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Explaining neighborhood's troubles

Our family has a love affair with a star-crossed little neighborhood at the edge of New York City. In our house, "Rockaway" is a magic word.

Going to Rockaway means seeing grandma and aunts and uncles and "the cousins." A passel of kids of varying ages, the cousins love playing baseball in the front yard, romping on the beach just two blocks away, or exploring what's left of the Fort Tilden gun emplacements that overlook the Atlantic Ocean. The guns were put there to fight Nazis who many feared would come across the sea during World War II. Fortunately, the Nazis never came. Now, the neighborhood faces troubles no one ever imagined.

The television screen Monday morning cut suddenly to a city block we know and cherish. The flames were ripping through houses and buildings two doors down from my brother-in-law's home.

We knew my mother-in-law was in church at the time of the crash _ she goes to the 9 a.m. Mass every day at St. Francis de Sales, about a block from where some of the plane fragments hit. We learned courtesy of a live interview with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that the church was okay. We appreciated that, Mr. Mayor. Grandma finally got through to us. She and the rest of the family were okay, too.

Giuliani said he remembered the church because of the many funerals and memorial services he had attended there since Sept. 11. You see, Rockaway, and in particular the Belle Harbor section that was struck on Monday, had already suffered mightily in the World Trade Center disaster.

It's a neighborhood full of firefighters and upwardly mobile, middle-class people, so many of whom had moved across the Gil Hodges Bridge from working-class sections of Brooklyn. Many of them found good jobs in the financial boom of the 1990s and worked in the trade center.

To call this neighborhood old-fashioned is both true and misleading. True because the prevailing values really are old-fashioned. Misleading because everyone is acutely aware that it takes hard work and careful adjustment to keep old values alive in 2001.

People in Belle Harbor don't much debate a word like "communitarian." They don't have to. That's just what these people are. I know from family experience that when a neighbor gets sick, whole blocks mobilize instantly. Food just shows up. Baby sitters materialize. The invitation for a drink at the Harbor Light, a friendly establishment smack in the path of Monday's devastation, comes right on time. The word gets out fast. Nobody asks questions. Nobody thinks about being paid back. Everybody knows the same comfort will be available for them when they need it.

Firefighters are as thick on the ground as steelworkers once were in Pittsburgh or stockbrokers still are in Brooklyn Heights. It's work that's often passed down from father to son. Few professions fit the neighborhood better: a marriage of family values with public service. Their attitude fits too _ tough on the outside, romantic on the inside.

The funny thing about this neighborhood is that for all the ties of clan and ethnicity and faith _ most of the neighbors we know are Irish, with a sprinkling of Italians, and Catholic _ there is a kind of open welcome you don't run into everywhere. Many people who don't know the place think this is an attitude foreign to New York City. It isn't. My son loves the neighborhood because he can hit the streets and within five minutes be brought into a game of basketball or beach baseball or whatever else is going on. He's not an outsider. He's a kid, he's Brian's cousin, he's an honorary neighbor.

That's why it was so painful to watch this neighborhood in flames. Why so much trouble has come so fast to one small place I cannot explain. All I know is that it's a place that knows how to pull together and get dinner to the household down the street where no one is home to cook. Maybe it goes through hard times because it is so gifted at dealing with them.

A few weeks back, I was talking with Monsignor Martin Geraghty, the pastor of St. Francis de Sales, about his neighborhood's troubles. He's a deeply thoughtful man, a neighborhood intellectual who never flaunts how smart he is. He spoke of the academic trend to deconstruct, and thus explain away, anything. "You can deconstruct everything," he said, "except suffering." I don't envy Monsignor Geraghty's task of explaining to the good people of this exceptional neighborhood why the inexplicable keeps happening to them.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group