City of Joel

The story itself is more interesting than the movie, but making this movie was a feat as a whole. The movie’s main plot focuses on local political conflict, with the subplot being the fascinating City of Joel.

Kiryas Joel (Kiri-yas Joel [Yo-el], KJ) is, in short, a small town in Orange County, New York. It is a Hasidic community founded[1] by Joel Teitelbaum in the 1970s.

The film City of Joel is storied around the tension between the town of Monroe, and the KJ village that sits within the town.

Note: Due to the sheer scale of KJ and with its size compared to the town of Monroe, it can be hard to give definition to the community of KJ:

  • Within Monroe, it is defined as a village, with 20.1 sq mi[2] of land compared to KJ’s minuscule 1.46 sq mi[3]
  • Compared by population, it is bigger than the town, with 32,954 and 21,387 respectively. [2:1] [3:1]
  • Wikipedia defines it today as a village coterminous; a village that governs itself.[3:2]
  • The movie accepts a further step in juxtaposition, using it’s translated name as a ‘City’.

The note above is the central reason for the conflict between these two groups of people. KJ would like to annex 507 acres[4] to its village for development, and Monroe doesn’t want this to happen because of the exponential growth they’ve seen; above 50% decade-over-decade.[5]

KJ needs property to develop, but Monroe is fearful of losing their own property and lifestyle blocks, as well as their fear of KJ’s size, presence, control, manipulation, corruption, or what have you, within local politics and governance.

At one point KJ had simple suburban housing for each family. These days they have 5 storey flats occupied by many families.

Over half of KJ is below the poverty line. “[The] village has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and the largest percentage of residents who receive food stamps.”[6] However, ‘despite the town's very high statistical poverty rates, "It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually non-existent.”’[6:1]

Both Monroe and KJ have their own stories; displacement and antisemitism respectively, with both feeling discrimination.

I started to wonder how I would feel if this happened in my city. Then I realised in fascination that it almost looked like middle-class gentrification.

Instead of the traditional gentrification of poor urban area being changed by the wealthy, this is a middle class rural area being changed by a wealthy[7], prosperous, and fruitful religious group.

At the start, this was a story about a religious group engulfing a town. As I squinted near the end, it was a story about gentrification.

I wonder what the story would be if the town of Monroe wasn’t middle class.

The Wikipedia article is a fascinating read.

  1. Joel Teitelbaum wasn’t necessarily the founder, but he was the ‘driving spirit behind the project’:,_New_York#History ↩︎

  2.,_New_York ↩︎ ↩︎

  3.,_New_York ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  4.,_New_York#Locally ↩︎

  5.,_New_York#Demographics ↩︎

  6.,_New_York#Poverty_and_crime ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. I don’t know how wealthy they are, but village trustee and Rabbi Jacob Freund suggested that for a ‘$200k-$300k property’, KJ pay them $700k so they could ‘buy a much nicer property a mile away for $500k’, and make ‘a few hundred-thousand bucks’. ↩︎