The Making of Satmar Williamsburg

In a new history of the Hasidic “fortress in Brooklyn,” a community’s struggle for the right to the city is not always waged in the common interest.

Samuel Stein

A city block in Hasidic Williamsburg.Alberto Paredes/Alamy

Discussed in this essay: A Fortress in Brooklyn, by Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper. Yale University Press, 2021. 408 pages.

THERE IS A LONGSTANDING ASSOCIATION between Jews and cities, including both positive connotations (Jews at home in the shtetl and the shuk) and negative stereotypes (Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” per the Stalinist slur). Jewish texts are full of treatises on the city and its discontents. The unique complications of urban religious life are even discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, which instructs us that for Jews, it is “difficult to live in big cities.” Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper’s fascinating new book, A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg, explains how one Haredi sect has tried to overcome those difficulties and make a home in a contested corner of the biggest city in the United States.

“Goyim can live wherever they want,” a Hasidic mortgage broker told Deutsch and Casper, perhaps referring to everyone besides Haredi Jews. “But we yidn [Jews] must live together in the same place. We cannot just move.” There are numerous demands to take into account when establishing a Haredi home base, some of which blend beautifully with urban norms but many of which are difficult to secure in a dense and diverse environment like New York City. Haredi life essentially requires mixed-use zoning and development, with housing, kosher shops, and community facilities—shuls, yeshivas, mikvas, and so on—concentrated together. Because they cannot drive or ride on Shabbos and many other holidays, the members of an observant community must live together in close proximity. But religious rules also make low-rise architecture preferable to high-rise living, which requires the provision of a rabbinically-approved Shabbos elevator that stops on every floor on holy days. Homes—even small apartments—need two sinks in the kitchen, two beds in the master bedroom, plenty of room for kids, cabinets to store four sets of dishes, and, ideally, outdoor space with an unobstructed view of the stars. Preexisting fruit trees cannot be removed to clear space for new construction.

A Fortress in Brooklyn shows how one such place was built. The book tells the story of how Hasidic Williamsburg came to be, and how it has survived the challenges that have beset the city more broadly, from the deindustrialization and fiscal crisis of the 1970s to the real estate boom and gentrification of the 1990s and onward. As Deutsch and Casper show in their survey of the period from roughly 1945 to 2020, Satmars in Williamsburg have maintained their foothold in the city in dramatically different ways at different times. In the 1960s and ’70s, they actively embraced their place in the mid-century welfare state and fought in particular for new public housing construction in the neighborhood. While they sought to occupy a significant portion of this housing—including, at times, large apartments on lower floors—their efforts to secure their place in the city propelled a mode of development that also produced decommodified housing for their largely Puerto Rican and African American neighbors. Later, from the 1990s onward, segments of Satmar Williamsburg entered the booming real estate business, a move that would polarize the community and threaten many of its members’ ability to keep living within the “fortress” of their neighborhood. To resolve this crisis, the Satmar Hasidim expanded geographically, reducing internal pressures but stoking anger over displacement among communities of color in the surrounding area.

A Fortress in Brooklyn highlights Hasidic agency in urban change. While those with only a passing knowledge of Hasidic life might look at the community’s most visible markers—the sheitels, the shtreimels, the commitment to religious orthodoxy—and mistake Satmar Hasidim for habitual preservationists or apolitical isolationists, Deutsch and Casper make the opposite case, persuasively presenting Hasidic New Yorkers as active and organized participants in the social production of urban space. The book shows what happens when a community seeks, and to a large degree achieves, spatially bounded self-determination in a city where it remains a tiny minority.

PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD now associate the word “Williamsburg” with the word “gentrification.” But in Williamsburg, as in most places that undergo this type of transformation, gentrification was the third phase in a long process during which money moved in and out of the neighborhood. In the first stage of such processes, investment, capital is channeled intensively into developing an area’s building stock; in the second, disinvestment, the area is systematically run down as capital seeks greater returns elsewhere (such as in newly developing suburbs). The crucial third stage, reinvestment, happens when investors determine that the prices newcomers will pay to live in the area justify the production of new housing geared toward wealthier residents, and take measures to displace existing ones.

Jews were in Williamsburg for all three of those phases over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Part of my own family, for instance, followed a familiar migration pattern, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge from the overcrowded Lower East Side early in the 20th century. The Satmar Hasidim—who now constitute one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world, and nearly the entire Haredi population of Williamsburg—came a bit later and established their base in the neighborhood just before disinvestment set in after World War II. Refugees and Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Romania, Satmar immigrants preferred Williamsburg over places like Crown Heights and Borough Park—two other Brooklyn neighborhoods with growing Hasidic populations—specifically because the area was more heimish: working class, industrial, rough around the edges. As Deutsch and Casper write, Satmar Hasidim were “profoundly opposed to the lukses (Yiddish, ‘luxury’) of bourgeois American culture,” which they saw as a distraction from spiritual fulfillment. They preferred to live in a place “separated from the material and cultural temptations of middle-class Jewish neighborhoods.”

Thus, while the famed Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Schneerson sought to build an “army” of shluchim, evangelists tasked with bringing non-Hasidic Jews into their fold, Satmar rebbe Joel Teitlebaum encouraged his followers to separate themselves not only from the non-Jewish world but also from all other Jews, whom they largely viewed as heretics. He aspired to build a stable base from which his community could thrive and grow. Invoking his aspirations for Williamsburg, Teitlebaum proclaimed, “I want a fortress to remain here.”

Yet as Deutsch and Casper show in the first half of their book, for the Satmar Hasidim, establishing a “fortress” did not mean cutting themselves off from the outside world. Perhaps most strikingly, it also did not mean following the rightward, anti-integrationist trajectory more typical of Brooklyn’s “white ethnics” in this period. By the 1960s, a period when Williamsburg was becoming poorer, many of the neighborhood’s non-Hasidic white residents—including other Jews—had left the area or moved out of the city altogether.

By working to ensure that Hasidim were included in public housing projects, and in the emerging Great Society infrastructure of community development organizations and anti-poverty boards, Satmar leaders and askunim—operatives and emissaries trained to negotiate with outside authorities—instead developed a political calculus that was in line with those of their Puerto Rican and African American neighbors, even as it also engendered conflict with those neighbors over resources. They intuited that the political tides of the country were changing such that Hasidim could carve out a space in urban America by embracing their status as a minority group, thus integrating without assimilating. While most Jews in the US were exiting the inner cities and embracing the ascriptive category of whiteness, Hasidim in Williamsburg were formally establishing their status as a poor and disadvantaged people and claiming space in public housing projects and on factory floors. Under conditions of redlining, blockbusting, deindustrialization, and planned shrinkage—what geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment”—Williamsburg’s Satmar community sought to participate in the welfare state rather than defame those who needed public relief. The result was not perfect harmony between Satmar Jews and their African American and Puerto Rican neighbors—the book contains a whole chapter on intergroup violence and communal defense—but rather a shared understanding that supporting federal anti-poverty programs like public housing, and mounting common campaigns against environmental threats like a proposed 15-story incinerator, would be mutually beneficial.

The second half of A Fortress in Brooklyn takes place in the period of reinvestment in Williamsburg that began in the 1990s. In that decade, Satmar commercial and residential landlords, developers, and brokers began navigating the new risks and opportunities presented by rising property values, rising rents, and rising demand among non-Hasids to live within the fortress’s invisible walls. Whereas Deutsch and Casper describe the earlier period as one of relative cohesion among Satmar Hasidim, they present the onset of gentrification as inaugurating a period in which the community was split along class lines into gentrifiers and gentrified, the causes and the casualties of neighborhood change. The result was a series of pitched battles, both among Satmar Jews and between Satmars and outsiders.

The stage for this scene was set in the decades prior. From the 1960s through the 1980s, during the period of disinvestment, factories that produced garments and other consumer goods became less profitable, and were in many cases sold to the local Hasidic petite bourgeoisie. These new owners kept the factories going for a while, employing large numbers of their coreligionists, among others, but when they eventually shuttered their workshops, they were left with large spaces that could be marketed to artists who were being priced out of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Williamsburg’s diamond merchants, another element of the Hasidic bourgeoisie, were also facing falling rates of profit and seeking to invest in alternative schemes. As in many other places around the same time, real estate provided these owners and investors with a new income stream.

By the 2000s, the Satmar community was split over how to understand and respond to these changes and opportunities. While working-class Satmar residents suffered punishingly high rent burdens, overcrowding, and displacement, the owner class and those seeking to join it—like others around the country during the pre-2008 real estate bubble—became active in the private real estate market. They formed community-based organizations that acted as negotiators and developers in rezoned areas, or set up shop as landlords, agents, builders, and brokers, mastering the strictures of city building codes along with the religious laws and customs by which Satmar households live.

As working-class Hasidim struggled to pay their rents, a vocal segment of the community’s leadership turned their ire toward the relatively privileged new arrivals—whom they referred to as “artistn,” a Yiddishization of the English word “artists”—and the Satmars profiting from their entry into the neighborhood. Satmar leaders viewed the artisn as not only morally bankrupt and economically detrimental but also as a dangerous influence on Hasidic youth who, their elders believed, might relate better to these mostly young, mostly white hipsters than to their longstanding working-class Puerto Rican and African American neighbors. Thus the leadership waged a self-proclaimed “War Against the Artists” on apocalyptic terms: The self-anointed HaVaad leHatsolos Vioyamsburg, or Committee to Save Williamsburg, papered the neighborhood with warnings, and solicited rabbinical support for a campaign to shame, shun, and boycott anyone who rented or sold to the artistn, or set rents or prices that only artistn could afford. The threatened social exile even extended to offenders’ children.

Ultimately, something had to give. With Williamsburg rents rising beyond what most Hasidim could afford, Satmar leaders saw various tough options before them. They could lobby for more low-income housing in the neighborhood—but they were faced with the realities of limited space, a lack of support from local, state, and federal governments, and a bevy of lawsuits from non-Hasidic groups challenging existing affordable housing developments that seemed to have been designed mostly for large Hasidic households. Alternatively, Satmars could pick up and leave Williamsburg altogether. Certainly plenty did, with the Hasidic village Kiryas Joel and other upstate havens absorbing a great deal of the Satmar population as city rents skyrocketed. But giving up the “fortress” altogether would have constituted a historic defeat.

Williamsburg’s Satmar leadership chose a third way out: They expanded the community southward into the largely African American neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill. Doing so required political maneuvering (securing variances, rezonings, and public development rights), economic investment (raising capital from individual investors and pre-selling condominium units), and a bit of opportunism mixed with a fair share of harassment (buying foreclosed properties and pressuring homeowners to sell). According to Deutsch and Casper, Hasidic developers presented themselves as heroic blight-busters, turning a low-income and partially industrial area into a nexus of new development and a fresh start for young families; African American residents and workers largely resented this characterization and feared the displacement that could come from a combination of foreclosures, buyouts, cultural alienation, and industrial closures. Each side accused the other of intolerance and discrimination.

Over time, Satmar Hasidim transformed the area into Nay Vilyamsburg (New Williamsburg). They built apartments and stores designed specifically for young Haredi families, including both units built for Satmar Section 8 voucher holders and more luxurious accommodations for higher-income religious families. When the neighborhood grew too expensive, the Satmars grew the neighborhood.

OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, as Williamsburg underwent severe gentrification, Satmar Hasidim rarely reached out to build coalitions with others facing similar threats of displacement; nor did many Brooklyn anti-gentrification organizations incorporate working-class Hasidim into their analyses of who was impacted by rising rents, let alone seek to organize Hasidim into their memberships. As Deutsch and Casper describe it, these populations were largely invisible to one another: The Satmars were too “intensely isolationist” to seek such coalitions, while the communities and organizations at the center of the larger anti-gentrification movement were unable or unwilling to differentiate Hasidic tenants from Hasidic landlords.

From my standpoint as a Jewish housing activist, this is perhaps the most exasperating element of the Satmar Williamsburg story—especially in light of how, in a previous era, Satmar leaders pushed for the public provision of housing for themselves and others. But perhaps it suggests something deeper about the way small-scale self-determination is sought and expressed under the condition of capitalist urbanity.

When a group of people attempts to transform an urban area according to their vision of the good life, they are—in the parlance of French social theorist Henri Lefebvre—exercising their “right to the city.” The expression has often been taken up as a battle cry by left-wing urban social movements around the world; in the constitutions and charters of cities and countries with leftist governments, it has been formalized as, essentially, the right to plan and not just to be planned for. Though it does not appear in A Fortress in Brooklyn, the phrase came to mind repeatedly as I read the book. For Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, Deutsch and Casper suggest, achieving this right has meant not only securing territory and gaining a degree of political autonomy, but also developing a set of spatially-bounded institutions. It has meant maintaining the degree of isolation Satmars believe is required to live a life of “True Torah” while also developing the savvy and political organization required to “change without changing,” as one interviewee puts it in the book. The result is a striking example of urban self-determination—but one whose resulting rules and attitudes are not entirely emancipatory from the perspective of a socialist Jew like me.

One of the key lessons of A Fortress in Brooklyn, then, is that the right to the city is never exercised without creating conflict. In the left-wing circles in which that slogan most commonly circulates, this conflict is usually imagined in heroic class-struggle terms: David versus Goliath, residents versus owners, the people versus the bourgeoisie. But the battle lines are not always drawn so laudably. Struggles for the right to the city can be isolationist instead of solidaristic. They can be fought between working-class groups instead of uniting the class against a common enemy. They can reinforce communitarian boundaries rather than broadening common bonds. They can work within local and national governing regimes rather than establishing radical alternatives.

What all of this tells us is that there may be no such thing as a universal right to the city, at least under today’s economic and political conditions. A Fortress in Brooklyn gives us an in-depth case study of how one often-misunderstood group struggled to secure a future for themselves in New York, and of the conflicts and contradictions that that effort engendered. From a left perspective, some of this story is inspiring and some is dispiriting. As I read, I wasn’t exactly cheering Rebbe Teitelbaum and his followers on at each step, but I was impressed by their ability to build and maintain their fortress amidst various tribulations. There is a great deal to learn from their ability not only to reshape the city, but to reshape themselves in order to withstand the way the city has changed.

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