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Crown Heights Keeps the Peace, One Kosher Frank at a Time

By Sonja Sharp | June 4, 2012 2:05pm

CROWN HEIGHTS — When 26-year-old Crown Heights native Menachem Eber attended his first Family Day picnic in Lefferts Park 19 years ago, there were almost as many cameras as kosher franks. A generation later, tourists had replaced the television trucks, and despite expected record attendance, the once-unprecedented event barely warranted a nod.

Which, if you ask officers in the 71st precinct, is noteworthy in itself. 

"Many years ago there was a lot of tension and hostility," said New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who met with residents at the barbecue Sunday afternoon. "This is a manifestation of the fact things have changed significantly."

Officers dished up some 4,000 hot dogs, as well as thousands of hamburgers and assorted goodies at the 19th annual Family Day Picnic, which drew thousands of residents from the famously diverse neighborhood.

"New York is all about diversity," said Assistant Chief Thomas Chan, who commands Patrol Borough Brooklyn South. "All of you together make New York City special." 

The first picnic was held in the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, with the neighborhood still simmering from weeks of violence touched off the summer before, after one of the cars in a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rabbi struck and killed a young Guyanese-American boy on the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue. 

"Peacemaking is important, but peacekeeping is a far greater task," said Richard Green, head of the Crown Heights Youth Collective and an honored guest at the picnic. "Who doesn't like something to eat?" 

Though many attendees like Green recalled the trying early years of cooperation that laid the groundwork for Sunday's picnic, most were too young to remember it. 
Zoe Atava, 13, had only just heard about the riots. She and her eighth grade class from Chabad Hebrew Academy in San Diego, Calif., stopped by the picnic on their way to the airport after a week-long graduation trip centered in Crown Heights. Racial tension wasn't really on their radar. To them, the picnic was just another of those thrilling things that only happen in New York.
"It's a really amazing experience," Atava said. "I was so grateful that we got to come here."  
Even Eber was just a kid when the neighborhood was nearly torn apart by race riots twenty years ago. Now, despite decades of relative peace, the young father of two said he's making a point to bring his daughters to break bread with their neighbors. 

 "I've been coming since I was a kid—now I bring my kids," Eber said. "I want them to learn to be friendly to everybody."