Ever since moving to Brooklyn, I’ve biked through the Hasidic neighborhood in South Williamsburg and wondered about how it all came to be. You know you’re in the neighborhood by the dress, the Hebrew on the side of police cars and school buses, the hats. It’s a stark contrast from the surrounding areas.
I really wanted to understand this community just a bit better. Fortress in Brooklyn was a really great place to start.
This is the story of the founding of the neighborhood, about which beliefs and customs were brought over from Europe and which were created anew in Brooklyn. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive guide to the community, but where the authors do talk about the logic behind things like the community’s attitude toward money or the gender dynamics, they tell a great story.
I was surprised to enjoy a book that has chapters about gentrification and uses the term constantly. In my political circles, the term has been diluted to the point of uselessness and used to further a vibes-based aesthetic viewpoint that’s actively destructive for housing policy. As we say, displacement is a real measurable event with real causes and solutions, whereas gentrification is just vibes.
But, this book dodges all that. It uses the term but doesn’t rely on any existing meaning or moral valence: every time gentrification is discussed, the actual thing that’s happening - who’s moving in, what’s being built, who’s getting displaced - is immediately explained. Even better, it’s incredibly even-handed with different people’s identities over time: nobody is considered a villain, underdog, or malefactor permanently.
I’m still thinking about the issues around religious rights that this book brings up – how the preferences of the community came into play for bike lanes, co-ed swimming, public housing preferences, and more. On a lot of these topics, Fortress in Brooklyn could be described as more favorable to the community than the mainstream press - there are stories like ProPublica on the community during COVID and the New York Times on the schools that are extensively reported and quite negative.
Though all of this cultural information was great, the book pivots hard to real estate right around the middle. Which held my interest, because the dynamics were different than your usual NIMBY squabbles, but might not be for everyone. I was left wanting more about the Satmar sect and the perspective of Teitelbaum. I’ve found a few books but nothing that looks all that compelling about them.
One negative is that the audio version of this book was poorly recorded, seemingly made up of two different recording setups with quite different EQ and volume stitched together at random. This one is probably best as a paper book.