The Crown Heights Riots at 25: Looking Back to Look Ahead

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How a neighborhood learns from its violent history to tackle present-day issues

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Mitchell Pendleton ducked bottles and dodged rocks heaved in his direction. Standing well over six feet tall, he had walked into the line of fire, on Utica Avenue and St. John’s Place in Crown Heights. It was August 19, 1991. His only defense was a video camera.

The freelance videographer knelt to find the safe camera angle. Darkness arrived and violent scenes, the result of racial tension in Crown Heights, had boiled over following Gavin Cato’s tragic death. The neighborhood rioted for three days after a Hasidic Jewish driver’s Mercury Grand Marquis struck and killed the seven-year-old Caribbean child. A black teen retaliated in the wake of Cato’s accident, stabbing Yankel Rosenbaum to death within hours.

Pendleton predicted the social explosion. He never imagined filming it. “I’m going to go in here and what?,” Pendleton remembers saying to himself at the time. “You’re by your God damn self.’” Police officers ordered Pendleton to stash his video camera. Several members of the black community demanded that he continue recording. He had a wife and son at home to support. And the black freelancer arrived on the scene equipped to document a community divided. The tape rolled on.

He was 36 at the time (now 61). He clearly remembers entering the storm of rocks, threats, and racial slurs to interview both blacks and Jews. The black community had become enraged by the idea that medical authorities had provided preferential treatment to the driver over Cato. Feeling under attack, the Jewish community aimed its actions at protection, according to Pendleton. Crown Heights split in two.

Pendleton’s rare footage replayed during national newscasts—one of America’s first and few looks into the civil unrest, termed a quarter of a century later as the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

“That’s some exclusive shit,” Pendleton said. “How many times do you get something like that? And 25 years later, we’re still talking about it?”

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Last Sunday, a memorial event outside the Jewish Children’s Museum commemorated the 25th anniversary of three of Crown Heights’ darkest days. Community activists, leaders, and elected officials shuffled to the podium in front of hundreds. All who spoke echoed the importance of continuing to build one community—“One Crown Heights.” Cato’s father declined to address the crowd but led a touching candlelight memorial and marched with the leaders to Brower Park for a family festival.

At the park, four blocks down, Pendleton unloaded his backpack. He crossed his legs and eased back against a bench, surveying the family atmosphere underneath the brim of his baseball cap. A jazz band set the mood. Face paint covered kids, who ran out their energy with animal balloons in hand. Community leaders paced the park talking to neighborhood residents. Pendleton peered through his aviator sunglasses. The neighborhood’s issues from 25 years ago sat in his rear view.

Ahead, new issues: “Now’s there’s more of a gentrification issue going on that kind of pisses everybody off because in that gentrification process, now you can’t get a place to rent,” Pendleton said.

Due to rampant rising rent costs, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed an affordable housing plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing throughout the city’s five boroughs over the next 10 years. But longtime residents don’t have time to wait. Their challenge is twofold: decreased inventory of affordable housing and the migration of wealthier renters.

Data suggests that black residents bear the brunt of higher rent costs. From 2000-2014, the black residents in Crown Heights fell from 78 percent to 65 percent, according to the Furman Center’s research. In contrast, the white residents in Crown Heights rose from 7 percent to 18 percent (the Asian and Hispanic residents both rose 1 percent—to 3 percent and 11 percent, respectively). Over the past year, the neighborhood’s rental price increased 18.42 percent overall, ranking second only behind Prospect Lefferts Gardens (23.39 percent), according to MNS. As a result, July’s average rental price of a studio in Crown Heights hit $2,072, up from $1,500 the same time last year.

“The rents are so high, where are you going?,” Pendleton said.

**

As buyers feast on Crown Heights’ prime real estate, Philmore Sprott has called the same apartment home since 1987. He totes a grocery bag down Kingston Ave., bordering Brower Park, where Pendleton sat. His head turns toward the aroma of taco seasonings coming from food trucks parked outside the family festival. The first night of the riots, Sprott remembered smelling something else on his way home—fear. It was a Monday night. “A lot of violence,” he said. “Very tense.

“I was in the middle of it,” said Sprott, who was 33 at the time. “It was very chaotic. Police were in the streets. I actually thought they were going to call National Guard.”

Instead, Deputy Chief Chuck Scholl, an officer in the NYPD at the time, was called in to control the chaos. He arrived that August night to see people acting in anger without considering the repercussions. “There were a lot of followers and not enough leaders,” Scholl said, standing in front of the dais, moments before Sunday’s memorial. He heard the racial slurs and witnessed the destruction.

“It was heartbreaking,” Scholl recalled. “There’s been a lot of healing over the years. And I don’t think we will ever see anything like that again.”

From a perspective of twenty-five years later, Sprott said, the riots had some positive impact on the neighborhood, though new issues have replaced old ones, including the perceived difference in policing between blacks and Jews. In 2014, the NYPD reported that blacks in Crown Heights accounted for 54.6 percent of people detained in the Stop Question and Frisk category of police actions, while their white counterparts accounted for 12.2 percent of stops. Back in 1991, Sprott remembers police ticketing blacks for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk—a common occurrence in both the past and present.

“Even now, the same kind of scrutiny we get, they don’t,” Sprott said. “But I’ve seen a distinct improvement. You go out to the Jewish stores, and they don’t care if you’re black or white—if you have the money to spend, you spend it. Underlying that, there’s still racism manifesting itself in different ways. But not as pronounced as it was in 1991.”

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At the anniversary ceremony, community leaders and elected officials applauded residents for peacefully coexisting—and emphasized that there’s still work to do. “Like anyone who starts a new habit or new diet, it’s not just enough to start it, but then how do you maintain it?,” Community Board Vice Chair Shalawn Langhorne said.

Project CARE is one of the ways Crown Heights maintains an open discourse between communities. Created in 1996, the program formed out of the Crown Heights Coalition, which Howard Golden, then the Brooklyn borough president, constructed to begin to fix the broken community in the days following the riots. CARE sponsored initiatives to improve police-community relations and cultural understanding.  It  spearheaded an effort to bring together leaders from diverse communities to address common issues, spanning from health care to housing and education. And in 2016, Project CARE helped organize the 25th anniversary commemoration.

“In the past when there has been tension, we’ve helped organize conference calls so all leaders can be on the phone and address the issues immediately instead of there being a rumor mill,” said Rabbi Bob Kaplan, director of the Center for Community Leadership at the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Then leaders go back to the communities and speak to the communities, defunct the rumors and work to come to a resolution.”

Over the next year, Project Care will open another communication channel in the neighborhood between older, longtime residents and new ones. Sprott, acknowledging the disconnect, said the demographics of his apartment building have transitioned from predominantly black to “about half young Jewish families.” He welcomes the new neighbors.

But Kaplan fully understands not everyone shares the same sentiments. “What we are going to address moving forward is how do we bring together the new part of Brooklyn, the gentrified part of the community with the older community that has been there for decades and start dialogue inter-generationally,“ Kaplan said.

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Back on the bench at Brower Park, Pendleton unzips his backpack to reach inside. A piano book emerges from the opening. Lodged between sheet music, newspaper front pages and clippings detail the events of the 1991 riots. A New York Daily News headline reads, “STREETS OF RAGE,” while the New York Post splattered “DAY OF HATE” across its header. A photo in one of the tabloids stops Pendleton mid-sentence, bringing him to the bench’s edge. The jazz band fills his silence before he re-enters the cadence.

“The photographer slipped in and she was right there in front of me,” Pendleton said, pointing to a photo of a man attempting to escape a mob of people. “I recorded the entire sequence.”

Pendleton leans back again. At his feet, rocks lay in its proper place. He grabs a water bottle and takes a sip. The former freelancer is back on the scene, prepared to document the 25-year sequel to the Crown Heights riots.

“That’s a loaded question,” Pendleton said when asked about the magnitude of his role in August of 1991. “How in the world do you answer that?”

In front of him, people of all shades from all backgrounds form a community. On this warm Sunday, at least, it looks like One Crown Heights.

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