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Forest Hills ‘let her in,’ and now she is leaving

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In a few weeks, I will begin an after-dark search of Austin Street for clean, empty cardboard boxes. I will stand in the infamous half-hour-minimum Forest Hills post office line to personally hand in my change of address form. I plan to enjoy one last filet mignon at Santa Fe Steak House, and fight for a place at the bar to lazily sip a frozen strawberry margarita at Five Burro Cafe. I will compose two piles of stuff that has gathered in my tiny Burns Street walk-up: Keep. Toss.

I’m moving. I will move from the oddly-hip, old-Europe-meets-new-American yuppie neighborhood I have called home for three years: Forest Hills, Queens, New York City, a dime-size subdivision of greater Flushing. (No one from where I came from has ever heard of it) So much of me is here, and so much of what I have experienced here will forever have a profound impact on the “me” I will be in my new home. My relationship with Forest Hills has been a love-hate one. And these are the relationships that affect you most.

As a black American, I have been criticized by my African-American city friends for choosing to live in Forest Hills. One acquaintance of mine asked incredulously, “They actually let you in?” For those who don’t know, or don’t realize, or just don’t care, it is an inside-out joke for blacks who know Forest Hills — a joke based on reality — simply that there are no blacks living in Forest Hills, or the very few of us who do live here, feel we must fight to “get in” and must continue to fight to be accepted. Especially in the privileged, exclusive section where I live, The Gardens.

My neighbors have expressed both love and hate toward me. Coming directly or genetically from nations that include Israel, Russia, Korea, Western Europe, and a wealth of other origins, my neighbors have seemingly viewed me at times with keen interest, genuine surprise, open acceptance, or blatant disapproval. They exchange light conversation with me, greet my dog, and even yell from their porches, “Morning!” It is on those days that I love Forest Hills.

My first experience with hate came four years ago when I arrived to view an apartment on Burns Street. After speaking with a kind man on the telephone, I arrived at his apartment house less than five minutes later. The formerly kind man opened his door barely an inch before insisting, “I just rented the apartment. I swear.”

Perhaps the most profound experience in the area happened just last year. It involves my case with the Commission on Human Rights, against a woman who refused to allow me to put a deposit on her available apartment. Rather than requesting my rental criteria — employment, previous rental references, etc., this lady requested my ethnic origins. “What are you, Spanish?” she asked, before telling me that the apartment was too small for me, then advising me to stay where I came from.

When encountering these experiences, I am advised that yes, these incidents can and do happen other places, that we all have felt victimized for having too much or too little color in our skin, or for being from the wrong place in the world. But I guess what hurts the most, is having put so much of my love in and so much hope for, a safe, serene life here, then having to leave feeling that I really did have to, at times, fight a battle of racism and bigotry.

I think of all that I will miss about Forest Hills — the quaint boutiques, the lazy walks with my dog through the Gardens, the silent evenings interrupted by a late-night LIRR train, people watching from the steps of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. And my neighbors, those who have embraced me, observed me with curious interest, or just left me alone to enjoy the tranquility I had finally found in a small town in the middle of a big city. I thank them for allowing me “in.”

Before I leave Forest Hills, I must decide how to leave. Do I allow myself to leave, hating a place I have chosen to make my home, and all the good and bad that has come along with my choice? Or do I leave loving the contented moments that have made Forest Hills that ideal home? And how do I leave the people who have left me questioning my feelings? Do I excuse them, do I forgive them, or do I forget and move on?

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