Hundreds of people turned out for a controversial festival commemorating the Crown Heights riot on Aug. 21, despite some slamming it as a distasteful way to mark such a dark period in the neighborhood’s history.
Organizers say they understand why the family of Yankel Rosenbaum — the Australian Jewish man killed during of the 1991 turmoil — described a fete promising “fun for all ages” as “an insult” to his memory, but the large turnout from both black and Jewish residents shows it really did bring the communities together.
“I definitely understand — he felt it was inappropriate,” said organizer Rabbi Eli Cohen director of Jewish group the Crown Heights Community Council. “We did it because we feel it’s important and to focus on what we can achieve when we work together — because look at what can happen.”
The One Crown Heights festival marked 25 years since a motorcade carrying a prominent Jewish leader ran over 7-year old black boy Gavin Cato, igniting racial tensions in the predominantly black and Hasidic Jewish community. Hours later, rioters fatally stabbed Rosenbaum, and three days of chaos followed.
Local leaders including Borough President Adams, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D–Crown Heights), and Councilwoman Mathieu Eugene (D–Crown Heights) started the day at the Jewish Children’s Museum with a ceremony remembering both Cato and Rosenbaum, followed by a march down Kingston Avenue to Brower Park for the festivities, which included rides, games, and performances from Caribbean steel pan bands.
Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother Norman — who was in town for the anniversary — and some local Orthodox leaders denounced the upbeat fiesta ahead of the event, though Gavin Cato’s father Carmel attended. Both men, who have been friends for 15 years, nevertheless broke rye bread at a Midwood deli before mourning in their own ways.
Festival attendees say their families enjoyed the fair, and defended the neighborhood get-together as a way of showing how far the community has come since its ugliest days.
“The festival wasn’t wrong — it was more like a celebration toward the community coming together,” said Looly Cohen, whose two daughters got their faces painted and bounced on the jumping castle. “It was very nice and there were lots of things to do.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen, a lifelong Crown Heights resident, says he has seen the changes in the community first-hand, and hopes another festival happens for the 50th anniversary.
“A lot has changed — it’s a different community,” he said. “Crime has gone down, which has helped a lot of groups working together. We hope to be there for the next festival.”