The image of a Jewish-owned store burning in Harlem may have conjured up painful memories this week, but community leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“To the best of our knowledge, there was no anti-Semitism involved in this incident,” said Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council.Police are searching for a black man they say threatened to blow up Vets Sports Shops on 125th Street shortly before a fire destroyed the establishment on Saturday.
It was on 125th Street that weeks of protests against the Jewish-owned Freddy’s Fashion Mart culminated in a deadly shooting spree and arson that left eight people dead and the store destroyed in December, 1995.
Prior to that incident, protesters supporting a black merchant in a dispute with his Jewish landlord were heard threatening to “burn the Jews.”
The Police Department’s bias crime unit is investigating Saturday’s fire. But it appears to have been prompted by an argument between the suspect and Harvey Ludwin, the shop owner, over sales tax on a baseball cap.
Ludwin reportedly told police that the suspect made anti-white statements and displayed a tattoo of an assault weapon before making his threats.
No one was hurt in Saturday’s fire, and at City Hall this week attention seemed more focused on the Bronx Bombers than racial firebombers, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani outlined plans to fund a proposed new stadium for the Yankees.
A police department source said investigators were treating the fire as an isolated incident, and there was no evidence of the type of organized protest against Vets Sports that preceded the Freddy’s fire, which came after weeks of complaints by owner Fred Harari that he feared violence.
Harari was in court seeking an injunction against the protesters when gunman Roland Smith entered the store and opened fire.
The dispute centered on Harari’s plan to expand his business onto property he was leasing to a black-owned record store. At the time, some protesters insisted that black-owned businesses should be given priority on 125th Street.
Dwight Wiliams, a spokesman for Giuliani, said the latest incident “obviously reflects the sentiments of a small few in the community. The majority of residents and community members support the various stores and merchants on 125th street and the surrounding area.”
Since the Freddy’s incident, Deputy Mayor for community development Rudy Washington has spearheaded efforts to bridge tensions in the community, Williams said.
“There has been an open dialogue between clergy members, elected officials, community leaders and a cross section of the community to foster the notion that 125th Street is a great place to shop,” he said, adding that a meeting planned for this Friday was scheduled weeks before Saturday’s fire.Adam Segall, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said there was a marked difference in the aftermath of the two fires.
“The way the police have handled this has been much better or responsive than the initial reaction to Freddy’s,” he said, adding that “people on the street expressed real outrage and concern over this, which is different than the reaction to Freddy’s, when people seemed to say there was a justification. This isn’t getting blown up into something that it isn’t.”
Segall said his office had reached out to Ludwin, but had yet to discuss the incident with him.