KEVIN LEININGER: Concern about arrival of Burmese is ironic deja vu for Fort Wayne’s southeast side

With about 6,000 Burmese in Fort Wayne, rallies promoting democracy in that country have not been uncommon. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Fort Wayne City Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th.

When I was growing up in the Village Woods area of southeast Fort Wayne, the neighborhood was decidedly middle class and overwhelmingly white. When blacks started moving in in the late 1960s, some whites started moving out.

With a fascinating and important twist, that history repeated itself Tuesday night as southeast-side residents — many of them black — voiced their concerns about the Burmese refugees settling in disproportionate numbers in their part of town.

“I don’t want to come off as sounding prejudiced, and I don’t have a problem with (the Burmese), but I have a strong belief that when you see what your neighbors do, you should take the same path. I expect them to conform,” Village Woods resident Estelle Turner told three members of City Council at a special meeting called by Glynn Hines, D-6th. Houses are for sale in the area, she noted, implying some residents aren’t thrilled with their new neighbors.

Ironic? Certainly. But dismissing the residents’ concerns as nothing more than prejudice would be unfair and overly simplistic.

With an estimated 6,000 Burmese now living in Fort Wayne, it is equally unfair to blame the entire community for the actions of a relative few. The problems cited Tuesday, however, were real and reflected the sort of culture clash that can breed suspicion, resentment and even worse things if nothing is done to diffuse the tension.

Hines’ meeting was a good first step in that bridge-building process and represents a considerable improvement over the “No Burmese allowed” sign an employee posted on the door of a Calhoun Street laundromat seven years ago in response to alleged incidents of spitting and using the floor as a bathroom. Unfortunately, as Hines and others noted, assimilation remains a work in progress. A woman living near Paulding and Hessen Cassel roads lamented liquor containers tossed into yards. A Winter Street resident talked about unkempt yards, plywood in the windows of an occupied house and people butchering animals in their back yard. A representative of the MLK Montessori School talked about vandalism and outdoor defecation.

“Painting houses purple, orange and green isn’t good for property values,” Crown Colony resident Robert Brown suggested — a paint scheme Turner described as “circus colors that don’t blend with the neighborhood.”

As I said, it’s unfair to label all Burmese as bad neighbors and, in any case, most of the actions or inactions cited Tuesday are hardly unique to any single race or culture. Increasingly, Burmese refugees are buying and improving homes and starting businesses, and that is good for the southeast side and all of Fort Wayne. But when improper behavior is concentrated in a relatively small area or seen as culturally unique, a problem exists whether the perceptions are fair or not. The question is: What do we do about it?

“Government can’t always get everything done,” Hines said. “Sometimes you need to go next door” and develop the sort of relationship that allows neighbors to help each overcome mutual problems. Some residents said they have done that with success; others said they had tried to communicate their concerns and were either rebuffed or thwarted by language or cultural barriers.

Neighborhood Code Compliance Director Cindy Joyner said neighborhood associations, apartment managers and others can help Burmese understand what’s expected of them. And although the city has no regulations limiting the choice of house paint, neighborhood covenants can be amended to do just that. And, clearly, Catholic Charities — which helped many of the refugees settle in Fort Wayne in the first place — could and should do a better job of preparing refugees for life in Fort Wayne. It’s a tough job, considering many refugees who grow up in primitive camps don’t even know how to read Burmese, let alone maintain a house.

But the widespread sentiment implied in Hines’ question — “How will they be taught to be Americans?” — may have been the most promising thing to come from Tuesday’s meeting. In an era in which the concept of America as a “melting pot” is often rejected in favor of cultural identity, there was widespread agreement that assimilation into the fabric of America is not only beneficial but necessary for immigrant and society alike. That will require willingness on the part of refugees, of course, but also dedication, assistance and patience from the vast majority of Fort Wayne residents who simply want to be, and have, good neighbors.

It might help to remember, as Hines reminded the audience Tuesday, that of all Fort Wayne residents, only the Miamis didn’t originate someplace else.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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