MONTAGE: When the pursuit of all things suburban becomes a religion, Part II.

Part I of this photo-heavy blog article provided an overview of the history of the Village of Kiryas Joel, a rapidly expanding enclave of Satmar Hasidic Jews tucked in the woods of Orange County, about 60 miles north of New York City. Surrounded by what would appear to most viewers as pretty standard post-war suburban development, Kiryas Joel is a visible anomaly, and not just because of the orthodoxy of its population. It’s also the poorest place in America over 10,000 people, and while the housing construction often appears particularly economical, it otherwise shows little evidence of the dissolution we typically associate with concentrated poverty. Regardless of the actual quality of life in Kiryas Joel (a subjective metric in every respect), its relation with surrounding, non-Hasidic communities is often tense, and not every resident of KJ subscribes to the authoritarian role of grand rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum (great-nephew of the village’s founder, Joel Teitelbaum), whose influence often has the entire population voting as a bloc in county and state elections.

Countless newspaper articles explore the sundry internecine disputes between Kiryas Joel and its neighbors in enough detail that I don’t need to plow this ground further. My biggest interest is how the village operates as a settlement—how the physical characteristics of the community align with the constituents’ aspirations. And most evidence shows that, despite the antagonistic relations with their neighbors, Kiryas Joel is growing exactly how it should in order to ensure self-preservation under its own rigid edicts.

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While it is impossible (and usually unhelpful) to divorce any community from its inhabitants, the most cogent aspect worth conveying here is how Kiryas Joel looks. In the interest of privacy, I have tried to take as few photos as possible with people in the frames—just enough to demonstrate key observations, but never so close that any individuals might be recognizable.

DSCF3774By this point, the most prominent feature—the housing—should speak for itself.

DSCF3751It may not be architecturally distinctive, but the density is atypical for outer suburbs, even considering that these are outer suburbs to the nation’s largest and most densely populated city. Since the median household size is nearly six, they’re both thickly clustered together and crowded within.

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DSCF3760And they’re expanding, often using dubious construction standards.

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DSCF3835It should also go without saying that a disproportionate number of the vehicles are minivans.

DSCF3792Virtually none of the housing is single-family. Approximately 95% is attached—a higher rate than much of New York City, meaning yards are virtually unheard of, which explains why the streets become a play area so much of the time.

But no visual survey of the area would be complete without also exploring the communities surrounding Kiryas Joel.

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DSCF3812They largely consist of split-level ranches, built from probably the late 1950s to early 1970s. As indicated before, many of these neighbors—who often feel they have been overrun by the Hasidic community—are Jewish themselves. Yet the tense relations would seem to indicate that no such religious solidarity exists, much the same as the Haredi in Old Jerusalem and the westernized Jews of Tel Aviv occupy almost entirely different worlds. In the Town of Monroe that surrounds Kiryas Joel, the communities of South Blooming Grove and Woodbury both voted to incorporate, largely to endow themselves with greater sovereignty that might fend off further annexation and encroachment from Kiryas Joel. Tension—and litigation–continues.

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It’s very difficult to distinguish these surrounding jurisdictions; for the most part, they all look like a semi-rural communities nestled in the woods, and then the density of Kiryas Joel starkly breaks onto the scene. On a road leading back to KJ, the contrast is obvious:

DSCF3768And more multifamily goliaths are popping up along the forested fringe.

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In its earliest years, Kiryas Joel was almost exclusively residential. Those (mostly male) KJ residents who worked would often take buses for the lengthy trip back to the City. A Park-and-Ride service is still available on the village’s outskirts.

DSCF3805But in more recent years, the community has become increasingly self-contained, with retail tucked in the street level of these large residential complexes, as well as basic services to meet other needs. Most signage is first in Yiddish; English only occasionally appears as an alternative.

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Buses still serve the schools and yeshivas in the area, including this decentralized one tucked away in the woods up a hill. (Yes, that is a goat in the foreground to the right, having apparently gnawed off the rope that was tethering her.)

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Another school hosts the sort of adjacent modular buildings one expects to see in fast-expanding districts.

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The village essentially has its own health center, a mounting source of controversy among the surrounding communities, given the Medicaid-dependence of the population.  The schools are equally controversial, since the Kiryas Joel district does not accommodate non-Satmar, resulting in a publicly funded system that serves only one religion.

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DSCF3828Kiryas Joel is ostensibly a curiosity for public health experts, not only because of the occasional transmittance of disease caused by so many shared living quarters, but also because of the population’s high tendency toward otherwise rare genetic disorders—a consequence of intermarrying within such a willfully isolated population.

At the center of it all, not surprisingly, is the primary synagogue.

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It’s not the only house of worship in Kiryas Joel. The disagreements that took place after Joel Teitelbaum’s death—largely between Aaron and the other successor members of his family (though Joel had no heirs who outlived him)—resulted in schisms that escalated into beatings, arson and pipe bombs during the fractious early 1990s. Simmering resentments persist, but the rapid growth has made it impossible for Kiryas Joel to remain as close-knit as it was in the early years. Not everyone knows everyone anymore.

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DSCF3799 editedWith more than one synagogue, multiple commercial buildings, emergency response, and dedicated recreational space, it broadly occupies the goods-and-services domain one might expect of a smaller city of 20,000 inhabitants. Except practically no other community in America can rally even the most ardent dissidents to vote as a bloc, when the politicians come campaigning with certain promises to the village’s constituents. Then, on Election Day, Kiryas Joel reminds the rest of Monroe, of Orange County, and possibly the entire state of New York what a powerful enclave it is, even if their median incomes are among the lowest in the nation.

But it is unreasonable to ignore the people entirely and how they maneuver within the village.   After all, their prevailing ethos has helped shape Kiryas Joel into its visually distinctive configuration.  I had to be as sensitive as possible while taking these photos, not only so that I wasn’t treating the people like a sort of anthropological study—which, I concede, I already am to a large extent. I also needed avoid arousing suspicion, because, as is probably obvious by the above photos, on a Saturday afternoon I was the only person driving around anywhere.

DSCF3788It was not yet sundown, and the Sabbath day hadn’t ended, meaning the melakthoth (prohibited activities) on Shabbat continued for an hour or two longer, which, in this case involved restrictions on lighting a fire (electricity) and transporting an object over 4 cubits within the public domain (automobiles). Truthfully, everyone was out on the street, walking to get from A to B. You can see just a few of them on the sidewalk in the photo below:

DSCF3769Generally, the sexes are segregated as adults, with the men being the more visually distinctive, due less to their large beards (big beards are trendy these days) and more because of their shtreimel, the huge fur hats.

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DSCF3838But both sexes, adhering to Haredi principles, deliberately dress in a style that sharply distinguishes them from their secular surroundings. The rare outsider in Kiryas Joel, in conventional Western attire, stands out like a flamingo among pelicans.

DSCF3787This dusky photo, as tough as it is to see, may still illustrate most effectively the number of people walking the streets and (when they’re available) the sidewalks.

DSCF3823At least until sundown, the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel must walk everywhere. And it’s hard to gauge how high vehicle ownership in the village is. A visitor will see plenty of cars, but given that the population skews heavily toward the under-aged and that the adults share so many other resources, it’s likely that the ownership level is only slightly greater than the counterpart Satmar community in Brooklyn. Kiryas Joel does have its own bus system, which clearly offers fixed route services (the busiest in the County).

DSCF3831My suspicions are that KJAT offers paratransit services as well.

Bearing in mind that Kiryas Joel is surrounded on all sides by mid-century homes on large, wooded lots, accessed only by undulating rural collector roads, it is really the most urban thing around. It’s safe to say that KJ comprises the highest concentration of pedestrian activity in all of the Town of Monroe, at least on the Sabbath day…and probably every other day of the week as well. The development pattern of Monroe’s remaining 21 square miles virtually precludes it.

Viewing this settlement as objectively as possible—divorced from its history, the willful isolation of its inhabitants, the factions, and the countless accusations of corruption (from outside and within)—it doesn’t feel like the profoundly broken and dysfunctional place that its poverty would suggest. It might seem littered and sometimes ramshackle, but it never feels threatening or unsafe. As a 2011 New York Times feature on the village indicated, “It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.” One could credit the high density of the community—the “eyes on the street” in such an environment makes it impossible for errant behavior to go unnoticed. But New York City has neighborhoods even more dense with less than half the poverty (which would still be unusually high), and some of those districts have completely devolved into crime and depravity. It is possible, of course, that Kiryas Joel is only cash-poor: many articles criticizing the poverty stats for KJ recognize that the community’s leadership is phenomenally wealthy through real estate; the fact that cash flow is meager in the village does not account for the fact that many people are quite comfortable in terms of equity. This disparity no doubt only fuels the resentment from outsiders, who know only too well villagers’ dependency on government largesse.

 

DSCF3778Kiryas Joel bears more than a passing resemblance to other religiously inspired outliers in the United States, also characterized by orthodox interpretation of their sacred texts, atypically high birth rates, and an overt repudiation of certain contemporary mores. Certain Anabaptists (particularly the Amish) and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints come to mind. Perhaps the principles that shape the way of life of Satmar Hasidim are not as distinct as they may initially seem. Further research also reveals that Kiryas Joel isn’t the only exurban settlement of Hasidic or Haredi Jewry in metro New York: New Square, Kaser and Monsey in Rockland County; Lakewood in New Jersey; Lawrence in Long Island. While Kiryas Joel is the largest, most of the others share its growth rate and are likely only to escalate in public visibility in the years ahead.

 

DSCF3753Kiryas Joel embodies a collision of values written many times over. Apparently, the surrounding population in the Town of Monroe has vigorously protested the further growth of KJ because it represents suburban sprawl. The irony of such an accusation should not be lost on any of this blog’s readership. Not only was the development pattern of the 1960s and 1970s a glorification of a decentralizing, anti-urban ethos that many deride as sprawl, most recent development in Orange County comes far closer to the densities of Monroe than Kiryas Joel.

 

DSCF3748Even if Kiryas Joel is not unique, it’s still such an anomaly that it is impossible to ignore. It’s a greenfield development more tightly packed than the densest neighborhoods in many American cities. It required no market analyses to determine if a sufficient demand existed to support such high density; the demand was obvious to the rabbinical leadership. The Town of Monroe did not overtly incentivize the development of this concentrated settlement through density bonuses in order to bolster its tax base, or to introduce a new housing type to the region. (Quite the opposite.) While KJ looks nothing like the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) planned communities that have popped up across exurbs throughout the country, it shares at least a few of their objectives: mixed uses and high densities promote the sort of walkability that an increasing number of suburbanites find appealing. And for the Satmar Hasidim, walkability is essential.  Yet everyone nearby seems immune to KJ’s appeal. Thus, Kiryas Joel continues to boom in population even as it remains antithetical to what most of its neighbors would define the “American Dream” as it applies to housing—a catchphrase that by now is hackneyed, not just from overuse but from the narrow cultural implications it evokes. The American Dream is diversifying exponentially, fueled by disparate, self-actualizing initiatives and manifesting itself through visuals that depend largely upon what part of the country these initiatives are taking place. Kiryas Joel is just one example of many—only “bad” or “good” when compared to its counterparts, whose own goodness or badness depends just as much on subjective judgment. The escalating elasticity of the American Dream must therefore concede to another catchphrase: live and let live.

3 thoughts on “MONTAGE: When the pursuit of all things suburban becomes a religion, Part II.

  1. Uri

    great post. I would only note the somewhat obvious point that the secular split in Israel is not just TA v J’lem. It’s very much a reality in adjacent neighborhoods within each city. Many of the same dynamics of voting blocks carrying a lot of political weight, and therefore getting what they want despite being fundamentally antidemocratic, exist in Israel. It’s infuriating!

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  2. American Dirt

    Thanks for the clarification, Uri. I’m aware that the divide between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem isn’t so stark as I might have portrayed it, though the presence of Hasidim in Jerusalem is strong enough (and diluted enough in Tel Aviv) that it will often appear that way. From my experience, you’re far more likely to see secular Jews throughout Jerusalem and far less likely to see Hasidim in Tel Aviv. More visible in Tel Aviv are other immigrant groups, such as Ethiopian Christians, and, of course, right next door in Jerusalem are the Palestinian Arabs (who are not necessarily Muslim–East Jerusalem has Palestinian Catholics, among others). Either way, it’s good to know that the cheek-by-jowl co-existence fosters similar unusual political maneuverings in Israel, even if none of the Hasidim in Israel are Satmars. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to overshadow everything else in Western media, so we scarcely know about frictions between Reformed and Hasidim–even if the Hasidic birth rate surpasses all other groups.

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  3. Anonymous

    Just read the blog. You touch on a grievance that many non-Hasidim in the Jewish community feel which is the Hasidim conduct themselves in a manner as though no one else outside their community exists. The feeling is there is an almost self-righteousness to their culture without regard to how their actions affect their non-Hasidim neighbors.

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