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1980s - In Rockland Suburb, Deep Racial Change Melts Into the Everyday

In the 1960s, this unassuming bedroom community in Rockland County attracted secular Jews from Brooklyn and the Bronx. They liked the affordable starter homes, the suburban hush and the bearable commute. In the 1990s, Hillcrest attracted immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean, often by way of Brooklyn or the Bronx. They liked the affordable starter homes, the suburban hush and the bearable commute.

The changes in Hillcrest and in the composition of the Rockland County communities nearby reflect the increasing heterogeneity of suburban areas once assumed to be overwhelmingly white. But the shifts also show how racial change, particularly in sprawling suburbs, can occur not just relatively amicably but sometimes without attracting much notice.

Hillcrest lost a greater percentage of whites in the 1990s than any other place in New York, and since 1980 it has gone from almost all white to only one-fifth white. Hillcrest now has Rockland's highest percentage of African-Americans and Asians, plus a growing number of Hispanic residents, making it one of the state's most diverse communities.

The change is news to many of the people living here, though.

''No -- no, the census is lying, the census is lying,'' insisted Winston Dyke, 68, a Jamaican immigrant and retired businessman who moved to the area 33 years ago. ''I thought Hillcrest was predominantly white.''

To be sure, some of the whites who left Hillcrest were fleeing nonwhites, some residents say. But other residents say those who left were a hard-working group of pioneers who either died, retired to Florida or sought roomier expanses. And residents credit local institutions with embracing, not resisting, diversity in a place that lost 52 percent of its white population in the 1990s.

''I think it happened nonchalantly,'' said Ryan S. Karben, the Democratic majority leader of the Rockland County Legislature who grew up in Hillcrest and now lives in nearby New Hempstead. ''I don't know that there's a way to identify some specific explanation other than the people who were moving into the community shared the same fundamental values of the people already living there.''

Perhaps one of the reasons Hillcrest has managed to evolve so significantly yet anonymously is that it is not a city, or a town, or even a village. Instead, it is an unincorporated hamlet of 1.3 square miles and 7,106 people in the Town of Ramapo, almost entirely lacking an institutional structure of its own.

Even within Ramapo, Hillcrest is often overlooked. To the south is Spring Valley, a diverse hub grappling with overcrowded housing, drugs and economic redevelopment, while to the southwest and northeast, respectively, are the Orthodox and Hasidic enclaves of Monsey and New Square.

The Hillcrest Fire Company on Route 45, the main drag here, is one of the area's most notable institutions. Across the highway, the businesses in the Hillcrest Plaza shopping center have labels instead of names, with signs like ''Nail Salon'' and ''Bagels.'' Most of the mail bound for Hillcrest, N.Y., 10977, is addressed to Spring Valley, one of five places with the same zip code.

Hillcrest first attracted attention in the early 1900s as a summer retreat accessible by train for working-class families from New York City, about 30 miles away. The Tappan Zee Bridge was built in 1955, increasing traffic and easing access to New York City. Hillcrest added hundreds of single-family houses, mostly inexpensive Cape Cods or split-levels on small lots. Many secular Jews were among that wave of settlers, said Craig H. Long, Ramapo's official historian.

In 1980, 84 percent of Hillcrest's population was white, while blacks accounted for only 7 percent. Since then, the proportion of whites has dropped to 21 percent, while the number of black residents jumped ninefold, to 49 percent of the total. The number of Asians, meanwhile, has grown by more than 260 percent and Hispanics by 366 percent.

According to real estate agents and residents, no single factor or event contributed to this demographic change. Many people moved because their children grew up and left, or because they wanted to pay lower taxes for more land. But some also did not like the racial diversity, said Simone Desvarieux, a broker with All Century Realty.

''They didn't say it, but you could feel it,'' said Ms. Desvarieux, a Haitian immigrant.

Fifteen years ago, about 15 percent of Ms. Desvarieux's clients were immigrants; now, about 80 percent are immigrants, mostly from Haiti, Jamaica, India, the Philippines or Latin America.

Many newcomers have moved from New York City, lured by $225,000 houses that would probably sell for $300,000 elsewhere in the county. Many are first-time homeowners eager to keep their neighborhoods tidy and who hold jobs as teachers, taxi drivers, subway conductors and store managers in New York City, New Jersey, Westchester or Rockland.

Ramon Gonzalez, 48, is Puerto Rican, works as a mechanic and lives on a block of East Hickory Street that epitomizes Hillcrest's transformation. In 1990, he left the Bronx so that he could buy his first house. Back then, most of his neighbors were longtime homesteaders or Jews who had moved in after the 1960s; now, they are mostly Haitians, Filipinos and Indians.

''Everybody, we get along,'' Mr. Gonzalez said. ''We all do our spring cleaning. It's like a chain reaction.''

Thelma DeGuzman, 39, immigrated directly from the Philippines 10 years ago, joining relatives already in the area. She saw immediately that Hillcrest differed from her expectations of an American suburb.

''I thought there were only tall white people, because of what I see in the movies,'' said Ms. DeGuzman, a nursing aide. ''But then I said, 'Oh, my God! This is like the Philippines! So many Filipinos!' ''

Some Roman Catholics, including Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. DeGuzman, belong to the ever-expanding St. Joseph's Church in Spring Valley, which now offers 13 masses in five languages, said the Rev. Rudolph Gonzalez, the church's pastor.

Local businesses sell Haitian, Chinese and Filipino newspapers. Two Indian-owned groceries on Eckerson Road rent out hundreds of videotapes from India. At Soun Sun Nhem's Asian Food Market, customers can buy phone cards for the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Haiti, Mexico and Guatemala. The kosher deli is gone now, but Hillcrest still has more than the usual suburban fare of pizza and Chinese takeout -- residents can also eat at Vietnamese, Salvadoran or Colombian restaurants.

The town government has celebrated its diversity, which is something that cannot be said for many suburbs, said John Brunson, an African-American businessman who moved here from the Bronx in 1995 and is now president of the new Hillcrest Neighborhood Preservation Association. Three years ago, Ramapo began organizing a series of celebrations, called Heritage Nights, to honor its residents' native cultures. For 10 years, the town has supported student exchange programs with towns in Ireland, Italy, Israel, the Philippines, India and Ghana and has printed brochures in different languages.''If you put a mirror up in Town Hall, it'll reflect our community,'' said Christopher St. Lawrence, the Ramapo town supervisor.Yet, the diversity has presented its share of challenges, too. In the East Ramapo Central School District, ethnic minorities make up 82 percent of the student body. More than 50 nationalities are represented in the schools. As a result, it is a constant challenge to educate new immigrants and minimize cultural clashes, said the superintendent, Jason P. Friedman.At a youth counseling center here, most teenagers seeking help in the 1980s were white and battling drugs or alcohol problems. Now many are immigrants torn by cultural differences over issues such as parental supervision and corporal punishment, said the Rev. George R. Doering Jr., the center's director.Still, most residents seem genuinely surprised and grateful that Hillcrest has changed so much with so little fuss -- so far.''Isn't that something? I thought there were more whites,'' said Julius Graifman, 74, who is white and who moved to Hillcrest 38 years ago from the Bronx. ''But that's O.K., we celebrate our diversity here. And besides, the people who moved in wound up being better neighbors than the ones who left.''


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