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Monica Yant Kinney | A time that tests our convictions

So a bunch of wannabe terrorists plotted mayhem in South Jersey, including one who lived a half-mile from my house, across from a park where we swing and sled.

So a bunch of wannabe terrorists plotted mayhem in South Jersey, including one who lived a half-mile from my house, across from a park where we swing and sled.

I'm not surprised. Eventually, evil settles in the suburbs just like the rest of us.

"New Jersey is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse states in the country," U.S. Attorney Chris Christie noted yesterday.

Where better to blend in than Cherry Hill? Twelve percent of the 70,000 residents are foreign-born, according to the 2000 census; 17 percent speak a language other than English at home.

Last weekend, leaders of many faiths broke ground on Cherry Hill's first mosque, a $1.5 million home for an Indian sect called Dawoodi Bohra.

Generally, locals and real estate types say the cultural stew adds to a community's charm and desirability.

Well, except when the bearded Muslim men down the block are accused of being radical fundamentalists who despise us - the exact ethnic stereotype we're all trying so hard to avoid.

What did the suspects do when they weren't allegedly planning to slaughter American soldiers at Fort Dix? One drove a taxi. Another worked at 7-Eleven.

Cue the sneers, scorn and hand-wringing over whether you can ever really know what your neighbors are up to behind closed doors.

On a block with a friendly fellow from Jordan and a doctor from the Philippines, imagine Helene Schwartz discovering that she lived next to a would-be terrorist.

"The nice thing about this area is that we had all kinds," Schwartz told me. "We lived peacefully."

Note the past tense.

Where terror lives

Kathryn Constanza is the unofficial historian of the 1000 block of East Tampa Avenue, having moved to the street 46 years ago.

Listen to her as she tells the tale of No. 1016 - terror suspect Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer's place. It's the story of suburbia itself.

The house was purchased in 1965 by a Jewish family seeking diversity.

"They didn't want their children thinking everyone in the world was just like them," Costanza recalls.

In 1984, the home sold for $94,000, to an African American family that owned several fast-food franchises.

Ten years later, it sold for $137,000 to an Italian American man who may have had money woes, given his dramatic departure.

"He pulled all the wiring out of the walls when he left," Costanza remembers. "He bashed a fish tank on the wall, leaving dead fish everywhere."

The home changed hands again in 2002 to a buyer with an Arab name. Shnewer paid $190,000 for it in 2004.

Getting to know you

You could say he let the place go. Calf-high weeds and dandelions pass for landscaping. A minivan with a flat and a bike missing one training wheel sit junked in the driveway.

In the bay window? A dead plant.

Neighbor Don Bauer called Shnewer's house "the biggest eyesore on the block." Schwartz was "livid" when Shnewer (or one of the many mystery men who seemed to live with him) parked a broken-down blue truck smack in front of her home.

At least the car wasn't moving. Costanza still talks about the time Shnewer's roosters got loose. By then, she expected to be ignored.

"I went over once to see if the little boy wanted to play with my grandson," Constanza said. "The woman just stared and rushed him inside."

It's been more than 60 years since Bob Sears was a Marine guard for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he's still a suspicious sort. He long thought something strange about all the men carting all those boxes and bags in and out of Shnewer's place.

"One guy, one of the cabbies, tipped his hat to me recently, but I wouldn't give him the time of day," the 83-year-old Sears said. "I figured he was part of the collusion."

And so it goes at the new ground zero in the global war on terror: East Tampa Avenue.

One street, in one suburb, where embracing our differences suddenly seems really scary.