In a borough perpetually teeming with new arrivals, denser housing is foreordained. The city’s borders have been drawn for centuries, forcing developers to build skyward as populations swell. For communities who for generations have called certain neighborhoods home, the taller buildings and greater densities brought on by development are not often agreeable.
But Borough Park, a neighborhood that sits just south of Green-Wood Cemetery, stands out as an anomaly. The area is home to a sizable and concentrated population of Hasidic Jews, whose arrival over the last several decades has transformed the character of the neighborhood. They’ve also not only welcomed but promoted development in Borough Park that's outpaced development in the city as a whole, an explosion of growth uniquely guided by and for the neighborhood’s own community.
Strolling down Thirteenth Avenue on a Friday afternoon, one can observe a feverish flurry of shopping as families stock up on supplies for the weekly Sabbath dinner. It makes one feel as though caught in a gratuitous local news feature shot from an overcrowded shopping mall the day before a looming nor’easter. While the energy is palpable, it’s easy to confuse the buildings with those in other areas of Brooklyn, lined with awnings and shops adorning the fronts of three-story rowhouses.
The buildings on this commercial strip may appear indistinguishable, but it is hard to miss the monochromatic formal wear worn by Borough Park’s men. While, there is a wide variety of sects in the neighborhood, the men unvaryingly sport black felt homburg hats and black suits with unbuttoned white shirts. This style of dress — like many of the shops found on Thirteenth Avenue — has not found mass appreciation elsewhere since the 1930s. There are multiple shops specializing in shtreimels, fur hats worn during the Sabbath, traditional garb worn by the ancestors of many of the Hasidim living today in Brooklyn. Many governments in Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century forced Jewish residents to wear foxtails on their backs as a form of ridicule on the Sabbath. This practice was later turned into a symbol of pride by Jewish royalty, a symbol which lives on in Borough Park. Looking to fit in? Try either Kraus Shtreimel on Sixteenth Avenue or Leibovitz Shtreimel on 42nd Street.
Around the corner from Leibovitz’s is Etty’s Wigs, whose sloped green awning boasts the motto “The Finest in European Hair.” The window display contains multiple busts of featureless mannequins that seem to float in the air, covered to the neckline in drab cloth. Etty’s is one of Borough Park’s many wig shops catering to a Hasidic rule that only a woman’s husband be allowed to see her real hair.
Two doors down, Silver Town’s shelves are lined with ornamental platters, cups, and dishes freshly polished and gleaming underneath the store’s unyielding lights. It gives the visitor the sensation of entering an ornate hall of mirrors. These sterling implements occupy a special role in Hasidic culture, traditionally given as wedding presents and used in ceremonies such as Sabbath dinner and Passover seders.
The customs of the Borough Park community sometimes appear quaint, and occasionally controversial. One such is the traditional Orthodox ceremony kapparot, which precedes Yom Kippur, the annual day of atonement observed by most Jews, even the less observant. Nearby resident Jonathan Shtaynberger explains the ceremony, which consists of swinging a live chicken over the head to transfer all the sins of the year to the animal, which is later slaughtered, cleaned, and donated to charity. “I remember going a few years and seeing the crowd of men swinging the chickens across from an angry sea of animal rights’ activists, all yelling,” he says. “It was crazy.” The ceremony was suspended last year when over 2,000 chickens died after being stored in transport crates during extreme heat, drawing further ire from the activists.
Traveling through the neighborhood feels like stepping into another time, especially on a Saturday, when all of these stores are shuttered, the streets are devoid of cars, and the sidewalks are cluttered with empty-handed passersby (it is forbidden to carry parcels on the Sabbath). Borough Park is one of the few places where one can feel self-conscious for not wearing a hat. The felt hat, along with the modest style of dress (for women a full-length dress — pants are forbidden), speaks the strict obedience of religious law. Equally apparent is a language divide: Yiddish is the first language for many residents, and the sides of buildings and school buses are inscribed with Hebrew letters. Many lifelong residents of Borough Park speak English with a thick accent.
Borough Park was settled at the end of the 19th century. For years, it was a sparse landscape dotted with small cottages served by a single steam railroad track. The complexion of the neighborhood changed following the completion of the New Utrecht Avenue train line (today’s D train) after World War I, which brought increasing numbers of residents. After the construction of the first synagogue in 1906, Jewish families settled in the area alongside Italian and Irish families. After World War II, many European Jews moved to Borough Park, mingling with the existing Orthodox population to form a core of Yiddish-speaking culture at the center of the neighborhood. In contrast with the makeup of the other Hasidic stronghold in Brooklyn — South Williamsburg, dominated by the sect known as Satmar — Borough Park became home to many different Hasidic sects, including Ger, Bobov, and Belz. These Hasidic Jews soon became the predominant group in the neighborhood, and their numbers began to swell.
Deborah Sontag of the New York Times describes the proliferation of Hasidim in Brooklyn: “[Hasidic Jews] multiplied with a desire not only to follow the biblical commandment to be fruitful but to replenish the post-Holocaust Jewish population. (Birth control is frowned on.) The Holocaust survivors' children are baby boomers with a fecund vengeance.” This attitude has persisted until today: a fertility study conducted by city planning experts in 1995 found that the birth rate in Borough Park was double that of the rest of the city. Today, Maimonides Medical Center, the primary hospital serving the neighborhood, boasts the highest number of births in the state (almost 8,000 in 2009), with the average family bearing between seven and nine children. This concentration of children is readily felt in the streets, where it is difficult to avoid tripping over an abandoned tricycle.
Outside of Hello Baby! clothing store on Thirteenth Avenue, sets of matching gender-neutral striped children’s tops flutter idly in the breeze. It only adds to the sense of uniformity that one feels along this street. One of the most striking characteristics of the neighborhood is the distinct sense of the community’s insularity, which extends far beyond a prohibitive code of ethics and style of dress. The blocks extending roughly south of Green-Wood Cemetery from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Sixteenth Avenue are served by the community’s own security force (Shomrim) and ambulance corps (Hatzolah), both of which exist solely for the needs of the Hasidim. The self-stated claims of these organizations is that they are better equipped to serve the needs of an Orthodox population, especially incidents involving “bias crimes.” The Shomrim have tried to deal with incidents involving the Hasidic community on their own, sometimes to the detriment of city law enforcement. In 2009, for example, the Shomrim withheld significant video evidence later found and used in the prosecution of a man accused of abducting and murdering a young boy. The group attempted to handle the investigation exclusively before the NYPD stepped in.
The Hatzolah Ambulance corps also prides itself on being uniquely equipped to respond to the emergencies of the neighborhood. According to Joseph Berger, the author of an upcoming book about Hasidic Jews in America, “many neighborhood residents will call Hatzolah in times of emergency before 911, because they know they will arrive more quickly.” It is one of the many ways in which the community supports itself amid population growth: by developing its own civic and cultural supports, which therefore don’t rely on overtaxed public systems.
The housing needs of Borough Park’s Hasidic community are unique, too, and the neighborhood’s insularity exists in large part by design. Many of the houses have characteristic caged square balconies, arranged in a cascading diagonal across the faces of the buildings. These balconies serve as the bases for sukkahs, ceremonial booths traditionally constructed during the harvest holiday of Sukkot, which can hold up to 25 people at a time. Houses must also be within walking distance of one of the 60 local synagogues because Jewish law prohibits driving on the Sabbath. This inherent reason for housing proximity to synagogues has helped fuel the accelerated increase in density.
The neighborhood’s roomy zoning designation was another factor favoring development. In 1961, the Department of City Planning handed down its first revision of the zoning code since 1916, citing the need for modern allowances for development in a city that had grown at an astounding rate over 45 years. The new zoning designations were intended to preserve existing neighborhood character by assigning codes permitting “contextual” development while also allowing for future development. Such zoning designations would include larger construction than what was present at the time, so that the neighborhood’s buildings could grow with its population — a bit like buying an 8-year-old pants that are a few sizes too large.
The vast majority of Borough Park was zoned as R5 and primarily R6, meaning residential development is permitted with a maximum 2.43 floor-area ratio, or FAR. This ratio was devised as a metric to limit the bulk of new development. It measures the relationship between the area and height of the building. The higher the ratio, the more density permitted, since the structure has more bulk. A 2.43 FAR is characteristic of row houses ranging up to medium-size tenement-style apartment buildings. At the time of the zoning resolution’s passage, the majority of Borough Park was filled with row houses, along with detached single-family dwellings. The size disparity between the existing dwellings and what the new zoning designations allowed for development that could accommodate the group's growing power.
Brighton Beach was another neighborhood rezoned in 1961 as residential, R6. (Some parts of the neighborhood were also designated R7-1 to accommodate new towering apartment complexes overlooking the water.) The majority of housing in the area, however, consisted of small beach bungalows, leaving a significant gap in potential development. Many residents feared that under this zoning classification, the neighborhood would soon be overcome by “noncontextual” development, a somewhat subjective term used by City Planning to classify buildings out of character with a neighborhood. After construction began to accelerate in the late ’90s and 2000s, community board leaders began a push to force a downzoning that would constrain future development. This effort was led by City Council members Domenic Recchia and Mike Nelson, who wanted to preserve the small scale of the area. While some residents felt that the downzoning was necessary to salvage the original character of Brighton, the community board favored new developments that vastly favored the wealthy, who sought to erect luxury condominiums that would tower over the neighborhood.
Nelson offered a compromise that would only allow developers to extend properties laterally to occupy front and rear lawn space. Allowing construction in the spaces between houses was a move that sought to balance commercial development interests with Brighton’s quaint origins. It also increased the neighborhood’s density.
This strategy, dubbed the Nelson plan, had its roots in the development patterns of Borough Park during the same period, compromising yardage and airflow in exchange for more dwelling space for families. The plan was not well received by City Planning, who saw with it a stark decrease in light and airflow, as well as making fire department access more difficult. (The area had suffered from a rash of devastating fires in 2007 and 2008.) Many in the community sided with City Planning on this matter. After several divided community board meetings, Amanda Burden, the director of planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, issued a statement: “It has become apparent that there is no appropriate zoning solution that can reconcile the diverse concerns of multiple stakeholders while preserving sound planning principles of light, air, health, and fire safety.” While concerns about safety were cited as the root cause for the collapse of downzoning, it was really the disparate intentions of the community that failed to stop the continued escalation of development.
Brighton Beach’s story is not unique in the last decade, as many other neighborhoods have sought to force downzonings. A report released in 2010 by N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy analyzed zoning changes from 2003 to 2007, when 18 percent of lots in New York City were rezoned. Despite the commonly held view that Mayor Michael Bloomberg doggedly pushed for new development, the majority of zoning changes were actually downzonings: 23 percent of the rezoned lots were downzoned, while only 14 percent were upzoned.
In a press release during the controversy in Borough Park, Burden defended the city’s zoning changes as “color-blind.” But the Furman Center report consistently found that downzoning efforts often occurred in predominantly higher-income white census tracts, while upzoning and loosening of restrictions tended to occur in poorer neighborhoods with higher black and Latino populations. Many of the zoning restrictions were concerned with the “preservation of neighborhood character,” according to the report.
In an interview in this magazine, Stephen Smith, a housing policy writer for Next City, explained typical community attitudes toward zoning: “The number one rule of New York City development is, you never upzone residential neighborhoods.” It would be hard to say that Borough Park ran afoul of this maxim over the past 20 years, despite developing at a quicker rate than any other neighborhood in the city. Smith says that the Hasidim have long been pro-development. In fact, Hasids in other Orthodox enclaves such as South Williamsburg and the Broadway Triangle have won upzoning designations by consolidating political will to put pressure on City Planning. With concern for the needs of the community above all else, and no need to upzone given its roomy R6 designation, Borough Park became one of the few predominantly white areas that did not push for downzoning under Bloomberg.
Why should we care about Borough Park? Can we learn anything from a neighborhood so radically different in many ways from the rest of the city? New York has struggled consistently to provide affordable, market-rate housing to quell the negative effects of gentrification. If more development happened in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, then more affluent people looking for housing wouldn’t need to reach farther and farther into the outer boroughs, moving into older buildings and displacing poorer communities living there.
According to a study conducted in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation that looked at housing costs and building age across a number of cities, there are two possible trends associated with the evolution of housing. One is gentrification; the other, more ideal outcome is called filtering.
Gentrification begins when higher-income residents, fleeing escalating prices elsewhere, move into older housing stock in underdeveloped neighborhoods, displacing those already living in the area. The filtering model, on the other hand, represents a possible best-case scenario for lower-income residents in a city where demand is voracious. The theory posits that as income levels rise for the wealthy, demand increases for new, higher-quality construction. Every gentrifier who moves into a condo is leaving something less shiny behind. Rents in these sectors fall over time, as housing stock ages.
This sounds good in theory, but much of the demographic upheaval in Brooklyn neighborhoods is due to push factors — rising prices elsewhere and a shortage of supply. Because there is such high demand in Brooklyn for housing and comparatively little development, renovating older buildings is profitable for landlords, who can thereby raise rents and force out their longstanding residents. This pattern of development prevents the natural process of filtering, as the older buildings are not allowed to “filter” downward to residents at lower income levels.
If Borough Park demonstrates anything, it is how to keep market-rate prices low. Much of the development in the neighborhood has created property values far below Brooklyn’s averages. While prices in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens average well above $850 per square foot, Borough Park space is cheap, roughly $200 to $300 per square foot. It is not even characteristic of southern Brooklyn. Nearby Sunset Park is more expensive on average — lots there typically sell in the $600-$700 range. While it is logical that as supply increases prices would inversely change, the disparity in cost is remarkable. What makes Borough Park unique? It also raises the question: in a community so insular, are these prices available to all, or have the properties that were sold to Hasidic families over the past decade cost so little precisely because they never left the community?
According to Joseph Berger, there is nothing more highly valued in Borough Park than community and preserving the character of that community, which, in practice, means preserving the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood. Berger explains that “the prices of property you are seeing in Borough Park are deceptive, as they are not meant for the greater public. The owners of these buildings will go out of their way to find Hasidic tenants and Hasidic buyers.” The owners are incentivizing the preservation of community by offering tenants like them, i.e., other Hasidim, lower prices; the affordability of its housing is contingent on its insularity.
It is not merely the buying and renting process that remains between the residents of Borough Park — all the players in a typical real estate exchange are of the community, including the real estate agency, developer, and construction company. The circle of supply and demand starts and finishes in Borough Park. It is difficult to say whether this model for sustainable growth and affordable development could be adopted elsewhere in Brooklyn. Nowhere else in Brooklyn (aside from the Jewish enclaves to the north in South Williamsburg and Crown Heights) does this fervently pro-development attitude exist alongside a singular desire to expand, to be fruitful and multiply, to push houses to the limits of their zoning designation. (The question of whether this level of growth is sustainable is best saved for a separate article.)
It would be imprudent to argue that a denser neighborhood necessarily correlates with a higher poverty rate, but the uncharacteristically dense Borough Park does trend toward higher levels of poverty. According to Rena Resnick from the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, “the poverty rate for New York City’s general population is 30.8 percent versus 26.9 percent of the Jewish population. In Borough Park, the poverty rate is closer to 44 percent, making up 13,600 households.” The Met Council works with the Borough Park Jewish Community Council to help enroll families and the elderly in public assistance programs like SNAP and Medicaid and to provide job and career counseling. Many of the area’s synagogues also contribute to serving the needs of the area’s poor.
Berger ties this economic state to the high birth rate. Almost half of Borough Park’s population is under 17, but despite the high fertility — and perhaps because of it — 68 percent of Borough Park households have incomes below $50,000, with 44 percent falling beneath the federal threshold for “poor families.” While these federal and city standards paint a rather grim picture, the portrait omits the possibility that so-called poverty might be a choice. It is considered pious to live a simple life and devote oneself to the study of Judaism rather than the pursuit of money and material goods.
Although many Hasidic men hold secular jobs in Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn, some of the neighborhood’s other (male) residents dedicate their time to the study of the Talmud and Torah, Jewish holy texts. Borough Park’s adult yeshivas, or kollels, support those who choose this studious path with modest weekly stipends, ranging from $100 upwards for the more advanced. This stream of support is subsidized by those who work the secular jobs, as it is believed that even by supporting the study of others they will be rewarded by God. It is one more way that the community preserves itself, as its residents support each other in the pursuit of serving God. The level of commitment to the old ways and the joys of their observation are palpable in the air of Borough Park.
Far more common than wig or silver shops along the avenues of Borough Park are bakeries, whose walls are lined with an unimaginable variety of challah, both sweet and savory, with or without raisins, seeded and unseeded, as well as babka, cookies, and a wide swath of other pastries. The bakeries makes no pretense of modesty, as the counter-person will eagerly exhort the virtues of their loaves over those of the seemingly identical bakery a few doors down.
Stepping inside one of these bakeries recently, I was greeted with an intoxicating aroma from the oven, and it was in here that, for the first time in this neighborhood, I felt included, as if there were finally something that I, an unpious one, could share with the locals. As a stout older woman waited behind me in the queue at Korn’s Bakery, studying my nervous indecision as I pondered my loaf of challah, she exclaimed in astonishment: “How can you not decide what you want? There is so much to choose from! Everything is so delicious!”