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Bay Ridge’s Boiling Pot? A Neighborhood Responds to September 11th

In Bay Ridge after September 11th, families put out an outstanding display of their patriotic loyalty, with the stars and stripes waving from every house and apartment doorway. Every storefront sported this look as well, an admirable and probably necessary gesture amidst this sudden surge of patriotic fervor. But what distinguishes Bay Ridge from other middle class American neighborhoods is its startling array of immigrant diversity. The Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Chinese, and Korean immigrants living here, perhaps, all fly the flag for different reasons.


Initially settled by the Dutch, by the early 1900s Bay Ridge became a distinctly Scandinavian and Italian enclave. Over the past thirty years it has transitioned into a neighborhood populated by a sizable number of various Middle Eastern, Asian, and Eastern European nationals. Marty Golden and Joanne Seminara, the area’s candidates for City Council in the recent election, both came from a voting population made up of the aging earlier immigrants. The newer immigrant families, however, actively represent themselves in the businesses, religious institutions and schools throughout Bay Ridge. According to the 1990 census (the most recent data is not yet broken down by neighborhood), the median household income is $32,000, reflecting a mostly managerial, administrative support, services professional and retail labor force. The demographics show a population made up of families and a large group of senior citizens.


Heading down the 3rd Avenue commercial strip, one finds Polnica Polish-American restaurant across the street from a Russian food market, with EBPA3HR restaurant nearby. A Middle Eastern food market sits beside a Nordic gift shop and market. Given this array of ethnic backgrounds, it struck me as peculiar, if not defensive, that the stores and restaurants and apartment complexes needed to shout out their patriotism so loud and clear. In my mostly native-born Clinton Hill neighborhood, residents do not feel nearly as obligated to hang up so many flags. A visit to a variety of local institutions in Bay Ridge, a month after September 11th, helped me understand the diversity concealed by the area’s continual outward displays of unity.


One of my first stops was the United Korean Church of NY on 4th Ave. The church formed ten years ago, originating from a small group that had migrated from Flushing, Queens. Half of its congregation comes from the surrounding area and the rest from other parts of Brooklyn. According to a member, the Church raised over $3,000 for Councilman Golden to distribute after Sept. 11th.


My conversation with Reverend Young Kwan Oh, however, veered beyond Bay Ridge and into the complications and differences that arise between first and second-generation immigrants. As Reverend Young explained, 60% of the church is first generation and 30% second generation and remaining 10% labeled the “1.5 generation.” The larger first generation has a more conservative attitude and does not really promote inter-faith activities, Rev. Young says. They also work long hours, which prevent them from participating in many community activities, much less voting in elections. The second generation’s more culturally liberal attitude and seemingly less hard working stance also put them at odds with the older group.


As I spoke to Rev. Young, I vicariously felt the errant second generation’s sins while I fully empathized with the pastor’s dilemma: how to unify the two groups, with one generation based on Confucian values, which already conflicts with their Christian identity, and resolve them with the more “Americanized” generation. Despite the insularity of the church’s plight, it struck me as still addressing the very issues brought up by Sept. 11th. How patriotic can first generation immigrants be toward a nation that seems so foreign to their culture, where their children no longer seem like their own?


I next approached a Methodist church down the street. I ended up speaking to a woman who sat on the church board and appeared to be in her early 60s. This ethnically “white” church shares its space with a Korean congregation from Queens. Yet according to the member, the two groups do not mix much. She grew up in Brooklyn and has seen the area change since her childhood. She remembers seeing the first darker complexioned family moving to her street and only years later learning that they were Pakistani. She vigorously affirmed that the people in Bay Ridge are not much different, that “they’re all Americans.”


Many local ethnic business owners similarly explain that the strain they currently feel is not a result of racism but instead of the larger economic downturn since the attack. At a Middle Eastern restaurant run by a Palestinian family, the proprietors even stated that they have felt encouragement, not hatred, from the community since September 11th. The recent slowdown has affected all the area’s businesses, however. The owners of a local Indian restaurant reported that business was actually strong during the first month after the attacks, but that it has slowed down since.


I eventually spoke with Abdullah al Fawal, an Imam from a local Bay Ridge mosque and head of the U.S. Islamic Center, who spoke differently about the community’s response. Of Syrian nationality, Al Fawal came to the United States with his family to study. He founded the Center eleven years ago and it has since grown from three to four people to over four hundred members. His mosque consists predominantly of Pakistani immigrants, but it also contains many different nationalities. Recently more non-Arabic/African converts have entered his mosque.


In the first few days after the attack, Al Fawal says, local Muslim and Arab parents kept their children from attending school for fear of insult and attack. Members of his mosque reported numerous incidents of harassment on the street. In general, Al Fawal feels that a double standard is applied between Muslim-Americans and other Americans. The government did not investigate Christians with equal vigor after officials suspected Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombings, he noted.


According to the 1990 census report, Bay Ridge has 6,372 people of Arab ancestry and they make up 5.8% of the community. In early November, The Bay Ridge Paper reported that at least 40 people of Arab descent were questioned or detained from Bay Ridge out of the 1000 held nationwide since the attack. A distinct and equally vital part of the community, Al Fawal also reminded me that a large number of Muslims and Arabs were killed at the World Trade Center.


I later spoke with the pastor of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church, the first in the United States and a training ground for other Arabic Lutheran churches throughout the country. Born in Palestine, Rev. Khader El-Yateem descends from many generations of practicing Greek Orthodox Christians in a country where Christians make up 2% of the population. He converted to Lutheranism ten years ago and was invited by the American bishop to start an Arabic church in Bay Ridge. He took over an established Dutch church and, beginning with 20 parishioners, he developed a large congregation with a substantial Syrian population mixed with many other Arabic nationals.


El-Yateem also spoke of the hatred directed against his parishioners. One Christian child named Osama (a common Arabic name) was harassed and teased. After staying home for a week and a half, Rev. El-Yateem intervened along with the parents to have a white woman walk the child to school. Another parishioner’s store, he says, was attacked and “F— Allah” was written on the wall. Prior to Sept. 11th, Rev. El-Yateem had helped create the Brooklyn Unity Task Force, and inter-faith coalition that brought Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths together to promote greater unity throughout Brooklyn. This foundation established the context for these groups to discuss the attacks and to pray together.


All of these organizations stressed unity and tolerance, yet I still gleaned the tension that emanates from strong adherents of any faith. Although the Imam Al Fawal has educated himself about other faiths, he commented on certain aspects of Christianity that he found questionable. And despite Rev. El-Yateem’s efforts to cross religious boundaries, he also has strong views about the Muslim faith and the values it upholds. Specifically, he discussed the tenuous handhold Christian and Muslim Palestinians share during their ongoing fight for their homeland.


These are the divisions that each of these faiths must cross in an attempt to show solidarity and maturity in the face of increased antagonism to the Arab community in the United States. And these strains require more than the American flag to blanket them over, in the vague hope that everyone can share that space with equanimity. Yet faithfulness to what this country rhetorically stands for—freedom of religion and from persecution—at least encourages and provides a forum for these groups to work with one another.


Each of my encounters reminded me that one’s ethnicity is different from one’s nationality, just as one’s religion is often separate from these identities. The Sept. 11th event thus brings up old issues that have long plagued immigrants in the United States. I have often joked that it’s too bad Asians did not take over the New World, because at least this would be another country we could call “home.” Yet, even as America was founded by the British, it was built, populated, and sought out by ethnicities and nationalities of a decidedly mixed sort. And now, as the Imam Al Fawal stated, “We are Americans, we aren’t going anywhere.” Or as Rev. Al-Yateem observed, “If someone said ‘Arab go home,’ I would go down to my street” to be with his family.


As most of my conversations confirmed, it is hard for immigrants (especially those who stand out physically) to stand by a country that makes them feel unwelcome so frequently. This questioning constantly reasserts itself during times of national crisis, whether during Japanese internment or in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th attack. How often does one have to reply “that going home” means walking just down the street? The term “transnationalism” is growing amongst academics to describe immigrants who share a divided fealty between their motherland and their residing country. Ideally, the United States offers the promise of a “true home,” one based on shared ideas. The reality forces many to question where their patriotism lies, especially if they do not appear wanted here. This issue crosses generational differences.


The legacy of discrimination and the constant questioning of an immigrant group’s loyalty and patriotism reflects the tensions that surrounded this country’s creation. During the American Revolution, the terms Patriot and Loyalist were applied to those pledging allegiance to one’s ideals as opposed to one’s sovereign and mother country. Once the rebels decided to create a new country, the concept of an American patriot was born. And suddenly British Loyalists became the “immigrants,” foreigners on a land they once dominated, and thus forced into a transitional state by the end of the war.


The principals of being Patriotic and Loyal, however, are two independent terms. The adjective “Patriotic” means love of and willingness to defend one’s country. Being “Loyal” requires a steadfast faithfulness to an ideal, duty or country. I do not doubt the loyalty many recent immigrants feel towards America, which has often given them a chance at a different life. They uphold the values of a nation that rhetorically provides the rights and institutions that try to meet their basic human needs.


But their patriotism I do doubt. The U.S. is a nation that has either fought or supported wars in many of their countries. Pledging one’s love to it would conflict with what they have witnessed in their motherland. Because of what he has seen in Palestine, Rev. Al-Yateem says that he must “remain faithful to himself and to what he has become” as an American citizen. Patriotism, and the flag used to express that sentiment, stems from a sincere desire to completely love and defend this country whatever its faults. It is a right any citizen has to express. Likewise, one also has the right to express loyalty to this country while openly acknowledging its faults and mistakes. That does not mean one must love and defend this country when doubt and anger still resides in one’s chest.


Bay Ridge’s immigrant, religious, and business communities each struggle with their own separate issues. This insularity may perpetuate a sense of division. Yet, such pessimism seems harsh considering that efforts toward tolerance and unity existed prior to Sept. 11. Perhaps without the recent urgency, it was lip service, but the attempt was made and the knowledge gained and hopefully retained. In time, people will not need the flag as a scrim to mask what they truly think behind their windowpanes. Instead, their actions and presence in Bay Ridge may offer hope that an ethnically/nationally diverse population can actively and companionably build a greater community.





Mo-Yain Tham

Mo-Yain Tham is a writer formerly based in Clinton Hill who now attends graduate school in D.C.


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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