Shootings are painfully common in the Jersey City neighborhood where a deadly firefight broke out Tuesday.
Shots rang out on Martin Luther King Drive, the commercial corridor, just a few days ago, said Pamela Johnson, a lifelong resident of the south side and executive director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement. A person was shot dead on Fulton Avenue between Ocean and Garfield avenues last month.
Tuesday’s gunfight, which left six dead — a veteran city police detective and three civilians, as well as the alleged shooters — was different. The shots sounded like they came from heavy artillery instead of the firecracker-like shots that typically accompany gang shootings, Johnson said.
Caught in the crossfire was a burgeoning Hasidic community nestled among a historically African-American neighborhood.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews began moving in from Brooklyn several years ago in search of a more affordable place to live, said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic media consultant who frequently lectures in the area. Many of them still commute to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for work and school.
“For a quarter of the price, you can get your own fig tree compared to Brooklyn,” Rapaport said, referencing a Hebrew expression. “Some people see it as a dream. It’s kind of heaven on earth.”
The neighborhood was once known as Greenville, or simply the Hill. Now locals just refer to it as the south side — a reflection of media coverage that repeatedly referred to shootings “on the south side of the city,” Johnson said.
Most of the 100 or so Hasidic families living on the south side belong to the Satmar sect, the largest Hasidic sect in the United States, said Jane Goldberg, a member of Congregation Mount Sinai, an Orthodox synagogue in Jersey City.
The families settled into the neighborhood quickly, opening synagogues, yeshivas and a small JC Kosher Supermarket that became the scene of carnage on Tuesday.
“They’re building a small community. It’s very small-town USA,” Rapaport said. “And they’re working very hard to be good neighbors.”
The Hasidic newcomers and their African-American and Hispanic neighbors have developed an amicable relationship, said Tom Rosensweet, president of Jersey City’s Temple Beth El. But tensions continue to flare over persistent door knocking by investors and real estate agents looking to buy more property for the ultra-Orthodox, he said.
Jews and young white transplants from New York City are gradually replacing the south side’s once-dominant African-American population, Johnson said. Few of them understand the crime and violence plaguing the area, she said.
“They’ll chance moving to the south side if they can have a lower rent or mortgage, but they have no idea what the neighborhood encompasses,” she said. “It’s not the same friendly community as it once was, where there was a sense of neighborhood pride.”
Andre Morris has become so desensitized to south side shootings that when his girlfriend woke him from an afternoon nap to tell him about Tuesday’s gunfights, he went back to sleep.
“I have lost five friends to gunfire since January,” Morris said.
Security is a top concern for Temple Beth El, a Reform temple about a mile from the kosher market. Police officers provide protection on days when worshipers attend services, and the temple will soon hire armed security guards funded by a state grant, Rosensweet said.
Violence has not breached the temple’s walls, but anti-Semitism is leaving a mark. Posters accusing Jews of being slave owners were found on telephone poles outside the temple several weeks ago, Rosensweet said.
“We never found out who did that,” he said.
Yosef Hershkowitz, a Brooklyn resident who drove to the south side on Tuesday to deliver food to the kosher market, turned around as soon as he heard gunshots. The shooting will likely alter the fabric of the neighborhood forever, he said.
“Frankly, I think it’s over now,” Hershkowitz said. “People came here from Brooklyn because the houses are cheap here. Now they’re going to be too scared to come here, and they will go to more safe areas.”