This article is the first in a three-part series examining the Brooklyn Historical Society’s ongoing oral history project “Voices of Crown Heights.”
Earlier this fall, Zaheer Ali gave an OHMA Workshop lecture on an oral history project that articulates the intricacies of gentrification and social difference in Crown Heights. While he highlights the importance of race in deconstructing the displacement Black West Indians feel in the neighborhood, Ali also contextualizes the history of the Hasidic Jewish community in that same neighborhood.
In this post, current OHMA student Dina Asfaha (2016) writes that his project is a prime example of the need for oral history in understanding society. She proposes that Ali does an exemplary job of situating people's narratives in their respective historical contexts and putting those narratives in conversation with one another in order to deduce conclusions about how gentrification in Crown Heights can be understood today.
Zaheer Ali’s engaging talk, “More than a Riot: Listening to the Unheard Voices of Crown Heights,” problematized the history of gentrification in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Perhaps one of the most distinct aspects of Ali’s work is his commitment to situating this conversation surrounding gentrification in its historical context. More specifically, Ali engages in a methodology of oral history to collect information about the current state of gentrification in Crown Heights. Doing so allows us to understand the who, what, how, when, and why of the circumstances present in this transforming neighborhood.
And what does Ali’s work tell us? Well—gentrification is a lot more complicated when you take into account the history of a place and its people. Through his work, Zaheer traces this neighborhood’s rich past, historically a home for both Hasidic Jews and West Indians who have found community together as traditionally marginalized groups of people.
While many definitions and conversations surrounding gentrification today lead us straight to a critique of the tension and relationship between race and displacement, Ali urges us to think more critically about how raced gentrification manifests itself. In this particular presentation, Ali analyzes the intersections of religion, race, and class in deconstructing the ways in which Crown Heights residents have experienced displacement on both ends. For these populations of people, Hasidic Jews and West Indians, discrimination is not foreign. In the oral histories Ali examines, residents describe their experiences with anti-Semitism and racism, namely, relating this to their personal conceptualizations of Crown Heights as a site for home- and community-building.
But what happens when two groups of people view themselves in competition with one another after being pushed out from previous communities? Ali’s work shows us that these factors may be a lens through which to understand gentrification in Crown Heights—especially the racial-ethnic friction between Hasidic Jews and Black West Indians. Outside of this racial-ethnic friction between this ethnic-religious community and this racial group, however, is the broader issue of acts of racism committed by the police unto Black West Indian residents of Crown Heights. The ramifications of issues of racism color Black West Indians’ experience of home in Crown Heights differently, and this certainly factors into how Blacks in Crown Heights are faced with displacement as compared with Hasidic Jews.
Zaheer’s project is a clear example of what oral history offers: a more holistic approach to understanding history and humanity. For me, “More than a Riot: Listening to the Unheard Voices of Crown Heights” was an introduction to thinking multi-dimensionally about gentrification, both its origins and its consequences. Oral history requires responsibility, an excavation of the pre- and post-contexts of understanding an event. Surely, we can take this lesson from Zaheer Ali’s project and apply it to our own analyses of the world.
Dina Asfaha (2016) joins OHMA from Barnard College, where she was an Africana Studies major and recipient of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. In her senior year, Dina conducted an honors thesis entitled, “From Repression to Revolution: Making Space for Eritrea,” wherein she analyzed three documents written by Eritrean pro-liberation groups as creative responses to Ethiopian colonial domination. This year in OHMA, she hopes to expand on her work by examining music and sounds of the Eritrean revolution.