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Tara Bahrampour, "A 'Plague of Artists' Is a Battle Cry for Brooklyn Hasidim"

"A 'Plague of Artists' Is a Battle Cry for Brooklyn Hasidim"

Tara Bahrampour, New York Times

Several weeks ago Mikey Weiss, an electronics store owner with an
overgrown blond Mohawk, was visited in his shop on the north side of
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by a couple of men in mink hats.

"These two Hasidic guys, dressed as Hasidically as you could possibly
dress, came in and asked me what kind of people live in this
neighborhood," Mr. Weiss said, adding that he told them the area was
largely populated with people in their 20's and 30's, including many

"They said: 'Artists! That's it!' " he recalled. "They said, 'We want to
hear about these artists we've heard are moving to our neighborhood.'
They asked: 'Are they noisy? Do they cause trouble?' "The visitors were from the community of 57,000 Satmar Hasidic Jews who
live in south Williamsburg and who have in recent weeks been alarmed by
talk of their neighborhood being invaded by "artisten," a Yiddish word
that in local parlance is used to describe non-Hasidim who live on the
north side.

They had come to the store after seeing fliers around the neighborhood
that had portrayed the artisten as a looming threat. One flier even
included a drawing of the World Trade Center collapsing, and read, in
Yiddish: "How long did it take the Twin Towers to fall? Eight seconds.
How long will it take for Williamsburg??? God Forbid."

Although the divisions are blurry, Broadway near the Williamsburg Bridge
has long been seen as the border between the neighborhood's south side,
a working-class Hasidic and Hispanic enclave, and the north side, which
has become known for its artists, hipsters and, increasingly, affluent
professionals. But as northside rents have soared, and ritzy boutiques
and nightclubs have moved in, residents seeking cheaper housing have
looked southward. Meanwhile, many young Hasidic families are large and
their housing needs have grown accordingly. A collision was perhaps
inevitable, and it has focused on a building at 60 Broadway, right on
the dividing line.

On Sunday afternoon, five young Hasidic men stood in freezing wind
outside the Gretsch Building, a 10-story, 200,000-square-foot former
musical instrument factory that is being converted to luxury
condominiums selling for about $550 per square foot. They had just taken
part in a protest, one of several that Hasidic men have staged outside
the building in recent months. Across the street, on an apartment
building occupied by Hasidim, a large banner read: "The neighborhood is
NOT welcoming the Gretsch Building. We need AFFORDABLE housing!"

That, the protesters say, is the main issue. Since World War II, when
they immigrated from Hungary, the Williamsburg Hasidim have opened
synagogues and lobbied for zoning changes to allow for more residential
buildings in this formerly industrial area.

But recently, community members say, real estate agents and would-be
buyers have knocked on their doors offering to buy their homes for at
least double the $200 per square foot they are used to paying. Many fear
that if even a few agree to that, market rates and property taxes will
soar, leading to an unraveling of the community's tightly woven fabric.

"We are here since the Holocaust," said Moses Krausz, a tall,
bespectacled man who participated in the protest. "We opened schools. I
have 15 brothers and sisters; where should we go to live?"

With Australian Jarrah wood floors and Pietra Colombina limestone
fireplaces, the Gretsch will be arguably the most luxurious development
the neighborhood has yet seen. But it is not the area's only upscale new
condominium complex. Two blocks away, a refurbished cast-iron building,
the Smith Gray, has sold lofts at more than $400 per square foot without
provoking the ire of the Hasidim.

Maier Katz, a protester, said that is because the owner of that building
is not Jewish, whereas at least two of the Gretsch Building's developers

"If it's not a Jew, it's not our business, we can't do anything," he
said. The men around him nodded. "If it's a Jew, we can do something."

The Gretsch owners in question are two brothers, Martin and Edward
Wydra, Orthodox Jews who are not Hasidim. But to some in the community,
they are close enough. Three weeks ago, they took their protest to
Martin Wydra's house in Flatbush.

Most say the main issue is real estate. But in a neighborhood where
shopping streets are lined with modest rugelach bakeries and felt-hat
stores, where children in matching pinafores play on the sidewalks into
dusk, some fear cultural conflicts with more cosmopolitan newcomers from
the north side, where vintage jeans and yoga mats are the norm.

"We may have a problem with people using musical instruments at 3 in the
morning, we may have a problem with people getting drunk, we may have a
problem with an individual approaching young girls about private
issues," said Sam Brown, 45, a real estate investor from the Satmar

Putting it more strongly, a flier handed out last month at a protest
(and reprinted in the March issue of Harper's magazine) asked the
"Master of the Universe" to "please remove from upon us the plague of
the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they
shall not come to our residence to ruin it."

Mr. Brown added that tensions around the Gretsch are also high because
the person who sold the building to developers two years ago was a
Satmar Hasid, a man he said has since been shunned by the community.

"We made it very clear for the seller and buyer, in all kinds of
language, to explain that they should not do this because it's hurting
the interests of the community," Mr. Brown said. "Basically, they were
ignoring our pleas."

But Martin Wydra said that far from ignoring them, he and his partners
have made many concessions to the Satmars, even offering to sell the
building back to them at cost.

"We felt that because we were Jews ourselves and because there was a
concern in the community, that we would give the community an
opportunity to develop it themselves and we'd find another project," he
said, adding that the community leaders ended up declining. (Mr. Brown
disputed that the building was offered at cost.)

Even so, Mr. Wydra said, he tried to ease their fears. A plan to add
balconies was scrapped to reduce the chance that scantily clad residents
would be visible on them; tinting was added to windows on two sides for
the same reason. When the Hasidim balked at an idea for an enclosed
swimming pool because people in bathing suits might step out onto the
sidewalk, that plan was discarded, he said, adding that a rabbi from the
community gave the project his blessing.

Some say it is the Hasidim themselves who have helped drive up rents in
the area by building market-rate units on the north side. "They're
saying that they want affordable housing, but they're charging
extortionist rents to non-Hasidic people," said Mark Firth, a local
restaurant owner and resident. Hasidic-owned market-rate developments
are also planned for the south side, but they will include some
low-income units.

A spokeswoman for the Corcoran Group, which is marketing the Gretsch
Building, said that the protest had not dissuaded buyers and that 70
percent of the 130 units have sold. But the protesters standing out in
the wind said they hoped their stand would discourage future developers
from investing in the area.

Perhaps, they reasoned, it was not too late even for the Gretsch.

"If they can't sell them at high prices, maybe they'll have to sell them
at low prices," Mr. Katz said. He gazed at workers perched high up on a
scaffold outside the Gretsch's windows. "Then maybe we can move in."