The history of gentrification and white flight in Crown Heights has a surprising figure at its center: the Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
As the leader of one of the most influential Jewish groups in New York, Schneerson had an outsized influence on the politics and population of Crown Heights, which contains the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Schneerson’s role in shaping the racial makeup of Crown Heights, which now faces the imminent threat of gentrification, cannot be understated. After World War II, the passage of the GI bill and the construction of expressways to Long Island led to suburbanization and huge migration out of Crown Heights. But these benefits were not fully accessible to African-Americans, causing the population of Crown Heights to change drastically: it was 70% white in 1960, and it was 70% black by 1970.
But in 1969, as the racial dynamics of the neighborhood were changing, the rebbe spoke out against white flight on the final day of Passover. In a sicha, or conversation, the rebbe denounced claims that he supported such migration.
“Since various and strange rumors have been spread” about his support for migration, “I am compelled to express my opinion openly and clearly,” he said.
“Although it isn’t my way to deny rumors,” the rebbe added.
He then called “the wholesale emigration from Jewish neighborhoods” a “plague.” He proceeded to not only denounce this migration, but make a promise for those Jews who remained and the Jews that came to join them.
“All those who behave according to Shulchan Aruch [the code of Jewish law] and stay here, those returning here and those coming to settle in this neighborhood will be bestowed with blessings in the good and visible, concretely,” he stated.
The Jews remaining, the rebbe said, will positively influence fellow Jews in Williamsburg, Washington Heights, and Boro Park, and in cities all over the United States.
As white flight continued from Crown Heights, the Orthodox Jewish population remained strong, only increasing year after year.
Today, Crown Heights is again the harbinger of racial population change, but this time it is the white population that is swelling. From 2000 to 2010, Crown Heights lost close to 12% of its black population. With rents steadily increasing, and new inhabitants flooding in, both the Lubavitchers and black population find themselves threatened by the changing face of Crown Heights.