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Us and Them

The chaos and race baiting that filled the streets after September 11 has died down, but the peace between Bridgeview's working-class residents and its better-off Musilm population remains uneasy.



Last July a kitchen fire spread unchecked through the home of Nancy O'Reilly, a longtime resident of south suburban Bridgeview. The blaze should have been extinguished sooner than it was: firefighters tapped the hydrant in front of O'Reilly's trailer in the Rosebud Mobile Home Park but were thwarted by low water pressure. "A water supply was attempted, but the hydrant did not work," wrote firefighter Anton Gass in his report to the Bridgeview fire department. "Nor did the other hydrants tried in the 1900 Row." The nearest working hydrant was on Harlem Avenue, two blocks away, but by the time a hose was hooked, the oxygen tanks O'Reilly used for her emphysema had exploded, and the trailers on either side of hers were in flames.

The park management moved O'Reilly and her family to a new trailer and pledged to fix the water-pressure problem. But park residents had heard that one two years earlier, when another trailer was lost to fire and faulty hydrants. For the past ten years poorly maintained pipes at the park have led to "boil orders" every couple months, and some tenants are reluctant to drink anything but bottled water. Rosebud was grandfathered in when the state's current fire codes were enacted, so it can operate without full compliance, and Zeman Mobile Home Communities, which owns the park, has never replaced the water pipes or hydrants, despite the fact that the park's population has grown dramatically since they bought it four years ago. "The mobile home park has to fix them," says Claudette Struzik, village clerk of Bridgeview. "They're not our water mains."

Mayor Steven Landek had been campaigning hard for the village to become a home-rule community, which would enable him to address the fire hydrant problem at Rosebud, but the anger inside the park was no easier to contain than the blaze that consumed O'Reilly's trailer. Some residents were so sick of feeling shafted that they formed a picket line outside the park management offices on August 25, but the situation still didn't change. "What do you expect when we've got fundamental Muslim radicals right here in this town who got it a whole lot better than us?" asks Tommy Langbauer, who's lived in Rosebud for six years.

Struzik explains that the houses surrounding the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation south of the park are relatively new construction, built atop new water mains. "That's why you're not going to have water problems over in the mosque area." But answers like that don't cut through the tangle of class, cultural, and racial differences that divide the park's residents from their wealthier neighbors. "I try to contain it," says Langbauer, a union rep for U.S. Steelworkers, Local 2154, who's worked at nearby factories since he came home from Vietnam in 1968. "I know I live in a Muslim community, and I've sat down and reminded myself they're not all bad. You have a lot of good people too. But I admit I got my prejudices every once in a while."

After the Twin Towers came down the resentment toward Bridgeview's Muslim community boiled over into violence. Harlem, the village's main drag, was a cacophony of gunning engines and ethnic slurs, as pro-American rallies degenerated into Osama-bashing sessions. Hundreds of people, many of them teens from surrounding towns, tried to march on the mosque, and each time police in riot gear had to push them back.

"It was crazy," says 21-year-old Randy Kadazlauskas. "There were SWAT teams and detectives everywhere. I have no idea why it happened. Basically just everyone was raising hell, just standing up for their country, I guess." Marchers chanted "Kill the Arabs!" and "Let them burn!" Two dozen people were arrested, most for disorderly conduct, and video of the melee circled the globe. Bridgeview had once been touted as a symbol of diversity, but on September 14 it looked more like Gage Park in 1966. "I was out there because we've got the mosque down the street," said one Rosebud resident, who showed up at the march draped in an American flag. "It's the Muslim people that did it to us."

"It was a lot of misguided patriotism," says Lieutenant William Partman, a 30-year member of the Bridgeview police force. "No one ever drove through the mosque or got at the mosque. By that Saturday after the attacks, it was over and done with. It stopped."

But the resentment has lingered. Though Langbauer contends that the protesters were mostly peaceful, he wonders if the tension between Bridgeview's blue-collar base and its more affluent Muslim community will ever subside. "If there's more terrorism, something else will happen," he predicts. "I'm afraid it's going to get a little nastier down here."


Scott Zakro stands outside his mobile home, surveying three tables of castoffs he's hoping to unload at "Treasure Days," a rummage sale held regularly at Rosebud. He has garden gnomes, hedge clippers, and other yard accessories, plus videos he's sick of--Friday the 13th, Zapped! with Scott Baio--and he's tended the blanket of grass next to his mobile home for the occasion. But bad publicity from the marches two weeks earlier has scared people away. After four hours and few takers, the wind is picking up and it looks like rain. "I think the Muslims are still pretty happy," says Zakro. "I bet they're out there shopping."

The hell-raising outside Rosebud unnerved but didn't surprise him. A five-year resident of the park, Zakro works as a machinist at a nearby factory. He wonders at the tax breaks available to minorities, some of whom are new to Bridgeview and already own businesses, when his own son doesn't qualify. "These newcomers coming into the country have it made. When my son turns 18, he's going to have to fight over and over. These people get help faster than us. It's easier for them." His son is a freshman at Stagg High School in neighboring Palos Hills; his daughter graduated last year and works at a pizza place. His stepson, who just turned 23, has bought his own trailer at Rosebud. Packing up the gnomes and videos, Zakro says he does his best to see the situation from both sides. "I guess some people don't even have this."

A few months later Zakro sees workmen doing surveys and hears rumors that new water lines and working hydrants are on the way. But then federal agents shut down a couple of nearby Muslim charities suspected of raising funds for Al Qaeda, a worrisome development. "That's too close to home," Zakro says.

The area now known as Bridgeview was settled by farmers in the mid-1800s, and by the early 20th century it was one of leading hay-production centers in the midwest. After World War II, Bridgeview became a manufacturing hub, home to hundreds of steelworkers and other laborers. Low property taxes and a proximity to Muslim enclaves on Chicago's southwest side began drawing Arab immigrants to Bridgeview in the 1970s. They bought up the only remaining land, west of the strip malls on Harlem, and built new houses, the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation, and the Universal and Aqsa schools. Now 30 percent of the village's 15,000 residents are Arab.

Iptisam Rahima has lived in Bridgeview since 1982, when her parents settled there from Chicago. She started wearing a hijab at age 13 and wouldn't take it off to placate anybody. "I'm used to it," she says. "I like telling people where I came from." Now 28, she is studying to become a speech therapist and teaches part-time at the Universal School. After September 11 her mother looked to her to watch over her five younger siblings. Rahima says, "I kind of try to roll the worry off my back." The school shut down for a week following the terror attacks, and a month later she and some Muslim friends stood just outside the front door, discussing how to cope with the anti-Arab backlash.

One woman still in fear of leaving the house said, "I always look to see if a car is following me."

A woman in her ninth month of pregnancy said, "My doctor has been sweet enough to keep treating me the same way."

"They already had resentment," says Rahima of her white neighbors. "Now they're using it as an excuse. Maybe they don't know any better--but if they're not even willing to explore our religion, it saddens me. It's a double tragedy." She doesn't know if she'll ever be able to trust them again.

Mary Kline keeps one eye on The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer and another on her children, Lake and Skye, as they use glitter paint to decorate some leaves they found outside. Kline moved to Rosebud after Skye was born, and their blue single-wide trailer, carpeted in pink, has a garden next to it. "It's just an old trailer, but it's cozy," she says. "And it's ours." On one wall hangs a picture of a leather-clad biker, on another a framed quote from "Desiderata": "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."

Kline did her best to escape the commotion after the attacks. "I didn't really know what was going on. My mom came over and said we'd better get out of here. We didn't come home for a couple nights."

Her job at a magazine distribution warehouse covers her $390 monthly rent and most of her bills, but the children's preschool is subsidized. "For two kids, it costs more than what I make in a month," Kline says, dragging deeply on her cigarette. "At least I gave up drinking. Since the kids were born, I don't have time for that." She and the children's father have split up. "I don't date at all. I don't even feel like being bothered with that stuff."

Kline spends a lot of time filling up water jugs at the Aldi nearby. "We don't drink the water here--period. Just keep bottles in the fridge. Then I don't have to worry about it." Periodically a notice goes up warning residents not to drink the water for 24 hours. "Half the time the wind blows it away. I found it stuck in my garden one time."

New fire hydrants would be "mighty nice," but she's not counting on them. Saving money to move out of Rosebud is her priority. "The kids are at a fun age--it's OK when all they want to do is color and paint and read. But I don't really plan on living here where they're old enough for school."

Aisha Ali finds a long cloth to spread on the living room floor and sets down several bowls of food. She's in jeans and a T-shirt, but after calling her husband, Syed Mohammed Ali, she leaves the room to change into her robe and hijab. After she and Syed seat themselves on the floor and bless the meal, Aisha explains how she became a Muslim.

Born Barbara Jones, she left Texas for Chicago in 1992, and she was going through "a rough time in my life," battling depression and drinking too much. After a night of barhopping in Wrigleyville she got into a cab and began chatting with the driver, Syed, who'd emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, and graduated from Schurz High School. The next night, after finishing her shift at Uncle Julio's Hacienda, she hailed a cab at North and Clybourn and found Syed at the wheel again. They married three months later.

"Of all the cabs in Chicago..." says Aisha, laughing. When Syed told her about Islam, "the first thing I was attracted to was no alcohol." The more she learned, the less she wanted to drink it or even serve it, and eventually she quit her job.

Last summer the Alis and their three children moved from Old Irving to an apartment in Justice, a suburb west of Bridgeview, where Aisha now has a part-time job at the Universal School. Syed works at DeVry, where he's completing a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"I get upset at all the negative stereotypes," says Aisha. "True Islam encourages people to always learn. I tried on my hijab and knew in my heart--Islam is such a perfect way of life." Yet she admits that she went through a "patriotic stage" immediately after September 11. Family members saw pictures of Bridgeview on TV and called from Texas. "I said I was fine and staying indoors like the police had told us to do."

After divorcing her high school sweetheart last September, 20-year-old Danielle Williams moved herself and her children into her parents' trailer on the 1600 row of Rosebud. For Halloween her two-year-old, Tylor, dressed up as a bee, and her one-year-old, John, was a wizard. But trick-or-treating was a letdown. "This trailer park is usually packed," Williams says. "But 'cause of everything that's going on, there aren't as many people, like they don't have a holiday anymore. I feel bad for the kids."

Williams, Kline, and others say they began to notice a change in Bridgeview after the Persian Gulf war. The conflict had widened the schism between the village's white and Arab communities: fights broke out on some school buses, and routes had to be segregated for a while. Then in 1993 the FBI began to poke around Muslim charities, speculating that towns like Bridgeview had become fund-raising centers for terrorists. Mohammad Salah, a prominent businessman and part-time Muslim teacher who was raising his family just around the corner from the mosque, pleaded guilty to financing the Palestinian group Hamas. After spending five years in an Israeli jail, Salah came home and claimed that his confession had been coerced. Within a few months he and the Quranic Literacy Institute, a Muslim school in Oak Lawn, were targeted by another federal probe that seized $1.5 million in assets; criminal charges were never filed, but the money is still frozen.

Other charities that rely on the mosque membership have since come under federal investigation. The Global Relief Foundation and the Holy Land Foundation, both with offices in Bridgeview, and the Benevolence International Foundation in Palos Hills were all shut down after the terror attacks.

In the days following the tragedy a banner hung over the mosque entrance: "Prayer Services for the Victims of Our National Tragedy Five Times Daily." But the anti-Arab demonstrators who gathered on September 14 were unmoved. Police blocked off the surrounding streets as some 500 worshipers filed into the mosque, and the crowd behind the barriers grew larger and angrier by the hour. As night fell people collected flags to wave and candles to light, and they wondered aloud whether some of those praying inside had known what was coming on September 11.

The Alis drive to the mosque well before the 5 PM service, leaving plenty of time to socialize. The barricades are gone, but a few police cars still circle the parking lot, which is packed with mourners for a woman who's just died in Palestine. A man in white robe, green turban, and Rolex stands off to one side, trying to convert passing Christians: "Mary covered her beauty like a Muslim lady. There is one God--Allah. What does Muslim mean? To submit to Allah!"

Aisha says her friends from the mosque don't care that she isn't an Arab, and in a basement waiting room she's greeted with outstretched arms. Syed has gone upstairs to another room with the men; this is one way the sexes are separated in Islam, Aisha explains, and during services the women always worship behind the men. "I definitely don't want to have any man lusting after me," she says. "Women can control it more than men, so we stand behind them."

Though the Alis live modestly, many homes around the mosque have Mercedes in driveways that abut vast, impeccably manicured lawns. Zahdan Elzahdan, a member of the congregation, argues that Bridgeview's newer residents have lifted the village beyond its blue-collar roots. "Muslims helped build this area," Elzahdan says. "They brought in the school, the homes. Now you've got very, very expensive houses in Bridgeview, and the majority of them are Islamic."

Jim Andrews owns a military surplus store on Harlem, where he stocks paint-ball guns, camouflage, and training manuals like Nuclear Contamination Avoidance. He says business picked up after the attacks. "People were coming in here saying all sorts of things they were going to do to the mosque. I thought it was a little bit radical. I didn't really think anything was going to happen. But by Friday, I could tell it was going to get out of hand." The next day he read in the paper about the raucous crowd outside Rosebud, the shutdown of Harlem Avenue, and the smashed windows at Arab-owned stores.

"It was uncalled-for," says Ed Feltz, who works at Andrews's store. "People were jumping to conclusions, and things got out of control." Andrews and Feltz decided the backlash had gone too far when the FBI questioned a nine-year-old Muslim boy as a suspected terrorist. But they were less sympathetic in December when agents of the U.S. Treasury shut down the three local Muslim charities suspected of training suicide bombers and other militants for jihad (the groups have denied the allegations and filed lawsuits). Then in January the FBI charged two Arab-owned car dealerships on Harlem with laundering money for an international drug ring.

"Maybe their Muslim culture is misunderstood," says Andrews. "But then again, they don't do a very good job of explaining it." For a long time, Andrews says, he viewed the local Muslims as a "secret society" who kept to themselves. "I don't think that image helps them blend in. Maybe it's not easy to do, maybe they don't want to. But if they think American society is so decadent, if they don't approve and don't want any part of it, then why are they living here? That's what's hard to understand."

Andrews leads a youth group at Saint Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church in the nearby town of Worth, and last December church pastor Jay Trygstad called the imam of the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation, Jamal Said, and invited him and his congregation to an interfaith fellowship service. About 85 people attended, nearly a quarter of them Muslim. Said explained Islam and sacred texts like the Koran, and Trygstad spoke about Christianity. "It was a very good meeting," says Said. "It was beautiful--a good opportunity for both communities to meet and talk."

"It went almost three hours," says Andrews. "They didn't seem as open to what we had to say, but there was some good dialogue that went on." As the guests mingled afterward, they could hear bellowed threats and revving motors in the church parking lot. Andrews stepped outside and saw people in cars waving American flags. After a church secretary called 911, the cars sped away.

Last November, Langbauer and some friends drove to New York, where they volunteered on a front-end loader at Ground Zero. He found the experience therapeutic, and he says if there were a riot outside Rosebud tomorrow, he isn't so sure he'd join in. "I know there's a bunch of people out there with a lot of hate. But I'm trying to remember what my grandmother told me: 'Hate only hurts the hater.'" No one likes to admit it, but the hate speech in the air since September 11--"white trash," "camel jockey"--has been going on for years behind closed doors. "Anybody tells you any different, they're a liar or a fool or a saint," Langbauer says.

In his January newsletter Mayor Landek didn't mention the FBI raids, though he did promise "tougher screening and guidelines for future business and industry" if Bridgeview won home-rule powers on March 19.

In early March the dozen non-Arab candidates who sought endorsements and donations while stumping at the Aqsa School were heartily thanked by Sabri Samirah, a local fund-raiser and the president of the United Muslim Americans Association. "By coming here, we see that you have the interest in our community, and we will remember that," Samirah said. "We have the numbers, and we have the money."

On Election Day villagers passed the home-rule measure by a margin of 7 to 3, giving Landek the power to improve the water situation at Rosebud. But no one seems certain how to keep Bridgeview from bursting into flames.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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