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Opposite Only on the Surface

Crash: Mourners in Washington Heights and Belle Harbor, N.Y., share grief and other similarities.

November 18, 2001|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They sit 30 miles apart, at opposite ends of one of New York's longest subway lines, Duke Ellington's famed "A" train. No two neighborhoods have been hit as hard this fall as the Dominican community of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan and the beachfront community of Belle Harbor at the far tip of Queens.

On the surface, they couldn't be more different.

The crowded streets and tenements of Washington Heights are home to 250,000 Dominicans, the fastest growing immigrant group in the city. Belle Harbor and the rest of the Rockaways, in Queens, are bedroom communities of mostly Irish and Jewish families over which jumbo jets carrying those immigrants fly a dozen times a day, headed for or coming from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Monday, one of the planes, American Airlines Flight 587 bound for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, dived into four Belle Harbor homes. The neighborhood, which had already suffered the deaths of scores of firefighters, police officers and stockbrokers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lost five more residents in the crash. Dozens of Washington Heights residents on board the plane were also killed.

"Two beautiful communities were affected by this," Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said.

He and others were quick to note that the seemingly different communities share more than disproportionate loss.

"Both communities have a strong belief in God, both rely heavily on family; both are places where people are very much connected to each other and have a strong work ethic," he said.

"They're both communities of immigrants," said Msgr. Gerald Walsh, 59, of St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church in Washington Heights, where many priests, firefighters and police officers have Irish surnames. "This was a heavily Irish neighborhood until the '60s. As they went up the ladder and got education and good jobs, they moved outside to places like Belle Harbor. Now the Dominicans are doing the same thing."

Washington Heights' bustling boulevards and block after block of brick apartment buildings are the first stop in the U.S. for many Dominicans. They get off the plane with a large suitcase and a relative's or friend's uptown address. Kids play in concrete schoolyards and on crammed sidewalks, where an occasional skinny tree and pigeons and rats are the only nature.

"People come here and find cheap housing. It's close to jobs downtown, and they get a good education and get out, hopefully," Walsh said.

Many Dominicans own neighborhood grocery stores called bodegas; others seek work in restaurants and factories.

Roberto Despraded, 41, was one such immigrant. He immigrated a decade ago and worked long nights as a security guard at a restaurant and club in White Plains, N.Y.

This fall, he had saved enough money to bring his two young sons back to Santo Domingo to see his sisters. His older brother Ernesto helped him carry his suitcases downstairs early Monday morning. His wife and daughter opted to stay behind; his daughter did not want to miss a week of school.

On Thursday, Ernesto and a long line of neighbors sat in folding chairs in the dimly lit hallway outside his sixth-floor apartment. Inside, a circle of relatives and friends sat in front of a huge family photograph with candles, bouquets and bowls of fruit. It was a scene repeated at scores of apartments in a 20-block radius.

"The whole neighborhood is in shock; we cannot believe it," said Rosa Sosa, 71.

Mary Gratereaux, 53, who has lived here for 20 years, agreed. "Our American dream cost us too much on Monday. It cost us our lives."

On Thursday night, more than 1,000 people packed St. Elizabeth's as Cardinal Edward Egan held a Mass--in Spanish and English--for those killed in the Flight 587 crash and at the World Trade Center. About 50 undocumented Dominicans who were busboys and maintenance workers were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the trade center.

The next morning, a borough away, 1,000 mourners filled St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Belle Harbor at the double funeral for Kathie Lawler and her son Christopher, who died when Flight 587 hit their home. A dozen funeral Masses for World Trade Center victims had already been held there in recent weeks. Two Irish bagpipe bands marched behind the hearses, drowned out occasionally by jumbo jets roaring overhead.

Belle Harbor, sitting on the narrow Rockaway Peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean, is a community of two-story, wood-frame houses, green front lawns and quiet, tree-lined streets where sea gulls and wild geese circle overhead. The neighborhood is bordered by beaches on each side of the four-block-wide peninsula, the bridge across Jamaica Bay, the High Point pub and the parish church.

Hundreds of New York firefighters and police officers live here and vow never to leave. Many speak of "Rockapulco" and "never getting the sand out of your shoes."

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