Tensions Tinged By Race in Two City Neighborhoods

Gene Warner, Vanessa Thomas and Jay Rey, Buffalo News, July 27

They are two distinct communities, separated mostly by railroad tracks, tucked into the southern and eastern edges of Buffalo’s East Side.

But now Lovejoy and Seneca-Babcock have something in common. They’ve both experienced ugly incidents with racial overtones in the last two weeks.

Although predominantly white, the communities are different in some respects.

Seneca-Babcock, just north of both the Niagara Thruway and South Buffalo, is the more depressed area, with significantly more residents living below the poverty level. Its residents tend to be Irish.

To the northeast, Lovejoy, on the Sloan border, has Polish, German and Italian roots.

Lovejoy clearly has been slower to integrate. As recently as 2000, Seneca-Babcock had a 7 percent minority presence, Lovejoy only 1 percent.

But they also share some similarities that run deep.

“Those have been known in their earlier days as racist areas for African-Americans to move in, but African-Americans have moved into both,” said the Rev. Kenyatta T. Cobb, pastor of Hananiah Lutheran Church on Sycamore Street. “They’ve developed very strong mixed-ethnic relationships in those communities.

Cobb and others cited a small core group of individuals who have put out a “Not Welcome” sign in each community.

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“When African-Americans historically have moved into these neighborhoods, this started to trigger, on one level, outward migration of whites and, on another level, increasing levels of tension,” said Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies.

Taylor also suggested that, on seeing a growing number of black neighbors, some white residents may ask:

“Are we going to start to look like parts of the East Side?”

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“Lovejoy is Italian and Polish, and some people want to keep it that way,” said James Frost, a Lovejoy resident for about six years. “All that violence on the East Side, we don’t want that here, so I look at it as some of the younger kids are just trying to protect the neighborhood.”

• And, in both communities, there’s concern over outsiders selling drugs on street corners.

“The kids have told me there are drug dealers driving through in their Escalades, selling heroin and crack,” said Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana, who represents both areas. “The kids in the neighborhood are seeing this, and they’re concerned about illegal activity invading their neighborhood.”

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Hastreiter said she is “seriously bothered” by Friday night’s stabbings.

“They can call it racial, they can call it whatever they want, but it’s not right for people to come in here and ruin our quality of life,” she said.

Some residents believe that’s what happened Friday night.

In that incident, five black teens, most of whom had been staying with a white family on East Lovejoy Street, roamed the neighborhood shouting anti-white statements. During a fight with four young white men, police said, two blacks stabbed three whites, seriously wounding two.

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The Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, the entire square mile of it, has all the ingredients for simmering racial tensions:

A high unemployment rate, roughly 25 percent. An increasing minority presence that in recent years has grown from 3 percent to more than 10. Youths who spray-paint swastikas and racial slurs. An apparent battle over outsiders coming in to sell drugs on street corners.

Two recent events ignited those combustible ingredients: the beating of an African-American man by five young white people and a rally against racism staged by outsiders.

Whatever its problems, Seneca-Babcock now has another one: a battle over whether it is a racist neighborhood. The two sides in this war of words see little gray.

“There is not a racial problem in Seneca-Babcock,” said Art Robinson, president of the local block club. “We have had African-Americans living in Seneca-Babcock for over 50 years. We’ve always embraced them as part of the neighborhood.”

Beverly Hiestand, a spokeswoman for the International Action Center group that rallied against racism, has a different view.

“It’s extreme racism,” she said. “It’s extremely prevalent, and it’s not hidden. If they’re saying they don’t have a problem, they’re part of the problem.”

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Robinson, the block club president, contends outsiders—who come in dealing heroin, crack cocaine and other drugs—are fueling the tensions.

“What’s happening is more of a gang thing, more of a drug war,” he said. “The outsiders are intimidating other people. They want to take over the turf. This is a turf war.”

Sister Margaret O’Donnell, a member of the Sisters of Mercy who grew up in the neighborhood and still has relatives there, attended last week’s rally against racism.

“I went there to rally against any kind of racism,” she said. “I believe there are racial tensions there because of the guns and drugs that people in the neighborhood are anxious about. They want to get the drugs and guns out.”

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