Saturday, December 07, 2013

Civilization and the Knockout Game

Sultan Knish

The Jewish part of Crown Heights is a narrow island a handful of blocks in length and width.

The names; Empire Boulevard, President Street, Eastern Parkway, Montgomery Street; reflect an old vanished grandeur. Like Constantinople after the sack, there are still traces of the old empire, but the faint images of men in top hats and tails walking up the brownstone steps, slightly tipsy after a party, have given way to car alarms and broken glass. There is no longer any romance to the darkness.

Walk one block out of the way and you're suddenly in a dangerous neighborhood. Kingston Avenue is its major commercial street full of bakeries, restaurants, butcher stores, a fish store and children's clothing shops. Intersecting it is President Street; full of lush dilapidated mansions from its past history when it was known as Millionaire's Row.

Along Eastern Parkway there is a corridor that stretches to Prospect Park, Brooklyn's answer to Central Park complete with lake, swans and even a major museum. Along that corridor you can see elaborate townhouses, some with stairways stretching three stories, brownstones and massive old theaters. There are apartment buildings that could be mistaken for Park Avenue hotels and more stone columns than in some Italian cities.

These were the dwelling places and playhouses of an old wealthy Brooklyn elite that considered itself the equal of Manhattan. Its homes were as expensive and tasteful as anything around Central Park.  But those homes are now in ghetto territory. Some are well-maintained; others have gone to rot. There are still graceful old apartment buildings with grand old names with the U's spelled out in V's, but they are crumbling, the asphalt outside is cracked and bored gang bangers wander around outside making defiant eye contact with anyone passing by.

The Crown Heights that I remember from the days when the family would visit friends who lived there was a strange bubble of temporary safety in the midst of a very dangerous area. It is one of those rare examples of what happens when the expected white flight doesn't occur, leaving a small white neighborhood in the middle of the hood. A mote in the eye of the surrounding area. A ghetto inside the ghetto.

It's not accurate to say that white flight didn't take place. There's a reason that millionaire's row is a distant memory. Even most of the Orthodox Jews fled when the outbreaks of violence began. But one  Chassidic group, Chabad or Lubavitch, under the guidance of its Rebbe, decided to stick it out and form a unique neighborhood that serves as the headquarters for their worldwide presence.

On my last visit, I saw a Crown Heights that was bigger than I remembered. There were homes in place where as kids we knew not to even consider setting foot. Chassidic Jews tend to have a lot of children and in two decades population growth had made it necessary to expand beyond the square box of relatively safe and integral streets that I remembered growing up.

Those streets too had not been particularly safe. The older son of our family friends had carried a knife home for the brief walk from the bus stop to his house. He was eleven years old at the time. There were always occasional muggings and assaults, forays by huddled packs of teenagers swiftly passing through the ghetto within the ghetto at night, moving through the darkness around the warm light coming from family homes, and throwing a few punches and then vanishing again.

But Giuliani, elected in part because of the Crown Heights Pogrom perpetrated under the Dinkins administration whose staffer Bill de Blasio has been selected to replace Bloomberg, helped bring  some safety back to the area. Suddenly there were Jews comfortably living on the "wrong side" of Eastern Parkway and when I walked from the massive Grand Army Plaza library (complete with heroic arch, monument garden and fountains) to the old mansions, the area did seem safer.

That was an illusion. Crime rates fell, but the underlying danger never went away. And the ghetto within the ghetto became harder to keep safe as it spilled out into the adjacent streets.

I occasionally saw stories about violence and sexual assaults. Some of those stories were genuinely disturbing. And the pace at which those stories came out increased in the last few years. And so the emergence of the Knockout Game in Crown Heights doesn't surprise me. It's the perfect place for the game to be played.

The Jewish part of Crown Heights is small enough and overpopulated enough to be full of perfect targets. An entire generation of kids is growing up never having seen the old bad Dinkins era when caution was the watchword. Few of them are likely to have ever carried a switchblade for the days when the night comes early and even a short walk from the bus stop can have a bloody end.

The Knockout Game existed in my time, but like tribesmen witnessing the sun and the rain, we didn't have a name for it. It just was. It was something that could happen to you so you had to stay alert. Looking into store windows was an easy trick and adopting the right body posture for when a pack of teenagers was about to pass you came as second nature.

You learned that the attackers liked to strike at people who weren't looking at them. There was some instinct in them that made them, even when they outnumbered their victims, want to strike from behind. There was a feral flash of joy in their eyes when they caught their prey by surprise. It wasn't as good for them if you looked them calmly in the eyes and did not flinch. It ruined their fun.

Most of the time, they didn't attack because they hated. The attack was their idea of fun. They only hated when their victims ruined their fun. In their minds, attacking was legitimate, defending against the attack wasn't. They didn't resent their victims unless they fought back.

That was life in New York City. It's about to be life in New York City again.

The existence of World Star Hip Hop and smartphones has made the consequences more public. In the eighties, the Knockout Game wasn't taped and the average teenage thug pack didn't have access to portable video cameras or any way to share the recordings of their triumphs.

Today gang culture is online. Gangs have forums and there are sites like World Star Hip Hop that all but cater to the violent side. There's no doubt that the economy has played its part, but the presence and absence of violence isn't mere economics.When violence is culture, then it's a cultural problem. Throw together large amounts of fatherless teenagers with no real goal in life except, briefly to become NBA stars or rappers boasting about selling rock, and the Knockout game is inevitable.

Some of the Knockouters will drift back and forth out of prison, heading back to the old neighborhood to hang out with the old gang, catch a meal and a nap at their mother's house, before urging their friends to go out looking for trouble. Others will get steady jobs. Some will even marry the mothers of their children.

Catch them two decades down the road and they'll talk about how they almost wound up going down a bad path before they turned their lives around and they'll have stories of their friends who went from mugging to dealing to shooting. But often those same men, now amiable and wise, shaking their heads at their past selves, will still have left behind a trail of fatherless kids who are repeating the process all over again.

That is the cycle that has to be broken. The neighborhoods around Crown Heights are full of West Indian immigrants who come with united families and give way to a next generation that is as broken as the neighborhood. The social institutions that they build do not hold up. The churches host the elderly and single women. The community centers are where the homeless go. The teen sports leagues occasionally connect a teenage boy with an older mentor; but there are too many fatherless boys and not nearly enough responsible black men to step in and take the place of all those who aren't.

It's not just race that divides the residents of Crown Heights. It's also family.

72 percent of black babies are born to unmarried mothers. Chassidic Jews and their black neighbors both share a high birth rate; but they are divided by marriage and family.

On the "right side" of Eastern Parkway there are Chassidic Jewish families; mothers and fathers with babies in strollers, schoolgirls in uniforms and boys in black jackets and crumpled hats. On the other side of the divide are women waiting for their men, their sons and lovers, to come home. They tell their daughters not to be with a boy who won't marry them and they tell their sons to respect women.

And still the next generation repeats the same cycle.

Civilization is not instinctive. It doesn't come packaged in our DNA. It doesn't even come from schools or books. It has to come first and foremost from the defining human institution; the family.

Where there is no family, men and women revert to their feral instincts, they wear the coat of civilization loosely and cast it aside easily. They let their impulses drive their bodies and worry about the consequences later. They treat violence and sexuality with the casualness that those outside civilization do. It is the family that civilizes violence and sexuality by endowing it with civilizational meaning. Without it, all that's left are dark streets, single mothers, male wolf packs and Knockout games.

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