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Not wanting to live near a stereotype

Given that Wheatfield has few poor people, and even fewer blacks or Hispanics, you have to wonder where the enmity comes from.

Granted, some activists insist that opposition to the low-income housing project off Shawnee Road stems from a fear of too many cars and a strain on services.

But traffic and infrastructure don't arouse the kind of passion unleashed when a representative of the church proposing the project was shouted down at a public meeting as he quoted scripture.

No, this is about people. That's clear when opponents talk about "housing values" and an unsigned flier warns of residents "of all colors" moving in.

And you have to wonder where those fears of the poor and minorities come from in a town with little contact with either. The median household income in Wheatfield is $51,700, and fewer than 1 percent of the population is black or Hispanic.

Scott Gehl thinks he knows.

"People are afraid of stereotypes," said Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, who adds that stereotypes about race, poverty and crime are fueled "by what we often see on the local broadcast news every night."

Not that the media make it up. A scene like the Christmas night melee involving teens at an Elmwood Avenue movie theater is real. No one wants that in their neighborhood.

Decades before earning the freedom to act stupid in public, most blacks realized that what one did affected the race as a whole. Is that fair? Of course not.

Does it happen? Absolutely. It's ironic that a generation whose slogan is "Keepin' it real" can't grasp that reality today.

But do such knuckleheads represent most blacks? Do sofas on the front porch represent most working-class whites?

Only if you believe John Rigas, Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlowski represent most businessmen.

We have the common sense not to stigmatize entire groups for the misbehavior of a few when it comes to the well-to-do. Yet when it comes to the working poor or minorities, we're not nearly as sophisticated.

What makes the episode additionally baffling is that most who will live at Shawnee Landing already are in the area. The $9.9 million project -- which is not public housing -- couldn't have gotten funded without studies showing a need, said Doug Carpenter of Belmont Shelter Corp., one of the developers.

"The community needs the people who need affordable housing," he said, pointing to child care workers, security guards and other low-wage workers who will be the tenants.

To assume those workers' values are different just because they earn less says more about those of us who might make that assumption than it does about the people victimized by such stigmas.

"I know many low-income people that are every bit as offended by deteriorated property, unkempt lawns and loud music as middle-class people," Gehl said, adding that the perception they're not "in itself, is a stereotype."

Steve Kishel, president of a homeowners group fighting the project, said its concerns are traffic, school overcrowding and taxes, and those citing race and class don't speak for the group.

Would residents be as opposed to luxury units? "I think they would," he said.

If you believe that, I have some land in Wheatfield I'll sell you. Still, the controversy could be a blessing for the entire region if it prompts us to challenge some deeply held assumptions.

The Church at Shawnee Landing is proceeding, citing legal commitments. But in his Sunday sermon -- available on the church Web site -- the Rev. Jerry L. McGlone cited a larger incentive: spreading a Christian message of acceptance where it's needed most.

Given the media-fed stereotypes we cling to, he probably could have said that about any place in Western New York.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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