I am nowhere in Brooklyn I would ever want to be. Behind me, the New Utrecht Avenue subway station looks like a remnant of human civilization from Planet of the Apes, or at least the 1920s. Its every aspect, from the peeling, probably poisonous paint to the adjacent yard full of trash, suggests a neighborhood not just neglected, but shunned.
There's nothing ahead but dilapidated industrial warehouses, their broken windows straight out of a textbook on urban disorder. Even the sun this Sunday afternoon seems to be shining absurdly, as if it too fears what might happen here when the light gets dim. That guardian sun is a comfort, my only comfort, as I trek deep into the whitest part of Brooklyn.
According to recent maps of census data, the heart of Borough Park—from 13th to 20th Avenues and roughly 45th to 55th Streets—is overwhelmingly white. Many census tracts report high numbers of white residents—96 percent, 97 percent—but rarely (if never) are there several such areas all together like this. There's even an area of nearly 10 square blocks that reported 100 percent white. One. Hundred. Percent. White.
What are these 60 square blocks like? There was only one way to find out.
To get to Borough Park from Anywhere Else takes considerable effort. I ride the N train deep into the intestinal puzzle of southern Brooklyn, and notice a demographic shift. First it's a train full of white and black and Asian and Hispanic people. Then just Hispanic people. Then just Asian.
But getting off at New Utrecht Avenue and walking north, the whiteness is plain to see. Women pause at streetcorners to chat, their slightly off-shaped sheitels somber and stiff atop their scalps. Men's black, floor-length frocks sweep along the sidewalk. There are tall black hats, curly payes, and strollers, strollers, strollers, as far as the eye can see. Borough Park is one of the largest, most autonomous and famously insular Hasidic communities in the world.
Oy. Even as a white Jewish girl in white Jewish community, I'm a stranger in a strange land. Passing residents on the sidewalk, I try my best to be invisible in plain sight, and they try their best to regard me as they would a human-shaped block of air. I wonder how long it would take for me to be noticed, pounced on, tarred and then feathered. But that might take too much time, waste too many Kosher chickens. Then I remember something else: just last week I had heard a friend's horror story about Hasidim in cars vs. hipsters in bike lanes. What about Hasidim in cars vs. lone hipster on the sidewalk? There's a possibility I could end up road-schnitzel. Silently, I curse my editor.
But the driver of nearly every car that passes has a beard and Bluetooth. They look professional. Probably harmless. So do the many houses I pass that have some kind of credential-declaring plate attached to them. Meyer Lazar, Certified Public Accountant. Cohens, Steins and Bergs. Adult Urology, Pediatric Medicine, and OB-GYN.
I walk into a deli to talk to the shopkeeper. He seems uncomfortable, and after a few questions about the neighborhood he stops making eye contact. I ask if he knows where I might find a realtor. He directs me up to 60th Street.
"Where on 60th?"
"60th, 60th," he says, massaging his beard. "You'll see it."
I walk up 60th, but don't see a realtor. I trip over an empty can of Four Loko. A car pulls up and its non-Hasid driver rolls down the window, making whistling noises in my direction.
"Hey baby," he says.
I make my way south, back to 16th Avenue, Borough Park's main thoroughfare, where there are synagogues every few blocks, Kosher bakeries, dress shops, music stores and yeshivas. And next to the Daily News boxes on the corners are Hamodia (a "Torah-true" paper founded 100 years ago in Eastern Europe). It has Sudoku and Torah trivia in the back pages. The community not only has its own newspaper but its own unarmed, NYPD-sanctioned safety patrol, the Shomrim. Borough Park even has its own volunteer ambulance team, the Hatzolah.
In the Nosh-A-Bagel on 58th Street, William Mandel, 29 and a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, tells me that Borough Park probably has the lowest crime rates in New York City. And also some of the most expensive housing. The neighborhood's been a Hasidic stronghold for the past 40 years, and before that, it was Italian. There are still a few Italians, Mandel says, and the Hasidim wish them no ill will.
"It just happens to be we stick together," he says.
Mandel deals with property rentals and is married, with two children. When I ask him how he'd feel if his kids moved out of the neighborhood, he shrugs his shoulders.
"Whatever makes them happy. There are plenty of Hasidic communities in Brooklyn," Mandel says.
"But what if they don't live in a Hasidic community?"
Mandel, still grinning, shakes his head.
"Whatever makes them happy," he repeats. "But right now they're small kids and I don't have to worry about that."
And for another few years, anyway, Borough Park doesn't have to worry about the world outside its borders.
It should also be noted that this story was assigned to Ms. Brownstone, who did the best she could with the assignment. Her thoughts are below.
This piece has been criticized, and rightly so. While I never intended anything malicious by it (the only person I thought I had poked fun at was myself), I realize now that the piece has been read as underreported, shallow, reactionary and, at worst, anti-Semitic. Sadly, that was the opposite of my intent. I had thought that being so hyperbolic about fear of the place would actually work against these ideas, that being so ridiculously paranoid about a family-oriented neighborhood like Borough Park would end up being funny, would point out the fault in that way of thinking. But it missed the irony mark. I apologize for any negativity this piece may have communicated instead.