The Null Device

Old beard vs. new beard

New York Magazine has an interesting piece on tensions between hipsters and hasidim in Williamsburg, which began when hipsters started moving to the staunchly Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1990s and came to a head with a dispute over a bike lane which, the hasidim complained, funnelled a steady stream of immodestly-clad nonbelievers through the core of their devoutly observant community:
But after a while, says one Hasidic real-estate developer, “People started talking to the rabbis—‘Hey, something’s happening, all these young white people are moving in.’ ” When the Satmars realized that the Artisten—the Yiddish name they used for the bewildering newcomers—were there to stay, something like panic set in. Rabbis exhorted landlords not to rent to the Artisten, builders not to build for them. One flyer asked God 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.’’ Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop announced that the Artisten were “a bitter decree from Heaven,” a biblical trial.
While there is an element of conservative-old-timers-vs.-offensive-newcomers to the story, it is (as most things are) more complex than that. Most of the property rented out to the artisten was done so by Hasidic owners, who have mostly kept the hipsters out of the core of their community. Meanwhile, there is more interplay between the ultra-conservative community and the newcomers, with some fence-sitters putting a foot in both camps:
For South Williamsburg’s Hasids, Traif Bike Gesheft functions as a semi-secret window onto the larger world and a clubhouse of mild transgressions. Herzfeld rents bikes to Hasids at no cost, just to get them to venture beyond the neighborhood. (Among Satmars, bicycles are not specifically disallowed but are considered taboo nonetheless.) Inside the shop, otherwise righteous men let down their guard. Tongues loosen. “The men, they don’t know how to have a conversation with a woman,” Herzfeld explains, talking a mile a minute. “Whenever they come to the bike shop, the first thing they ask me to find them a prostitute. I tell them, look, you’re searching for answers. You’re not going to find them in the vagina of a woman you’re paying $200 an hour. If you want to meet somebody, you need to step outside of the community, you need to get a hobby. Come over, and I’ll teach you how to fix a bike. So the bike shop is a kind of outreach program.” A friend of Herzfeld’s also uses the shop to slip Hasids traif books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.
If hipster Williamsburg has a social architect, it is Schwartz. His first project, in 1999, became the mini-mall that redefined Bedford Avenue. The retail collection he developed was both a parody of the American mall and a startling improvement on it. It housed an artisanal-cheese shop, a wine store, a bookseller with Guy Debord window displays, a Tibetan tchotchke store, a vinyl-heavy indie-record emporium, a Mac-friendly computer shop, and, of course, a coffeehouse. Many of these businesses later grew to take up their own storefronts on what became the hipster side of Bedford. Schwartz followed it up with Opera House Lofts, another ambitious development targeted squarely at the Artisten. His latest and largest project—Castle Braid, a 144-unit complex so named after the factory in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—is borderline hipster pandering. The game room has foosball and air hockey. On my arrival, the PA system in the lobby was softly playing Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” The building holds its own film festival (the first prize is six rent-free months) and a tenant-compiled library with Erotica and Gay-and-Lesbian sections. “It is totally kosher,” explains Schwartz, a devout Hasid. “I’ve been joking that I do this to make sure the Artisten stay on the other side!”

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