I've had a thought bouncing around my head that's unsettling; it's based more on intuition than cold hard facts, but it won't go away. And, after last night, it's taken up residence in my brain (without an ordinance!) and I'm going to take a risk and write about it, even though it's kind of an awkward, disturbing, controversial thought:
Is Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer taking advantage of the city's marginalized and poor citizens?
I think he is.
For starters, Palmer has stacked our city full of poverty-striken people by grabbing up all of our neighboring municipalities' RCAs (Regional Contribution Agreements). As a result, he's concentrated the region's poor into a small, geographic area: in our city. This concentration begets more poverty, more crime, more rundown homes, more decay, more segregation. The original 1975 State Supreme Court decision, and the subsequent decision in 1983, were made to help low-income families and individuals find affordable housing IN EVERY MUNICIPALITY OF THE STATE. Because participation was mandatory, my interpretation of this arrangement is that it was created to help prevent a concentration of poverty. By making room for the poor in every part of the state — including the affluent areas — would perhaps inspire and provide financial opportunities for disadvantaged folks, so they could better their lives. And, dammit, people should have a choice as to whether or not to live in the city, suburbs, or rural areas.
Instead, along the line, RCAs came into play, which allowed local politicians to pervert the spirit of the court's decisions: rich, white suburban towns that didn't want to comply, could funnel the money into a financially-strapped municipality, and build their share of affordable housing there, instead. While this can help a poor city in the short run, it shuts out many disadvantaged people from living (and working) in many New Jersey communities, and worse, excludes their children from the better educational and job opportunities in the more affluent parts of the state. Education and jobs are necessary to break the cycle of poverty.*
Obviously there are very intelligent people who would disagree with my assessment, so I'll state the obvious: it's just my opinion. But it doesn't mean I'm wrong; it doesn't mean I'm right either. I admit that. But I think I'm right, and this is my blog, so I'm going to continue with my line of thought.
So Palmer has filled this city with the underprivileged. And underprivileged people are not stupid; they love and have dreams and appreciate life, just like everyone else. But their opportunities are so limited, for a host of very complex reasons. They must contend with a school system that fails them, incarceration, and scant job opportunities. They live in lousy corners of the city in decrepit homes owned by immoral landlords, or they live in newer projects, which were built so shoddily that they're falling down before our eyes. The parks and gardens have been replaced by drug dealers who conduct business in the open; the music halls have evolved into loud, obtrusive speakers in the backs of cars driven by thugs, around and around and around the block, the bass so thumping it makes the everything shake. Beauty and art have been erased from these neighborhoods.
Amid this mess are plenty of decent people. They don't commit crimes, and in fact, do their best to shelter themselves from the disaster which is often right out on their porches. They go to church on Sundays, and work so hard to feed and clothe their families, and bring their children up correctly. Because every single moment of their lives is a fight against the criminals outside their doors, AND for basic survival, these people are less likely to read the papers, to go to civic meetings, to talk to their neighbors, to organize; there is just no way for them to see the big picture.
I'm speaking in general terms; this lack of ability to see the big picture is certainly not a given for every single individual living in the ravished areas of our city, but it is prevalent. Again, in general terms, these poor, underprivileged people are Mayor Palmer's voting block; he is charismatic and charming and eloquent and familiar. And he just doesn't seem so bad, compared to the knucklehead drug dealer in the apartment down the hall, who shoots at his rival through a crowd of young children.
But underprivileged people have been fooled: just as much as the drug dealer hopes to keep the decent citizens quiet and isolated from one another, that is the intention of Doug Palmer, too. The very man who claims to be helping the people of Trenton get ahead is systematically doing his damnedest to keep them down, but only far enough that he can periodically swoop in and look like a hero.
It's so clear when you attend meetings, or read some of the comments on the breaking news stories on the nj.com site, or, on occasion, read the comments on some of the blogs, there are people in this city who don't get it. I'm not being arrogant: it's not a matter of I'm right and they're wrong. People are allowed to have different opinions. But what shines through their horrific language skills is a complete lack of understanding of the big picture. These people often get ridiculed for their inability to express themselves, especially in written form, and it's tragic to me, because the ability to communicate well is critical to a meaningful life; language shapes us, and if you can't find the right words, you can't use all of your brain. That's not about race or class or anything except the human brain. Lousy language skills = lousy higher thought. Couple this inability to see the big picture with, say, a violent and unstable neighbor, or hunger, or a nagging creditor, or a baby who needs diapers, and you have a person torn between higher, philosophical thoughts about the law and the future, and how the hell to survive. And keeping a low profile and dealing with the creditors, the food on the table, the diapers for the baby are far more important than philosophy or logic or court decisions. How can the disenfranchised possibly care whether or not ousted Police Director Joseph Santiago stays or goes when their day-to-day struggles are unimaginable (and unacceptable) to most of us?
Whether or not Palmer and/or his cronies bribed some people with gift cards to go to last night's City Council meeting to speak on behalf of the fallen police director, is irrelevant. What's apparent that a large block of people in this city do not and cannot understand the issues that face us because of the terrible conditions in which they live. And Mayor Palmer is using these people. It's inexcusable and sickening: when he needs something, he goes into those neighborhoods, and flashes that handsome smile, and oozes charisma, and makes people believe he's on their side. But he is the wolf in sheep's clothing: he fosters an environment to keep these people isolated and ignorant, but content/fed/safe just enough to make them still like him.
I'd like to be wrong, but I don't believe I am. People certainly need to take responsibility for their own lives and successes, but when a huge bunch of disadvantaged people are put together in dingy corners of our state, the problem escalates, especially when there are politicians who need those dingy corners to remain as-is in order to get re-elected. There has been a lot of talk in recent months about abolishing RCAs, which would do a world of good. We need to figure out other ways to keep disadvantaged people from being the pawns of politicians like Douglas Palmer, but until they no longer have to worry about day-to-day survival, making them care about political follies, even follies that will ultimately make their lives worse in the long run, is a huge challenge.
_____ * Read more about the 1975 and 1983 NJ Supreme Court Mt. Laurel decisions on fair housing here.