BLACKS AND JEWS

Trees and tolerance are flourishing along Eastern Parkway - once a barren boundary between the blacks and Jews of Crown Heights.

When the community erupted in riots seven years ago, Eastern Parkway was the line in the sand between Orthodox Jews who lived in detached houses to the south and blacks in turn-of-the-century row houses to the north.

But today, the newly beautified parkway is a symbol of recovering race relations citywide.

Crown Heights Community Board Chairman Robert Matthews hears new evidence of this recovery daily in the "good mornings" exchanged by area residents as they pass peaceably beneath the newly planted trees on the parkway promenade.

"I think on the whole, race relations in the city have improved - and I see it here in an increased dialogue between the residents," Matthews said.

"There is a "Good morning,\' a "How are you?\' or a "Good afternoon.\' This kind of thing - it means so much."

Such greetings were rare in the early \'90s, when there was what Matthews calls "a class thing here." Hostile stares were the norm.

"The black families thought the Jewish families thought they were better than everybody else," he said. "Once we were able to find out we were all people - with the same needs and causes - things began to defrost."

In 1991, Crown Heights was a frightening place. Already wracked by crime and crack use, it erupted in four days of rioting after a young black kid, Gavin Cato, was killed by a car in the entourage of Lubavitch leader Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.

A mob of black men, looking for a Jewish target for their rage, chased after Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish scholar from Australia, and stabbed him to death.

In the years since, creative leadership by local leaders and police has brought understanding, acceptance and peace to the community.

The crack epidemic diminished in the early \'90s, and in the past few years, crime began dropping precipitously.

One benefit of the 15 percent drop in Crown Heights crime this year - a drop greater than in nearly any other city neighborhood - is that residents are not afraid to walk along Eastern Parkway at night.

Its broad promenade has new landscaping, lights and benches provided by the state and city. And old buildings lining it are being refurbished or torn down for new uses - like the new boys school for Yeshiva Oholei Menachem at Eastern Parkway between Brooklyn and New York avenues.

"The change in Eastern Parkway is really amazing - it\'s looking like a place where people want to start living again," said Eric Allison, a Pratt University urban planner and preservationist.

More importantly, residents have become neighbors, sharing fun and games at community events like the annual Crown Heights Family Picnic, at which 10,000 residents dine on everything from Jamaican beef patties to kosher hot dogs.

"We gave it the name "Family\' because that\'s what we were trying to get across," organizer Ann Lancaster-Lackey said.

Just how far past the \'91 riots the neighborhood has come was evidenced last winter when Lemrick Nelson and Charles Price were convicted of Rosenbaum\'s murder.

"That same night, we were all too busy holding a community meeting on a slasher who was breaking into black and Jewish homes," recalled Faigia Horowitz, head of Crown Heights\' Jewish Community Council.

"Blacks and Jews, nobody was jubilant, nobody was angry. The verdict wasn\'t an issue - people were concerned with what was uniting them that day.

"The past is behind us," she said.

Category: Social Issues