Nearly two decades have passed since the death of seven-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants.
In August 1991, Cato was walking down President Street in Crown Heights when 22-year-old Yosef Lifsh, who was driving as a part of the three-car motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—then-leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect—accidentally hit the car in front of him and then veered off onto the sidewalk, striking little Cato and ending his life.
Almost immediately, Lifsh was pulled from his car by angry passersby and beaten. Tensions erupted further after Hatzolah ambulances—a private Jewish emergency service—arrived on the scene and reportedly carried away Lifsh and left Cato pinned under the car.
The three days that followed were marked by unprecedented race riots between the black and Jewish communities of Crown Heights, in which a 29-year-old student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, and $1 million in property was destroyed.
It’s been almost twenty years since the Crown Heights riots of 1991. Where is the community now? Have the wounds closed? How many of its current residents even remember what happened?
Dexter Wimberly believes a lot has changed and is still changing in Crown Heights. And it is for this reason, on the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots, he will serve as curator of a multi-media art exhibit entitled, Crown Heights Gold. The installation will be featured from July 28 - Sept 30, 2011, at the Skylight Gallery in Restoration Plaza.
“This exhibit is not inspired so much by a riot as it is by a need for a continued dialogue within our communities,” said Wimberly. “This became a burning idea for me a year ago, and I knew it had to happen.”
The multi-media exhibition will feature painting, drawing, photography, mixed media, video and sculpture created by 20 New York-based visual artists.
The featured artists will present original works that examine and explore the relevance of the Crown Heights riots from a human perspective, its immediate impact on the residents of Crown Heights, as well as the ongoing process of healing on an individual, family and community level.
“Unfortunately, bad things had to happen in order for good things to start,” said Wimberly whose other projects include the acclaimed exhibition, The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant, which debuted at the Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) last summer.
“I want to discuss and celebrate the people who have put a lot of work in developing the diversity and safety of what Crown Heights has become," he said.
For Crown Heights Gold, Restoration has taken a rare extra step to address any underlying, residual issues that might arise leading up to and during the exhibit: Last Thursday at Restoration Plaza, they convened a council of community leaders from the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy to discuss possible sensitivities and the potential impact.
The meeting was headed by Tracey Capers, executive vice president of programs and organizational development at Restoration, along with Wimberly and Jacqui Woods, special arts projects director at Restoration.
Other participants included Melissa Hooper of the Jewish Community Relations of New York in Crown Heights, Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Pamela Green executive director of the Weeksville Heritage Society, Sheila Hanley, principal of the International Arts Business School and Antonia Yuille, Restoration Corporation board member.
What was most important to Restoration, said Capers, was getting the community on board and out in front of the project to understand its intent and also procure support of the exhibit through their own membership networks.
Rabbi Cohen agreed and embraced the mission.
“We know attention will be coming,” said Cohen of the riot’s 20-year anniversary. “So we’ve been building a coalition with a similar agenda. We’re not monolithic, even as a Jewish community. We all share many successes and some difficulties. But we are neighbors, and we believe in common goals.”
“What things should we be mindful of as we’re mounting this exhibit?" Tracey asked the group.
Several issues were put forward, including the importance of alerting the victims' families; coupling the exhibit with an educational component; talking to the synagogues and churches who were involved at the time; and ensuring that women are properly covered at public events where the Hasidic community will also participate…
“We have to be aware of the images that will be projected publicly,” Cohen added.
There was pause, however, when the question arose of how to present a tangible argument for what exactly has improved, "because there’s no question that a lot has changed and improved between our communities. But the truth is, not everything is rosy,” admitted Cohen.
“But I would say the greatest change is our ability to communicate more openly and more often. We’ve got cell phones now.”
Twenty years later, what has changed is clear: A group of community leaders has decided to get out in front of the issue of cultural and racial sensitivity, and not simply react.
As far as cell phones? Well, Capers was checking hers and reading, more members were on their way.