On Brooklyn's Streets
I LIVE six blocks from Church Avenue, the site of the boycott against the two Korean grocers. Each time I open a newspaper, or turn on the TV, I see my neighborhood - at this moment a handsomely dressed anchorman is standing on my corner - and I don't recognize the portrait. There are social problems galore in our neighborhood - children who shield their crack-dealing mothers, teenagers who give birth and become fixtures on stoops - but racial hatred, though it makes great headlines, is not part of the fabric here.
Six years ago, when my husband and I, former residents of the East Village and Upper West Side, put down a deposit on a house here, I cried, overwhelmed by the idea of being one of the few whites in a black neighborhood. I needn't have worried. I soon became absorbed in the warm, busybody quality of our block. Advice and criticism are freely given - and people automatically help each other out. Racial differences are noted, of course - there are at least a dozen ethnic groups here - but they don't stop alliances from forming.
Since moving to Brooklyn, I've been the object of two incidents - both outside my neighborhood - which the media would be quick to call bias-related. A tall woman, a crack addict, attacked me as I was walking by Prospect Park. As we struggled over my shoulder bag, she beat my shoulders and dragged me, the lighter one, along the sidewalk. There was a happy ending - a Good Samaritan jumped out of his car, pinning my attacker, until two mounted police galloped up. The woman was jailed.
The first question my neighbors asked me about the incident was: Was she black? Well, yes, she was. But I don't know that my color had much to do with her choice. I'm small; my bag was hanging loosely from my shoulder; and at the moment she stalked me, I was in a rare, unguarded state of bliss, thinking about my little boy.
In Park Slope, a well-dressed black man, as he passed me, spat fully into my face. As I stood there, stunned, he shot me a smile, as if I'd made his day. I kept staring at his retreating back, thinking: Why? Because I'm a woman? Because I'm white? I was furious for days. But, for me, it was an isolated incident, a strange puzzle.
The merchants of our neighborhood - mainly Koreans, Palestinians, Israelis, Italians, Chinese, and Greeks - have no investment here that isn't financial. They're not crazy about American culture, and many of them associate blacks with the worst of it - crime, drugs, and promiscuity.
Some of their customers sense this, and also resent their economic power. And so sometimes they act rudely, occasionally even abusively. The immigrant merchants have no context in which to put this behavior. Outwardly, they mostly remain cordial. Privately, they call these customers animals. And say to their white patrons, ``What are you doing living in this neighborhood?''
Yet, what's surprising is that despite so many different cultures facing each other across the counter, with language difficulties on both sides, there's a good deal of camaraderie - of concern about each other's new babies and elderly parents, and about troubles back home and here in New York. I often hear both groups say, ``People are just people.''
The Koreans are a bit of an exception. To their customers, they seem more guarded and remote, less schmoozy than the other merchants. Quicker to take your money, bag your purchase, and dismiss you.
Yet, whatever really happened between the Korean store owner being boycotted and the Haitian shopper, it is not symbolic of a racial war. Or even of a battle. It's part of a complicated - and only sometimes hostile - dance that goes on daily among the dozens of different ethnic groups trying to get along and do business together.
The boycott has hurt other stores along Church Avenue; shoppers are staying away. But more damaging, the media blitz has changed the way neighbors here look at each other.
Now when I walk along Flatbush Avenue, instead of merely being on the lookout for crackheads and crack dealers, I look into the faces of young black men. And I wonder what they see: a pregnant woman trying to balance her packages? Or just a white face, above a white figure - a thing to be trounced?