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Six Thousand Miles And Nine Pairs Of Shoes Later: An Interview with Professor William Helmreich

William Helmreich

William Helmreich

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It’s a complicated question. Brownsville started out as a Jewish neighborhood. It was built up at the turn of the century when the Lower East Side became too crowded. Speculators came out and built housing, but these apartments were never built very well.

And then, in the 1950s, there was a tremendous migration of blacks from the Deep South, plus hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans came here. The city was overwhelmed. It couldn’t care for these people. They had lousy apartments, no jobs, few libraries, very poor schools, and ultimately, because of unemployment, families broke up and a lot of children grew up with one parent in the home. Crime developed as a natural outgrowth and Jews started running away.

How about other areas that have long had bad reputations – Crown Heights or Washington Heights for example – but which have been yuppifying and gentrifying in recent years?

It’s all part of crime reduction, ethnic outreach, ethnic understanding, and various other social and economic factors.

And you hit the right neighborhoods. When you talk about Crown Heights, it’s not just the traditionally Lubavitch side of Crown Heights, but the other side – the side north of Eastern Parkway – that’s gentrifying.

And Washington Heights… look what they did. A lot of this is about image. Washington Heights is now renamed Hudson Heights and gentrification is taking place not only above 181st Street but below it as well. When people have the opportunity to live in a neighborhood 20 minutes away from work in midtown Manhattan, they’re not going to turn that down. In fact, my understanding is that apartments in Washington Heights now cost more than apartments in Riverdale.

I believe the next area ripe for gentrification, by the way, is the Bronx, and you’re seeing the birth pangs right now in areas like the Grand Concourse below 161st Street.

Have you perceived any change in Orthodox Jews’ relations with other New Yorkers over the years?

There’s been a huge change. Let me give you a little example. I was riding through Brownsville recently and suddenly came across 150 motorcycles. Almost all the riders were black except for two chassidic guys. So I walked over to them and said, “What are you doing here?” They said, “What do you mean what are we doing here?” I said, “You know all these people?” And they said, “Yeh, some of them work for us. We do real estate; we live in Crown Heights.” I said, “You’re friendly with them?” and they said, “Yeh, they’re our friends, we’re just going out for a motorcycle ride.”

They had helmets, but they also had their tzitzis out, and I looked at them and thought: This is a new phase of New York. You know, I teach at City College and you see Orthodox kids, but they’re not hanging out as a group. When I came to City College 40 years ago, groups of students sat separately in the dining hall. Today they don’t. The Orthodox kids with yarmulkes are good friends with people who are not.

Thirty years ago, you wrote a book called The World of the Yeshiva. As part of your research you interviewed many of the famous roshei yeshiva of yesteryear, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and Rav Shneur Kotler. Many people would probably be fascinated to listen to those interviews. Do you still have the recordings?

At one time I thought I did, but it seems that all I have are the transcripts. It’s possible that Yeshiva University, to which I donated all the transcripts, has them. In fact, I received a letter two weeks ago from someone – a grandson of Rav Shneur Kotler – who read the interviews.

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About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.


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