Magic City: Not In Our Town

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12/22/2007

Billings, Montana; Hollywood; and 2277 Andrews Ave., Bronx, NY 10468

Neighborhood: Across the River, Bronx

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One of the great, underrated things about living in New York is meeting all those people who come from everywhere else. Not that Gotham natives aren’t a barrel of monkeys, but it’s cool that someone always seems to have a different frame-of-reference, a different slice of life about where they came from, which is my way of explaining why I am sharing this story about my hometown, Billings, Montana.

Growing up, I always knew I was going to move on from the Magic City and live in urban environs that provided access to professional sports, even if the Knicks don’t count. I wasn’t one of those “I gotta get the hell out of here” kids, I had a great time and loved coming of age in Billings. During the seventies and eighties it was a laid-back town, seemingly equal parts live-and-let-live and frontier stoicism. I was naïve, of course, but you didn’t really hear racial slurs that I soon found in the big city. Partially, this is because we didn’t have a large population of “the other” (and I am sure Native Americans would beg to differ), but in my little world people were generally friendly and I kid you not, I never heard the anti-everybody-else vitriol that I soon found commonplace. I remember my mom once said that part of the reason she didn’t want us raised in her Irish Philadelphia enclave was because she didn’t want us exposed to that sort of ugliness.

I went off to college at Marquette University and was shocked to find out that a good number of white suburban kids used the N-word in everyday conversation (I told you I was naïve). It really bothered me, and although it wasn’t the majority of kids, I was still astounded that so many people my age seemed to view the world through the lens of the Dixiecrat South. I moved to New York City in 1993 and lived/worked in the Bronx as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It amazed me how much of an isolated afterthought the kids in the Bronx were and how little respect the entire community earned (again, naïve, but getting better.) Not that Andrews Avenue was filled with choirboys (although there were more people who truly sought salvation in the neighborhood churches than I saw in 16 years of Catholic school), but I was still taken aback when a cop pulled me over, asked me where I was buying drugs, then mocked the fact that I chose to live amongst “these people.”

Christmas of 1993, I headed back to Billings and learned that there had been a string of race-baiting events throughout the year perpetrated by a group of white supremacists. It started with some racist fliers on car windows at an MLK Day celebration. Other crimes included the destruction of some headstones at a Jewish cemetery, harassing phone calls to Jewish leaders, skinheads ominously standing in the back of a mass at the small African Methodist church and finally spray-painted swastikas and “Die, Indian, Die” on a local woman’s home. The town reacted quickly, as 100 locals, including members of the Painters Union, got together at dawn one morning and repainted her house.

The reaction spurred the thugs to step it up. They threw a piece of cinder block through the window of a six-year-old Jewish boy’s room because he had the gall to set up a celebratory menorah. The boy’s parents contacted the Billings Gazette, and the editors decided to utilize the community in fighting back. They printed a full-page menorah and urged locals to hang it in their homes and businesses. Hundreds followed suit, which led to more anti-Semitic vandalism. If memory serves, they even threw a brick through the window of my alma mater, Billings Central Catholic High.

Billings, however, didn’t back down. Police Chief Wayne Inman urged more and more citizens to put up the menorahs, saying, “Visible signs of support for the Jewish community have to increase, not decrease. For every vandalism that is made, I hope that 10 other people put menorahs in their windows.” At its peak, some 10,000 citizens had menorahs in their windows, more than 10% of the population. Could you imagine if one million New Yorkers had united in a cause like this after one of the notorious incidents of the time?»

I remember walking home from midnight mass on a wintry night and seeing all of the Christmas lights, which made the menorahs glow all that much brighter. My parents and my three brothers took the long way home and house-after-house had taken the time to hang up a page from the newspaper in solidarity with the local Jewish community, which I am guessing might have been one thousand, tops. We took note of the ones hanging in the houses of our Jewish neighbors, the Weissmans and the Fleets (more or less the only Jews I knew until I moved to New York).

It was incredibly moving. I was one of those staunchly Gen X kids, skeptical of what the “power of the people” could really accomplish and how things never change. I was wrong.

For one holiday season, Billings was the most amazing place on Earth.

As the website says: The community made an unmistakable declaration: “Not in Our Town.” Since then, no serious acts of hate violence have been reported in Billings.

All these years later, it is still one of my favorite Christmas memories, even if I will probably never call Billings home again.

And it’s a story I love telling the sophisticated urbanites this time of year.

* * *

Unfortunately, there is one ugly dénouement to the story.

In its infinite sappy wisdom, Hollywood decided to turn the inspirational story of community activism into a schlocky movie-of-the-week. For starters, they decided to call it Not in This Town, perhaps because they didn’t want to pay royalties to the “Not in Our Town” movement that sprung up to help communities respond to acts of hate. Or, maybe they didn’t do their homework.

Either way, it’s more or less what you’d expect on the Lifetime network. Adam Arkin plays the big city Jewish doctor who moves to Billings to get away from the urban ugliness and to fly-fish in peace. Kathy Baker plays his shiksa wife who can’t believe this is happening in Utopian Billings. She won’t be denied and starts meeting the uplifting minorities culled right out of Hollywood P.C. casting 101. The simple black house of worship becomes a packed mega-church with a choir right out of Forrest Gump, the Native Americans no longer live on the poverty-stricken Crow reservation and invite her to commune with the spirit world or some such, and of course, the coup de grace that brings Arkin out of his shell, is when she finds a Holocaust survivor who tells of what happens when communities look the other way.

All nice in theory, but in practice, it was a simplistic Oprah-friendly treatment that doesn’t do much to honor the incredible events in the first place.

And I am pretty sure they filmed it in California, because Lord knows, Billings didn’t need any of that residual Hollywood income.

The only thing that kept it from making viewers throw a brick through the television is the unintentional comedy of the actor chosen to play the leader of the white supremacist group. You guessed it, Ed Begley, Jr. Watching a man who powers his house with his own waste gather people around a campsite (they sit on hay bales, natch) and seriously discuss “elements” destroying Billings provided enough comic relief that Not In This Town is actually worth a watch.

If the average Nazi skinhead were as frightening as Begley in his L.L. Bean getup…well, there wouldn’t have been much need for the newspaper menorahs in the first place.

* * *

My hope for you this season is that someday everyone gets to experience a powerful moment of community activism at some point in his or her life. I guarantee it will move your spirit.

Oh, and if Hollywood comes calling, you simply say: not in our town.

Happy holidays.

p.s. Here is the website of the Not in Our Town organization.

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