The Smith St. Swastika – Welcome to (old) New York?

By Larry Getlen

I went to Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island in the late seventies, a place and time when race was discussed in a different way than it generally is today – casually but importantly, as if separating people by their race was a natural and essential way to organize the universe. I can remember one lunchtime conversation where a friendly local Italian kid named Sal talked about how I was his Jewish friend, Maurice was his black friend, Chris was his Greek friend, etc. He said this with no sense of maliciousness – just stating the facts.

On a different day in that same lunchroom, my Algebra textbook was swiped away by some numbskull for a little game of keep away. Upon its return, it carried a new decoration – a swastika drawn across the front. I wish I could say it was surprising, but it wasn’t. Upsetting, yes, but at a time and place when “kike” and “ni**er” were thrown around the way “totes” is today, and when racial jokes and slurs came not just from my friends but also from their fathers, I can’t say the sight of the mark was really that much of a shock. Just another day in neanderthal Brooklyn.

Nowadays, I live in the same borough I grew up in, but it might as well be a different planet. Growing up in Gravesend and Flatlands, I’m not sure I had ever heard of Carroll Gardens or Boreum Hill, and even Park Slope was seen as a far-off journey. Here, in downtown Brooklyn in 2009, multi-culti professionals and the folks from the projects one block over live in a peaceful co-existence – unlike when that same sort of co-existence in my Canarsie high school led to race riots, and stairwell beatings of black teenagers. To me, a native Brooklynite who knew this borough when, my current ‘hood is an odd mix of the old world and the new, but one with an aura seemingly light years from the past. I live in a completely different world here and now than I did in those junior high school days in Coney Island, when the greatest trouble I ever got into was when my friend Russell and I dared leave a play rehearsal to venture out into the neighborhood – a strictly forbidden enterprise – in a quest for potato chips and a Coke. The screaming upon our return was intense, but the anger was really fear. Students were not allowed to leave the school for the simple reason that the neighborhood was seen as a jungle where violence was rampant. (During my years at that school, I was mugged twice – once on the subway at the Coney Island station, and once in the boys bathroom.) So students were not allowed to leave for the simple reason that they might not return.

But the impression of a difference between then and now received a jolt on this otherwise peaceful Easter morning, as walking down Smith Street, on an ATM between Wyckoff and Warren Streets, I saw this.

Seen on an ATM on Smith St. between Wyckoff and Warren on Boreum Hill, Brooklyn, on Easter morning

Seen on an ATM on Smith St. between Wyckoff and Warren on Boreum Hill, Brooklyn, on Easter morning

What to make of it? Is this just one more sign of what some have feared is a return to the bad ole days of New York City? I’m not sure – and I’m trying not to leap to dire conclusions.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at the top marketing company in the hard rock/heavy metal world – a place where rock stars had regularly tread. One day, we had a top band in for a meet and greet, and they signed posters. One of my colleagues went to put his signed poster on the wall above his desk, and that’s when I saw it – the guitarist had drawn a swastika over the picture of his own head.

As always, many punk and metal bands sought to be outrageous by embracing the verboten. So, at the time, Charles Manson T-shirts were the rage, and swastikas were not uncommon as symbols of defiance. But this particular band had a reputation as one of the more intelligent bands around – definitely not one that could be described as lowest common denominator, or one that did what they did for shock value. As a born Jew, I couldn’t see sitting in my office 9-5 every day staring at this symbol of hate turned metal affectation. I found the company’s other Jew (there were two of us out of about 30-35 employees) and showed it to him, and we requested that the poster be taken down, which it was. But the oddest thing about the incident was that my co-worker – a good dude, overall – didn’t see the problem. He was a small town boy from Pennsylvania, and I’m guessing hadn’t known many Jews before moving to the big city. Reflecting on the incident, I wondered what on earth this guitarist – generally portrayed in interviews as a smart, personable guy – had been thinking. I realized, after seeing the reactions of my own co-workers, that it’s quite possible he wasn’t using the symbol with any specificity. There’s a good chance that, perhaps not familiar with many Jews himself (were there a lot in Seattle?), he saw it as a symbol of rebellion, a way to indicate anti-authoritarian cool, with either no real grasp of what the symbol represented, or the misguided belief that he could follow the herd in trying to reorient it as a talisman of the rock rebel ethos.

At least, that’s what I hoped.

And that is also what I hope for the Smith Street Swastika – that whoever made the mark did so out of a misguided sense of rebellion or desire to shock, instead of as a genuine message of hate.

Larry Getlen is the Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops magazine and Follow him on Twitter @larrygetlen

Last 5 posts by Larry Getlen

Posted on 12 Apr 2009 at 3:40pm
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  1. mf said on April 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    i hope that was some doofus and not a geniune hate-monger, but i agree with you that both can be dangerous gone unchecked!

  2. Mike said on April 13, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    To play Sherlock Holmes for a moment, the first failed attempt at a swastika above the actual one makes me think that it was some teenager who barely knows what it means and/or an otherwise mentally challenged person. I wouldn’t take it too heart. When those who feel weak/inferior lash out, the correct response is probably pity.

  3. Larry said on April 13, 2009 at 1:43 pm


    I noticed the first draft above the finished product, and wondered about that as well. But while you make some good points, keep one thing in mind. “Those who feel weak/inferior” lashing out is a pretty good description of many terrorists at the early stages of their careers. From Nazis to our current antagonists, many of the foot soldiers started out as the not-too-smart just lashing out, looking for a place to belong. Unfortunately, they soon find it. – Larry Getlen

  4. Erin said on April 14, 2009 at 1:57 am

    I am a graduate student and during a recent class exercise we did an anonymous assignment on a piece of paper which were then randomly redistributed to the class. When I received one of my classmate’s papers, I noticed doodling on the back and then I saw a swastika. I was shocked. My class consists of 29 people, we have been together every day, all day for the past year, and are basically like family. I couldn’t believe anyone would draw this on their paper, especially since about half the people in our class are Jewish! I showed my friends sitting next to me, one of whom is Indian. He saw it and thought about it for a moment and said, you know, it was probably “so-and-so” (she is also Indian) because it is a popular symbol in Indian culture. It means good luck, or to bring luck to the object that it is placed on. The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word “svastika” meaning any lucky or auspicious object. The swastika is a positive symbol to much of the world, especially in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

    So, although it is shocking to many, and yes, perhaps even worth our concern. We were not present during the moment of this drawing. We have no evidence of the intention. In the cultural melting-pot that is Brooklyn, there is the possibility that this symbol was drawn for a reason that we cannot think of, by a person who is unfamiliar with the significance it holds in our culture.

    If this symbol was drawn with the intention of hate or rebellion by a person “who feels weak/inferior,” I do not think pity is the correct response. It may be our natural reaction, but through my clinical experience (not the same, I know, but I think somewhat applicable here), people who feel weak and inferior for ANY reason, do not make positive changes when they feel pitied, but instead become constructive when they are educated and compassionately supported. Obviously, if the act was done out of pure evil, no amount of education can change that. God forbid that was the case.

  5. Scooby said on May 4, 2009 at 1:32 am

    The swastica in the picture has been drawn the wrong way around. This would suggest the “artist” is not particularly clued up on the symbol, thus is nothing more worrying than a mere vandal trying to get some cheap shock value.

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