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Racial Tension Haunts a 'Nice Neighborhood'

September 02, 1989|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is a neighborhood of small shops, corner delis and tidy houses and apartment buildings with statues of saints adorning front-yard gardens.

On summer evenings, families lounge in aluminum lawn chairs and chat merrily with their neighbors, many speaking in their native Italian, as kids play freely in the quiet streets.

But this is also where a gang of white teen-agers, armed with baseball bats and at least one gun, shot to death a black youth who had come to the neighborhood with three companions to see about buying a used car, heightening racial tensions here to their worst level in two years.

Like many ethnic enclaves in northern cities, Bensonhurst, a largely Italian-American community of 152,700 residents on Brooklyn's southern shore, has rarely, if ever, been noted for being hospitable to "outsiders"--especially blacks and other minorities.

Two decades ago, as the nation sifted the ashes of successive urban riots, academics and many government officials hoped that education and greater integration would break down intolerance in such communities. Instead, the situation may have worsened.

In New York City , for example, there has been an alarming string of violent racial incidents in working class, white ethnic neighborhoods in recent years, including the widely publicized death in 1986 of a black man who was hit by a car while fleeing a gang of whites in the Howard Beach section of Queens and the brutal killing in 1982 of a black man by whites in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, near Bensonhurst.

On the eve of a protest march today through Bensonhurst to be led by black activists, attitudes are hard.

"The violence to which blacks have been subjected in New York City surpasses the violence of the Southern cities of my youth," Herbert Daughtry, pastor of Brooklyn's House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, said in a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times.

'Nice Neighborhood'

In Bensonhurst, one 59-year-old resident said Wednesday: "It's a nice neighborhood--just like any other place in the United States--but we don't care for black people."

Nevertheless, residents almost universally reject suggestions by outsiders that racism is a problem in the community.

Many argue that last week's slaying of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins was a case of jealously and mistaken identity more than racism. According to various accounts, the gang of young whites thought Hawkins and his companions were friends of a white Bensonhurst girl whose spurned lover had warned her not to invite blacks and Latinos into the neighborhood.

"This kind of thing never happens," said Frank Adamo, 32, a newsstand owner, referring to the killing. "This is a neighborhood where whites get along with blacks. We all get along."

Yet, just two years ago on Christmas Day, two blacks were beaten by a gang of whites in Bensonhurst who allegedly yelled: "This is our Howard Beach!" And in 1983, whites assaulted three black men on their way home through the neighborhood to their jobs at a Coney Island hospital. None of the injuries in either incident was fatal.

What is more, when a group of largely black protesters staged a demonstration last weekend at the site where Hawkins was slain, several white counterdemonstrators held up watermelons and shouted an epithet.

"They shout (the epithet) and then tell everybody they're not racist," said Richard Wade, a professor of urban history at City University of New York's Graduate Center. "They don't even know they're racist. That's the trouble. They don't know what racism is."

Bensonhurst's latest black victim has even been blamed for precipitating the crime. As one young white put it, referring to Hawkins: "Look, he was black. What was he doing in a white neighborhood at 9:30 at night?"

The Rev. Charles Fermiglia, the 30-year-old associate pastor of St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church in Bensonhurst, said that racial attitudes in the community are strongly conditioned by the constant barrage of negative portrayals of blacks in the mass media--newspapers, radio, television and movies--and the relative scarcity of any countervailing images.

Nearly half of Bensonhurst's Italian-American population is made up of immigrants from Italy, many from the strongly traditional regions of southern Italy and Sicily.

"The Italian-American transplanted to this community wants to live in a neighborhood with familiars, people who share his values of family and community and can give him meaning," Fermiglia said. "The perceptions of blacks gained through the media, unfortunately, is that they are socially disconnected."

General attitudes in society are magnified in places like Bensonhurst, said Charles Willie, a Harvard University professor of education and urban studies.

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