The names, Empire Boulevard, President Street, Eastern Parkway, Montgomery Street, reflect an old vanished grandeur. The men in top hats and tails walking up the brownstone steps, slightly tipsy after a party, have given way to car alarms and broken glass.
Kingston Avenue is its major commercial street full of bakeries, restaurants, butcher stores, a fish store and children’s clothing shops. Intersecting it is President Street; full of dilapidated mansions from its past history when it was known as Millionaire’s Row.
Eastern Parkway is a corridor that stretches to Prospect Park; Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park complete with lake, swans and even a major museum. Along that corridor you can see elaborate townhouses, some with stairways stretching three stories, brownstones and massive old theaters.
These were the dwelling places and playhouses of an old wealthy Brooklyn elite that considered itself the equal of Manhattan. Its homes were as expensive and tasteful as anything around Central Park. But those homes are now in ghetto territory. There are still graceful old apartment buildings with grand old names with the U’s spelled out in V’s, but they are crumbling, the asphalt outside is cracked and bored gang bangers wander around outside.
Crown Heights is an example of what happens when the expected white flight doesn’t occur leaving a small white neighborhood in the middle of the hood. Even most of the Orthodox Jews fled when the outbreaks of violence began. But one Chassidic group decided to stick it out and they form a ghetto inside the ghetto.
Those streets inside the island were never particularly safe. There were occasional muggings and assaults, forays by huddled packs of teenagers swiftly passing through the area at night, throwing a few punches and then vanishing again.
Giuliani, elected in part because of the Crown Heights Pogrom perpetrated under Mayor Dinkins whose staffer Bill de Blasio will take Bloomberg’s place, helped bring some safety back to the area. Crime rates fell, but the underlying danger never went away. An entire generation of kids has grown up never having seen the old bad Dinkins era or carried a switchblade for the days when the night comes early and even a short walk from the bus stop can have a bloody end.
The Knockout Game existed in my time; but we didn’t have a name for it. It just was. It was something that could happen to you so you had to stay alert. Looking into store windows was an easy trick and adopting the right body posture for when a pack of teenagers was about to pass you came as second nature.
You learned that the attackers liked to strike at people who weren’t looking. There was some instinct in them that made them, even when they outnumbered their victims, want to catch their prey by surprise. It wasn’t as good for them if you looked them calmly in the eyes and did not flinch. It ruined their fun.
They didn’t attack because they hated. The attack was their idea of fun. They only hated when their victims ruined their fun. In their minds, attacking was legitimate, defending against the attack wasn’t. They didn’t resent their victims unless they fought back.
That was life in New York City. It’s about to be life in New York City again.
Today gang culture is online. The existence of World Star Hip Hop and smartphones has made the consequences more public. In the eighties, the Knockout Game wasn’t taped and the average teenage thug pack didn’t have access to portable video cameras or any way to share the recordings of their triumphs.
There’s no doubt that the economy has played its part; but the presence and absence of violence isn’t mere economics. When violence is culture; then it’s a cultural problem. Throw together large amounts of fatherless teenagers with no real goal in life except, briefly to become NBA stars or rappers boasting about selling rock, and the Knockout game is inevitable.
Some of the Knockouters will drift back and forth out of prison, heading back to the old neighborhood to hang out with the old gang, catch a meal and a nap at their mother’s house, before urging their friends to go out looking for trouble. Others will get steady jobs. Some will even marry the mothers of their children.
Catch them two decades down the road and they’ll talk about how they almost wound up going down a bad path before they turned their lives around and they’ll have stories of their friends who went from mugging to dealing to shooting. But often those same men, now amiable and wise, shaking their heads at their past selves, will have left behind a trail of fatherless kids who are repeating the process all over again.
That is the cycle that has to be broken. The neighborhoods around Crown Heights are full of West Indian immigrants who come with united families and give way to a next generation that is as broken as the neighborhood. The social institutions that they build do not hold up. The churches host the elderly and single women. The community centers are where the homeless go. The teen sports leagues occasionally connect a teenage boy with an older mentor; but there are too many fatherless boys and not nearly enough responsible black men to step in and take the place of all those who aren’t.
It’s not just race that divides the residents of Crown Heights. It’s family.
72 percent of black babies are born to unmarried mothers. Chassidic Jews and their black neighbors both share a high birth rate; but they are divided by marriage and family.
On the “right side” of Eastern Parkway there are Chassidic Jewish families; mothers and fathers with babies in strollers, schoolgirls in uniforms and boys in black jackets and crumpled hats. On the other side of the divide are women waiting for their men, their sons and lovers, to come home. They tell their daughters not to be with a boy who won’t marry them and they tell their sons to respect women.
And still the next generation repeats the same cycle..
Civilization is not instinctive. It doesn’t come packaged in our DNA. It doesn’t even come from schools or books. It has to come from the defining human institution; the family.
Where there is no family, men and women wear the coat of civilization loosely and cast it aside easily. They treat violence and sexuality with the casualness that those outside civilization do. It is the family that civilizes violence and sexuality by endowing it with civilizational meaning. Without it, all that’s left are dark streets, single mothers, male wolf packs and Knockout games.
Don’t miss Jamie Glazov‘s video interview with Colin Flaherty about “White Girl Bleed A Lot”:
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