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The Two Faces of Bensonhurst

A report from the neighborhood

Twentieth Avenue in Bensonhurst starts in the Hudson River, where it's called Gravesend Bay, only a couple of miles from the Atlantic Ocean. You can see the ocean across the Belt Parkway, but Bensonhurst rarely looks. The neighborhood focuses inland, toward the hub of 86th Street, with its railway track suspended some sixty feet above the road, and beyond all the way down to 50th.

On a summer afternoon on 86th, youngsters hang out on the street corners, near clothing stores called Male Ego and Women's Dreams. There are wedding dress stores in between the pizzerias, and photograph studios with pictures of Italian newlyweds grinning at each other under white-fenced porticos. There are also Korean groceries, Chinese take-outs, and dozens of Off-Track Betting offices. Blacks mingle with whites and Hispanics in Asian-run stores. Italian and Chinese, Yiddish and Korean are spoken here, under the traffic on the streets.

As you walk down 20th and further into Bensonhurst, the place gets a little seedier: there are a few vacant lots and more discount stores. But on either side of the avenue stretch tree-lined streets, small red-brick houses, porches, and lawns. Two black women chat on the corner. Four kids in yarmulkes stand around a car. A Korean family sits out on the porch, next to a plaster donkey and a statue of Our Lady of Guadelupe on the lawn, covered in cellophane to protect her from the rain. A little further down, the brown brick 1970s building of St. Dominic's Church, with bingo at 11:30 on Tuesdays and Fridays, and further down still, P.S. 205, cardboard butterfly cutouts pasted to the windows.

Once you've walked this far, it comes as something of a surprise to realize you've already passed the spot where Joseph Fama killed Yusuf Hawkins on August 23, 1989. The killing took place at 69th and 20th Avenue, near Yang's Deli and Joe Klein's Dental Supplies, within shooting distance of the cellophaned Lady of Guadelupe. The central, recurrent question of Bensonhurst is how these two things came together: how a seemingly model neighborhood of inner-city calm and easy coexistence became a watchword for racial hate.

As far as the residents of Bensonhurst are concerned, the answer to this question is simple. What connects their neighborhood to racism was a random act, made infamous by a hysterical media and by a few black activists. It could have happened anywhere else, they argue; it just happened to happen here. I could find only one individual in six days in the neighborhood who didn't share this belief. Along 18th Avenue stores carried blue ribbons in their windows (next to World Cup soccer posters) as a sign of a desired reconciliation. "It's the people who did this," explained an Italian deli owner. "We want peace. Unity. Sharpton's only happy when people are killing people."

It turned out, however, that the blue ribbons were not some spontaneous outburst of generosity: a couple of store-owners admitted that a local group of citizens had brought them around. And there's considerable evidence to support the Bensonhurst of media legend. The whites who greeted the Sharpton marches by holding up "Joey Fama for President" placards, brandishing watermelons, and twirling basketballs were not all outsiders. And even those keen to tell you prejudice does not exist end by relating a couple of incidents that prove it does.

A young Italian claimed there was no fundamental problem. He then told me he'd given up a job in real estate after finding that landlords never rented to perfectly qualified non-Italians. A black woman, who said she'd never had any trouble, also admitted that white teenagers called her "Brillo-pad" and "nigger" while she was standing at a bus stop. One black family who had been bequeathed a row house on an Italian street lasted only a few months before they felt they had to leave. Many complained about being followed around in stores by managers who assume that any black is a shoplifter. One woman said her change had been thrown at her in the supermarket. The integrated high schools are, according to several graduates, hardly immune from racial abuse.

Still, there is something about the earnestness with which so many residents of Bensonhurst insist on their good intentions that is difficult to dismiss. The people of the neighborhood were almost desperately concerned that their efforts at racial harmony not be slighted and adamant that real progress had been made. And what was interesting even about the anecdotes of racism was not so much the stories themselves as the tone in which they were conveyed. It was not one of desperation, or even of resentment. The tales were invariably part of a larger story about how racism was not that big a problem in their lives, and how, if anything, things had gotten better in the past few years. Perhaps the most surprising exponents of this view are the neighborhood's 7,000 or so blacks. Of the score or so blacks I spoke with, who either worked or lived in Bensonhurst, only one sided unequivocally with Sharpton. And only he had actually marched. Most blamed Sharpton for much of the trouble: "As far as I can see, one person started all this, and that's Al Sharpton," a black woman told me. "I've never experienced any prejudice. I felt a little tension in the grocery store just after it happened. But once they get to know your face, it's OK. It's not your color. It's whether they know you or not." "I blame Al Sharpton," said another black woman. "He's making life worse for all the black people who work here. He shouldn't blame everybody. I don't." A few blacks reported that it was the marches, rather than the original incident, that had intensified racial hatred in the neighborhood.

This other, more banal, Bensonhurst creeps up on you slowly. It strikes you first in the easy racial mixing on the streets. But it's perhaps best illustrated in a few of the residents themselves. Take Kenny, a twenty-eight-year-old Italian-American, who like many his age in Bensonhurst still lives with his family. He took me around the neighborhood one day in the pouring rain, pointing out, with what came close to pride, the black, Jewish, Hispanic, and Italian enclaves of his home. In the course of the conversation, he let it slip that one sister had married a divorced Puerto Rican (the family calls him "Poncho" to his face), another was dating a man a decade or so younger than herself, and a brother was dating a Chinese girl. His Italian-Catholic immigrant family seemed to be taking all this in stride. According to Kenny, even black-white dating is acceptable if the man is white and the woman black. The reverse is more problematic, a fact that has as much to do with prevailing sexism as with racism.

A host of other stories corroborates this kind of picture. A local truck driver said that his fellow drivers were all black. "One of them is really black. I call him the gorilla. But, you know, we're like this." He put his arm around my shoulder. "And if I get into trouble out on the road, who am I going to rely on?" A local Hispanic man said he was so sick of the media hype of local racism he wouldn't turn on the television when the Fama verdict was announced. He said it brought out racist feelings he didn't want to feel. Another Italian said he recently took his pregnant wife to predominantly black Coney Island at 1 a.m., something he'd never have done a few years ago: "Where else am I going to get sausage and peppers at one o'clock in the morning?"

Or take Father Barozzi, a priest at St Dominic's. He's a genial Italian, with a heavy accent, and effortlessly Catholic. At 4 p.m. he asked me whether I wanted scotch in my coffee or a glass of wine. His church, a few blocks from the site of the Hawkins murder, is making a genuine effort to counter bigotry. (Both David Dinkins and Al Sharpton visited it recently to announce an agreement to suspend temporarily the protest marches through the neighborhood.) This spring Barozzi held what he calls a "black month" for children in church education. Pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent black Americans were put up in the sanctuary; a black priest was invited to give sermons at all masses one weekend; prayer vigils were held at the murder site. Yet Barozzi also recounts the number of Italians he knows who have been mugged by blacks; speaks of what he sees as the disagreeable way of life of blacks — loud music late at night, the lack of strong family values, and so on; and reminds you that he is a northern Italian, with Anglo-Saxon blood in his veins. He is obviously a good man, but one whose effectiveness in this immigrant community means sharing some of the unconscious racism he is at other times trying to break down.

Or take Gerard. Born and brought up in Bensonhurst, he's a wiry, almost nerdy Italian in early middle age who made it to Columbia College and Law School. He went to Wall Street as a corporate tax lawyer, but in his twenties decided to do something for his old neighborhood and started a basketball team for local youth. This was in 1974. His first team practice was with three Italians, a Puerto Rican, and two blacks, in Most Precious Blood parish's converted bingo hall. It didn't get off to an auspicious start. "We hadn't been there fifteen minutes when a vanload of white kids pulled up and started pounding the windows, with bricks in their hands."

Gerard didn't give up the scheme despite mounting abuse. Each practice was a war of nerves as he shipped black kids from the nearby Marlboro Projects into a white neighborhood. There followed a white boycott of the team and some rough years in which his safety was threatened. Gerard gave up his job in Manhattan, set up a local law practice, and focused on what was becoming for him something of a religious vocation. He called the team Flames Neighborhood Youth Association, referring to the Holy Spirit. In 1977, as if in a movie plot, the team won the entire Catholic Youth Organization championship for Queens and Brooklyn. Suddenly all the neighborhood kids, black and white, wanted to be on the team. These days Gerard runs several teams, some in the CYO tournament and some in in-house competitions.

According to Gerard, the last decade has seen real progress in race relations in Bensonhurst: "Gradually, a really profound change has taken place. These kids from the projects have no fear at all anymore of walking down the block to the gym." Even this year, with the Hawkins killing occurring just before the season, no major trouble has taken place. In an early incident, a white from Bensonhurst maced a black from Coney Island outside practice one evening, but it turned out to be a typical teenage fight. Gerard sums up his tactics for dealing with it like this: "First you isolate the guy who did it, rather than force other people to side with him…. I told the black kid we'd deal with it, and we did. That was it. No police. No report. No press. No Al Sharpton."

I spent an afternoon with Gerard in the Marlboro Projects. Six thousand people live in these buildings, vast, square, red-brick monoliths, divided in the center by a road: a bleak, modernist contrast to the cozy row houses only blocks away. The projects are situated on the outskirts of Bensonhurst, cut off on three sides by railway tracks, and on the other by the vast elevated line. The symbolism of this massive barrier is clear. What unites the center of Bensonhurst is the very thing pushing these people out. Since the mid-1970s the projects have been predominantly black. The rest of Bensonhurst, though racially diverse and a workplace for many blacks, has virtually no black residents at all.

Everyone seemed genuinely glad to see Gerard, and vice versa. When pressed, they talked with disarming honesty about the racism they confront. None says it's getting worse. "They used to come here with sticks, stakes, and bricks," a twenty-nine-year-old remembers. "But all that came to a cease-stop." Others said racism was the least of their problems. "What they should think about doing is putting lights in the park here," said Charlie. "If you go anywhere else they have lights in the park. You could play basketball at night then. If you give them something to do you wouldn't get so much stuff going on." The stuff going on is a sharp rise in black-on-black killings and drug use in Marlboro. Gerard can rattle off the names of eight kids he knew who have been killed, and reckons the majority of the kids he knows have sold crack at one time or another. This year he was hoping to round off the season without a death on his teams, but two weeks ago another young black basketball player was shot. Joseph, a smart fifteen-year-old who plans to be an electrical engineer in Queens, says coolly of the interracial hype: "We don't have a history of killing them. We have a history of killing us."

To these people, Sharpton has a kind of cruel irrelevance. Sharpton hasn't come to the projects, and few here have gone to his marches. "We don't exist for him," one young black told me. "He's a mystery to me. At least he could have held a meeting here in the park. There ain't nobody coming to talk to us." The frustration is palpable: of all the problems facing the residents of Marlboro Projects — drugs, guns, poor housing, family breakdown, constant violence — none is at the center of the Bensonhurst furor. "If I was a publicity guy, I'd say, 'Racism, racism, racism,' because it's a great way to get media and grants," says Gerard. "But that's not the reality. For the most part, if a black person wants to get ahead, he can get ahead. A black guy from the Marlboro Projects can't get ahead, not because he's black, but because he's in the projects."

On Thursday, May 31, the Coalition for Harmony, an interfaith community group, held its first neighborhood open forum since the Hawkins killing. It took place in the Cotillion Terrace on 18th Avenue, a few blocks from the murder site. It's a ballroom of sorts, with glass chandeliers and mirrors in the shape of peacock feathers on the wall. On the stage there were back-lit pictures of waterfalls, next to a banner proclaiming: "Peace! Love! Harmony!" A bevy of clergy were due to speak, chaired by former Assemblyman Arnaldo Ferraro. Around 1,500 locals showed up: very few youngsters, and no blacks except one cleric from Bedford-Stuyvesant and someone to lead hymn-singing at the end.

The meeting began with an invocation in Italian, after which the entire audience made the sign of the cross. Then the assembled clergy spoke in platitudes for nearly an hour. Finally the current assemblyman, Peter Abbate, was invited to speak. As he got up, there were murmurings in the crowd. He announced that there was going to be another Sharpton march on Saturday. He asked them all to stay at home to avoid hostile media coverage. The last weekend's boycott of the march had been very successful: "We're asking you again, ignore it, go about your daily business. Don't give him the forum that he wants." The reaction began slowly at first, as people started standing up behind me, shouting random abuse at Abbate. Ferraro turned on him: "Why do we have to lock ourselves behind closed doors when they invade our territory?" A hysterical woman started yelling near the front: "Yusuf Hawkins's murder was not a racial incident. People don't know the truth. No one knows the truth."

Throughout this noise, some residents patiently waited by microphones at the front of the hall. A sort of hush intermittently let them be heard. Halting speeches in broken English were made in a flood of wounded pride and anger: "We are not racial," sobbed one woman. "I never have trouble with anybody." Another shouted: "We've lost control of our house and our street. My children are chased out of the schoolyard by the police when the marchers come. Why do they keep on coming here?"

About half the crowd was now standing and yelling. The assemblyman urged peace and harmony. A woman shrieked: "My peace and harmony went out of the window on August 24 when they arrested eight Italian boys and told all the black and Hispanic boys that they had nothing to do with it." It was Mrs. Mondello, the mother of Keith Mondello, one of the convicted boys. Abbate responded, "I know how you feel, Mrs. Mondello." "You can't know how I feel," she yelled back. "No one knows how I feel." "Let them march without the cops!" shouted a man at the back of the room. "Don't take away the rights of the people!"

A few residents went up to the microphones to appeal for calm. An older man said, "We're all minorities. We should stick together. They're just going to pick us off one by one." A young, nervous girl ventured, "There is racism in Bensonhurst," and the place erupted once again. The grievances went on and on. How much was this costing us? How come you can't get a permit for a block party with a month's notice and Sharpton gives the police two days' notice and the main high street shuts down? "Tell me," yelled one man. "Why are we afraid to walk the streets on Saturday? We should not be held hostage in our own houses." The only hush was for Mrs. Mondello, whose main point was that Gina Feliciano "is now and has only ever been a lowlife, drug-using prostitute whore." At this, the meeting exploded into menacing cheers.

It's not clear whether this is the Bensonhurst that will emerge from the agony of the last few months. Certainly the maximum sentences handed down last week to Fama and Mondello will likely take the sting out of Sharpton's marches. But whatever happens, another Bensonhurst clearly exists. It's difficult to spend much time in the neighborhood without being more impressed by the honesty with which people discuss their problems and their awkward attempts to deal with them than with the fear and suspicion lurking beneath the surface. It may, of course, all explode into the rage of that Thursday night. But if it does, not all of Bensonhurst will be behind it. Some even seem to grasp the larger symbolism of what is at stake. They ended the meeting, in a desperate bid to avoid complete chaos, with a clumsy invocation to sing "God Bless America." I thought it would be a fiasco. As it was, everyone stood and awkwardly held hands. And when they sang "My home, sweet home," they raised up their arms. 

This article originally ran in the July 2nd, 1990, issue of the magazine.