote apparently resonated with the teens, and they opted to incorporate it into their artwork.
For Helmreich, who grew up in an Orthodox family and now describes himself as being traditional and Zionist, walking the city is a continuation of an urban ritual he and his father, a Holocaust survivor, began when he was a child. The game, which they called “Last Stop,” required them to choose a subway line that runs from the station at 103rd Street near their Upper West Side apartment to the last stop on the line. Then the two eager voyagers would travel by foot to unearth the neighborhood’s mysteries.
That day, dressed in a short navy rain jacket, khakis and brown lace-up Rockports, Helmreich cut a striking figure with his large frame and thick tuft of white hair. “How ya doin’?” he waved cheerily to a grim-faced young man striding by in a hoodie. His efforts were rewarded with a curt nod.
“People think I’m a retired cop and they leave me alone,” he said, explaining why he can walk even at odd hours without getting harassed. “People avoid looking at me. They don’t want to get arrested. If someone makes eye contact with me, I say, ‘How you doing, buddy?’ That disarms them.”
Another trick of the trade Helmreich has acquired while walking is how to find the best bathroom: Supermarkets and auto repair shops have easily accessible bathrooms. Stores not as much, he warned. But if the closest oasis is an elegant restaurant, go in and inquire of the manager if the place does parties and for how many people. After you get the details, ask if you can use the bathroom.
A few blocks away from the Herzl mural, on Saratoga Avenue, Helmreich spied a storefront whose awning read “Hebrew Israelite Congregation.” A small white sign urged passers-by to “Guard the Sabbath and Keep It Holy.” Members of this black Hebrew congregation are practicing Jews who are supportive of Israel, Helmreich said, adding that their presence was a positive force in the neighborhood. “If a kid in Brownsville learns about Herzl and then walks by this storefront and sees this, it becomes ingrained on him that Jews are not alien,” he said. Helmreich gamely knocked on the door, hoping to meet the rabbi, but nobody answered.
The cars whizzed past us on busy Pitkin Avenue (where many Jews owned businesses through the 1940s) as we stopped at Zion Triangle, a small park with the Brownsville War Memorial, which commemorates World War I soldiers. Helmreich pointed out what distinguished it from most other war monuments across the nation. “Look at the names,” he said, reading them aloud. “Goodman, Shapiro, Moscowitz, Zimmerman…. They’re all Jewish. You don’t see that everywhere.” There were Stars of David etched into the stone monument.
“People who climbed the Himalayas or hiked in forests never realized you can traverse the city the same way,” Helmreich said. He pointed to beautiful, aging brownstones and stunning art-deco style banks and ornate churches. “New York is the world’s greatest outdoor museum.”
Deena Yellin is a New Jersey-based journalist whose work has appeared in Newsday, The New York Times and The Jerusalem Post.