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Clash of the Bearded Ones

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By these standards, Zazza, Williamsburg’s newest luxury rental high-rise, which began renting apartments this February, is traif ten times over. It sits not on the border of the Hasidic territory, like Gretsch, but smack dab in the middle of it, between South 8th and South 9th Streets. Five years ago, in its place was a fully functional knish factory, Gabila’s, in business since 1921 and famous for “The Original Coney Island Square Knish.” The developer, Michael Zazza, says he bought it in 2005 at a fantastically low $85 per square foot. “I’m Italian and Syrian, and I went down into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and knocked down a knish factory,” Zazza says. “As you can imagine, they were overwhelmed with joy!” The Hasids hung signs and staged protests; in a collaboration with Hispanic activists, they recruited the help of Queens councilman Tony Avella and pushed to landmark the factory.

Zazza knew how to make amends. His high-rise would be facing a synagogue, and he had bought a piece of land directly abutting it; if he built on it, he would rob the existing building of many of its windows. So he sold that lot to the synagogue. At market rate, of course. “I helped them preserve the character of the shul,” he says. “It was my peace offering.” He also shaded the bathroom windows on the side of the high-rise that would face the shul. He hired “indigenous people,” as he unironically calls Hasids, for kitchen cabinetry and plumbing fixtures. He gave locals first crack at renting, a completely pointless gesture because Zazza’s apartments don’t have the baths required by Hasidic tradition.

The resulting glassy tower epitomizes the weird armistice between the Satmars and the arrivistes. It has all the hipster amenities, from a fire pit to bike storage to a “resident gardening area.” But the grounds it occupies are protected by a fence—highly unusual for New York—and only accessible via an intercom-equipped metal gate. It looks like a fortress within an already fortified neighborhood: an enclave, like Andorra or Lesotho. “The fence is not that tall,” Zazza insists when I ask him about it. “I mean, it doesn’t look like Rikers Island or anything.”

The Saturday the building’s 66 units went on the market, remembers one young female apartment hunter, “was kind of a madhouse.” Corcoran brokers were shuffling frowzled hipster couples and postgrad roommate groups through the property, jabbering about the perks and the fixtures. All around this axis of crazed activity, the neighborhood was dead deserted, with shutters drawn and streets empty: Shabbos. Checking out the view from a handsome tenth-floor corner unit, the hunter looked down and saw fifteen or twenty Hasidic men gathered on the other side of the fence, immobile, looking up. When she got downstairs, they were still there, forming a kind of silent gauntlet for the folks flitting in and out. The message was unspoken but clear.

Zazza’s online gallery of alluring “neighborhood” photos—boutique, wineshop, brunch—features a shot of a comely female dressed in sunglasses and red shorts on a sun-dappled summer morning. She is pedaling along on her fixed-gear.

Back at the panel meeting at Pete’s Candy Store, the Satmars-versus-cyclists debate rages on. The discussion is devolving into chaos. Isaac Abraham offers odd, ad hoc claims that bicycles are dangerous in general, none of which has anything to do with the topic at hand, but each of which manages to infuriate the bike activists a little more. Heather gets stuck in a super-sarcastic spiral (“Well, maybe, if some people did their job,” etc). Only a naïf would have expected a resolution of any sort tonight. But the common blindness to facts and reason is beginning to look like, well, a plague.

After about an hour of this, I step outside, where the two Hasids from Abraham’s entourage are exchanging bemused quips. Near them, a bicycle is chained to a tree with a large NO BIKES sign. Two gunless NYPD officers, both Hispanic, hang around in yellow windbreakers that say COMMUNITY AFFAIRS.

“Are you here in case a fight breaks out?” I ask.

“Yeah, just in case,” answers one with a wide grin.

“No problems so far?”

“These people are not going to do anything. But damn, they can talk.”


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