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When the home front is a front: Ordinary life in wartime Brooklyn Heights

By Robert Bové
web posted April 7, 2003

Soon after my wife and I settled in Brooklyn Heights in the mid-90s, a good friend of ours from Alexandria, Va. boarded the Metroliner at Union Station and paid us a weekend visit. We'd made vague plans to go to a show in Manhattan followed by dinner somewhere near Broadway, but we ended up staying here in the Heights, restaurant hopping right through show time and long into the night on that clear and crisp fall Saturday. The next day was another beauty, and, while the three of us stood in a brisk wind on the Promenade, the panorama of Lower Manhattan before us, its myriad glass windows reflecting the morning sun, my friend extolled our neighborhood, saying it was like the old Andy Griffith TV show's setting "Mayberry," but with a view. Though that locale was set in a fictional North Carolina country town, I understood he meant: the Heights, with its orderly Victorian-era architecture had a country town feel compared to the surrounding New York metro area. One could project whatever fantasy one wanted onto the neighborhood's neat façades.

Brooklyn HeightsSince 9/11, this neighborhood no longer resembles Mayberry (nor does it the fictional Brooklyn Heights where the old Patty Duke show was set). Yes, the blocks and blocks of brownstone and brick row houses are intact, the gardens are still well kept, and Montague Street still has a lively trade for its shops and restaurants. The view from the Promenade remains, still magnificent, but scarred for those who remember the attacks. And one never quite gets used to the sight and sound of helicopters -- standard police copters now joined by a full-throated Blackhawk doing citywide surveillance -- and they are overhead all the time now, protecting the East River Bridges, keeping an eye on New York Harbor. Groups of police officers now can be found at all hours on the platforms in the nearby Court House subway station and more now patrol the streets.

It's true that all this protection sometimes jars the nerves, but given that I've long been inured to the intense pace of life in this city I can live with a few more jangled nerves, particularly when police presence reassures far more often than not. A few months ago, an acquaintance complained that the bridges needed police snipers in addition to police checkpoints, and I laughed it off as typical New Yorker hyperbole. But after they caught three drunks who'd climbed one of the Manhattan Bridge towers last week, I remembered his "joke." It's not so funny anymore.

And such humor has never been funny for Brooklyn's substantial Muslim community, many of whose members own stores and worship in mosques on nearby Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn Heights' southern boundary. Nor are they reassured by added police presence, if some of their comments at community board forums are representative. They are, in fact, intimidated by the mere presence of the police. The recent bust of an Atlantic Ave. mosque for allegedly funneling money to terrorists has only added to Muslim fears that they are being "profiled." Given that that particular mosque -- the al-Farooq -- has a well-documented history of involvement with terrorists stretching back to the group who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, it would seem that area Muslims have reason to be wary. Would that the moderates among them would speak up against the radicals that seem to have hijacked Islam (and the scurrilous textbooks they use in local Muslim schools), but they are no less afraid of Islamists than we are. And, of course, the illegal aliens among them are already reluctant to speak out, fearing the unwanted attention it might bring.

But among shopkeepers here, it is not only the Muslims who will not speak out about the unfolding threat but others such as my coffee man, a normally unflappable, erudite gentleman who used to discuss every issue imaginable but who now has stopped playing NPR on his shop radio and only tunes into sports news and music. He has one word for world events anymore: "Crap." He knows my response remains "Let's Roll," so we agree not to antagonize each and just stick to sports talk. Discussions over other counters around the neighborhood are remarkably terse where they once were voluble. It is the same at bars I've visited, the most controversial subject last week having been the Mayor's citywide smoking ban -- not the terrorist threat here, not the war over there.

I think I know why, if I can use my experience with my wife as a guide: Once those subjects come up -- and, if one is honest, one must admit the terror here and the war there are inextricably linked -- it is impossible to get off subject. But when one tries to shift discussion to, say, the new daffodils on Henry St., the effort fails in mutual self-consciousness.

So, it is difficult to be casual, much less insouciant anymore, a quality that characterized residents of Brooklyn Heights one time not so long ago, a place never really much like that idyllic little videoburg the Heights appeared as in my friend's imagination.

I'm not sure that's a bad thing. We are at war, and if it means doing without a bit of the New Yorker's traditional swaggering sophistication, then so be it. If it means wresting our gaze from the glittering surface of things and focusing on whom we live among, it's a small sacrifice to make when so many are making the greater sacrifice in much scarier neighborhoods half a world away.

Robert Bové is an adjunct instructor in English at Pace University in Manhattan. He is a widely published writer and editor. His web site can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcbove/index.htm.

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