June 4, 2020 Building series: the odd-looking police booth
Site: Abandoned police booth
Location: Keap Street and Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211
In the middle of Williamsburg, near the overpass for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Lee Avenue Main Street, sits this strange structure: a police booth. By all accounts, there is no other police booth like it in NYC. The police booth has been out of use for many years. It’s an eyesore of ugly graffiti on even uglier brick. I rarely stop at the booth on my tours—because people don’t even notice it. According to Untapped Cities, “The station itself was built by the local community to have a police presence.”
This makes sense, because Kiryas Joel, another Satmar-dominant community, built something similar. There, it is still in use. The purpose was mostly for Shabbes, when we were not allowed to use phones. If you needed a gentile to do something for you, there was the police booth.
But the story I heard about the Williamsburg booth is that it was built during a very different era in city history. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Williamsburg was in steep decline. Its East River edge, which looks out to Manhattan and had once been bustling with factories and smoke, including the famous Domino Sugar Factory, was in steep decline. Most businesses were taking their jobs elsewhere. Factories like my father’s sock factory were no longer profitable and closed down. As the good jobs diminished, crime rates rose. The large Hispanic population that had settled there for the many jobs was now in crisis. There were shootings, drugs, theft.
There is an excellent 1984 documentary that captures the Williamsburg neighborhood during this period. It’s called Los Sures, which is what the Latinos called “The South side” of Williamsburg.
There are no Hasidim in the film, as far as I remember. They kept their distance from the Hispanic community, as they always do. But they lived in a neighborhood where crime was everywhere, and you stood to be mugged anytime. Your car stereo might be removed in the night. When I was a child, the cry, “money-you-life!” was how we enacted gun holdups. My mother’s jewelry was stolen—all of it—when someone broke into her apartment while she was in the hospital giving birth to my older brother. A neighbor of hers woke from a midday nap to find a thug on his way out a neighbor’s window, making off with the owner’s pants and wallet inside. The poor neighbor could not even climb out and chase the thief because, well, he had no pants on.
That was Williamsburg. Many years from the gentrified waterfront of today.
So one theory I heard was that in this Williamsburg of chaos, women were afraid to go out alone at night. But women need to go to the ritual bath after they have their periods, as part of the cycle of laws around marital relations. The bathhouse is usually a big building that can only be attended at night. So I imagine that in this time before cellphones, it was a nerve-wracking trip. Perhaps the police booth provided protection. (We know this wasn’t the community’s only way of dealing with neighborhood problems; they also established the community policing shomrim, but that’s for another day.)
In the last week, Williamsburg has again been caught in the center of world politics, an irony that continues. Protesters for Black Lives Matter have been marching through its very main streets, although it seems entirely uneventful.
יעצט אין ווילימסבורג pic.twitter.com/SKEZuWTGyu
— Hasidic (@hasidic_1) June 2, 2020
But after the looting and rioting prompted the city to install a curfew at 8 p.m., it has again become scary to walk to the ritual bath at night. As Avital Chizhik-Goldschmit wrote for the Forward, “Traditional mikveh immersions, generally done after nightfall, are now impossible. Some women are now not only afraid to immerse because of potential infection — but are afraid to leave their homes, concerned about being stopped by police and encountering violent looters.”
So this structure in Williamsburg can now be a monument to provide comfort. It tells us that things might feel terrifying, and we might not be able to remember what it’s like to feel safe. But like this police station, artifices of safety will not be needed forever. Soon they’ll sit there abandoned, collecting graffiti and dust, so forgotten that even tour guides pay no mind.
Update: I recently was there Friday night, and found the police booth fully operational, housing a gentile who was at the service of the community as a security guard and perhaps also shabbes goy. Some of the commentors confirmed the “ritual bath / mikvah” theory, that the booth was originally built for women who go to the ritual bath, and that the women’s ritual bath is in the building very close by. According to one Williamsburg old-timer, the booth was only staffed on Shabbes because on shabbes you couldn’t take a taxi/be driven to the mikvah, and since the neighborhood was so unsafe, it was downright dangerous for women to walk there on Shabbes without protection. Fascinating stuff!