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KENNEDY PLANE CRASH

Neighborhood Pays Tribute at JFK Home

Offerings: Flowers cover the stoop at Kennedy's TriBeCa loft as New Yorkers, others gather in respect. Many recall him as a down-to-earth man.

July 19, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The media arrived first, police said, setting up TV cameras Saturday behind blue barricades across the street from the unassuming loft apartment building where John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, resided.

The flowers and votive candles soon followed. By midafternoon Sunday, hundreds of bouquets, many wilting in the intense heat, and four dozen candles had piled up so that only a narrow path to the front door was left on the wide stoop outside 20 N. Moore St. in lower Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood.

Many of those paying respects said that, despite Kennedy's movie-star good looks and the mythology of the family, it was the sense that under it all he was a real person that brought them.

Rosa Sanchez made the sign of the cross and wiped away tears as she laid yellow mums on the pile. Tucked inside was a small American flag, which "belonged to me," she said.

"He is very loved in the Hispanic community," said the 40-year-old assistant day-care teacher, explaining why she came from her home in upper Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Sanchez has followed the Kennedy family since her mother first came to New York from the Dominican Republic and began telling her about the assassinated president.

Of Latinos' admiration for John F. Kennedy Jr., she said: "It's the type of people his family were. He's so much like his parents, a very simple person who relates to everybody. Look where he was living," she said, gesturing toward the nine-story stone-and-brick building, which has no doorman and is on a street filled with similar facades, former grimy commercial buildings that have been converted into trendy but far from exclusive lofts.

From the tributes left at the couple's door and the faces in the crowd that gathered, Kennedy's appeal appeared to span race, class and age. The offerings ranged from an elaborate blue-and-lavender florist's arrangement to a bruised mango that was covered with a message written in black felt pen.

One couple walked up Sunday and propped a 5-inch-high cutout of Princess Diana against the bottom metal step. A standing spray of red roses carried a silver-glittered banner that read "De Un Cubano Exiliado a John John" ("From an exiled Cuban to John-John").

Taped to the building's wall were Spanish prayers, scrawled poems, the front page of the tabloid New York Post, and a hand-drawn picture of a 3-year-old Kennedy saluting his father's coffin. It was signed "Jose Torres from the Bronx."

Members of the media, perspiring in the hot sun as they chased after every new arrival, often outnumbered those paying respects, as police officers tried to keep the sidewalks clear for neighborhood residents.

Many neighbors stopped to recall how friendly Kennedy was, despite his celebrity. Carla Bauer, 50, remembered how Kennedy had chatted with her son, who was on his tricycle, and how her 6-year-old daughter, Annie, who was clamoring to leave a bouquet of her own, had once bonded with Kennedy's dog, named Friday, while "I was trying to be cool."

"It's a real loss to our neighborhood," she said. "Living in New York City, you see so many celebrities, and he did not have that attitude about him."

Even New Yorkers who didn't see Kennedy eating breakfast at the neighborhood restaurant or in-line skating in the street said they appreciated his down-to-earth approach despite frequent hounding by photographers and fans.

Yolanda Laboy, a 35-year-old secretary for the New York City Housing Authority, said she was lucky to meet Kennedy once when she was working at a movie theater. Although "everyone was making a big deal, he was really sweet." Kennedy was "very down to earth," she said. "He was a New Yorker."

Laboy "grew up right along with him," she said. "I was proud of him, I rooted him on, even when he kept failing his [bar] exams." Initially, she said, "I had such a crush on him. He was my Prince Charming, the one who was going to rescue me from the projects." But later, she said, she came to appreciate the way he lived as an adult. "He was a great example, not only to myself but to a lot of young people today."

Perhaps Kennedy also represented "the hope that someday his family will reign again," said Cleo Huggins, a 39-year-old graphic designer from Dover, N.H., who was visiting with Bauer and Michael Wadleigh, the director of the 1970 feature documentary "Woodstock."

Even though a friend knew Kennedy as a party boy in his school days, as he matured, there was a hope that he might return to the serious political roots of his family, she said.

Tourists were among those who came by. Linda Hahn, a 34-year-old vacationer from Virginia toting a bag from toy store FAO Schwarz, came with her husband, brother and 4-year-old twin boys after hearing the news.

"He was a great role model--for humanity," she said. "It's what life is about, giving back to people." When her boys asked what the flowers were for, she said she told them, "He was a good person and that's how people show respect for people who are important."

Not everyone milling around the building was there to pay respects, however. Some took pictures of themselves with the pile of flowers. Film director Wadleigh, who was in New York for an anniversary celebration of the landmark rock concert, was documenting the weekend with his digital camera and decided to add a Kennedy tribute, taking a picture of his friend being interviewed by a reporter.

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