Brian Boshell, a notorious local figure in Bay Ridge, is responding well to treatment for drug and alcohol problems, the Daily News reported last week; he was sentenced to treatment in lieu of jail time after a violent attack on two local women last September. Anyone who has spent time around the 69th Street and Fifth Avenue area probably knows Boshell: a notorious inebriate and public masturbator, prone to violent outbursts who seemed to spend most of his time on the streets, Boshell had already racked up a record of 34 prior arrests before he was taken into custody again following the attack on September 4, 2014.
Boshell had been asleep in the doorway of the offices of the Arab American Association on Fifth Avenue when local civil-rights activist Linda Sarsour and a coworker left the building. (The coworker, Kayla Santosuosso, writes for Hey Ridge and recused herself from writing about this issue.) Boshell launched into angry rant, threatening to cut off the women’s heads, brandishing a weapon that appeared to be a screwdriver and eventually hurling a public garbage can at them as they sought refuge in a local store. Police from the local precinct took 45 minutes to respond to the 911 call, even though the station house is fewer than 10 blocks away.
Though nobody was hurt in the incident, and Boshell appears finally to be getting the help he needs to deal with his issues, substance abuse and otherwise, the episode brought out a deep division within the neighborhood. Neighborhood demographics have been changing for decades, and Boshell belongs to the old-guard tribe of white, blue-collar, Irish and Italian Catholics who once dominated the neighborhood. Irish and Italian immigrants have had a fraught history of their own, but at least in Bay Ridge have unified in recent years in their resentment against the influx of newcomers who have moved to the neighborhood, altering its character irrevocably, especially in the less affluent census tracts where Boshell’s career in vagrancy was centered.
The corner of Fifth and Bay Ridge avenues is the epicenter of the Arab–American community, with a well-attended mosque, numerous hookah bars, halal delis, Middle Eastern restaurants and boutiques selling traditional Muslim fashions. To members of the old-school Tribe, Boshell was something of a class clown: a nuisance, but an affable and mostly harmless one. Denizens tolerated his behavior, stressing the tragedy of the death of his mother and sister, downplaying the undeniable fact that he was a nuisance and an embarrassment at best—a danger to himself and others at worst.
It’s the newcomers, the Arabs, the Asians, the Mexicans and Ecuadorians—even the white “hipsters”—who are the real source of resentment to the members of the Tribe. They feel their way of life is being eradicated by these outsiders, as evidenced by the comments made in innumerable public meetings about the “immigrant problem,” the many comments on Facebook complaining about “hipsters” and gentrifiers. It’s very clear to those of us who moved here from elsewhere that there is a limit to the hospitality of the locals. Outsiders are made—in many ways, large and small—to feel unwelcome here.
So the Tribe closes ranks in solidarity against the onslaught. Boshell, affectionately known to members of the Tribe as Bobo, was one of them. But Linda Sarsour is a lightning rod for their resentment, an outspoken advocate for civil rights not only for the Arab–American community but for other immigrant and disadvantaged groups as well, with a national profile that includes appearances on numerous national cable television programs and invitations to the White House; she was a vocal critic of police surveillance of the Muslim community following 9/11. To many members of the Tribe, Bobo was a hero—someone who stood up to whom many of them perceive to be the neighborhood’s most visible interloper. (A recent comment on a Bay Ridge Facebook group when Linda Sarsour was mentioned: “Maybe someone should throw a garbage can at her…oh, yeah remind me to thank Bobo when I see his ass.”)
Yet Sarsour, although she works on behalf of the immigrant community, is Brooklyn born and raised herself; a “homegirl in a hijab,” as the New York Times dubbed her. To be accepted as a member of the Tribe, it’s not good enough to be born and raised here. You also have to fit the right profile: the right place of birth, the right religion, the right style of dress, the right accent. Our local Tribe is animated by stringent narrow-minded parochialism.
So how is this division to be resolved? Tribalism is a deep-rooted human impulse—we all need to feel we belong somewhere. Can the Tribe win, driving out the immigrants and regaining the neighborhood for themselves? Of course not. The Arabs, Asians, Latinos and even hipsters are never going to leave this community. It’s our community, too. As the saying goes: It’s a free country. The Tribe can rant and rail all it wants, but we’re here to stay.
Can the newcomers win, forcing out the natives and making Bay Ridge a totally new community, starting over from scratch? Not a chance. The native-born own most of the real estate and occupy most of the leadership positions in local institutions. They’re too well-entrenched to be dislodged, except as the siren call of affordable homes with big grassy yards lures them across the bridge to Staten Island. At any rate, the newcomers are too disjointed and divided to form a coalition—we don’t even speak the same languages, let alone share a set of cultural norms.
But there is an answer. We can all of us belong to something much bigger than ourselves and our own narrow little demographic. The US is one of the few countries in the world not defined by ethnicity or religion but by its devotion to an ideal: that all men and women are created equal, the ideal that putting freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear at the core of our civic life should guarantee our liberty—not our loyalty to one faction. We can all belong to the same tribe if we look at the neighborhood as the common heritage of anyone who comes here and makes their home here, for a year, for 40 years or for five generations. We all belong together as one community. It’s time for Bay Ridge to celebrate our differences while also striving together toward a better future for everyone that chooses to live here.
We are all Bay Ridge.