We headed down Walnut Avenue, because I wanted to get an up-close and personal view of the decimated rowhomes along Chestnut, which my camera was able to pick up from atop the parking garage on S. Clinton (near Pete DeLorenzo's) back in March. What we saw with our own eyes — and even some of the details we missed, but were able to see later in the photos I took on Saturday — was just abysmal. Entire blocks were boarded up, or very nearly boarded up, but based on the mailboxes, and Direct TV dishes, and cars (some of them fancy, German cars), it's apparent that this was no ghost town. People live there.
And just a few hours later, a little girl died there in a fire; "collateral damage" according to ousted Police Director Joseph Santiago, in a retaliatory hit likely ordered by an imprisoned gang man to get back at the girl's family for testifying against him during his drug trial in 2007. There are a couple of stories in today's papers; read about the problem with witness intimidation here, and check out this link for the overview of the story, based on what's known/available now.
The 10-year-old Qua-Daishia Hopkins is more than just collateral damage; she was a human being living in absolutely unacceptable conditions. The reasons for the conditions are complicated, and can't be blamed on any one person or group. But it represents colossal, systemic failure, and if you're either brave or crazy enough to drive down Walnut or Chestnut Avenue, near the proposed Transit Center, you'll see the despair and waste, and how easily a fire could start, and spread. This is the neighborhood that would very literally be in the shadow of that new 25-story tower, a tower which will supposedly bring progress to Trenton. I can't help but wonder if that isn't just a pipe dream, and, if in the off chance that tower is completed, who will experience the joys of progress? Certainly not the people in Qua-Daishia's neighborhood.
Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer called Qua-Daishia's death an outrage, and he's right. And hopefully, his pal, Santiago, who vengefully, it seems, hopes to amputate Trenton's Vice Unit, in a misguided effort to keep costs down, will be able to hunt properly for this little girl's killer without the very group of dedicated officers central to that task.
I'm not claiming to have all the answers, and I really do hate to just complain complain complain, without offering anything productive in return. So here's my stab at some solutions that should begin now; we can't wait until 2010:
- Maybe — maybe — if this city's administration and officials took a step back and took a drive through that neighborhood adjacent to the proposed Transit Village, maybe it would help us all to see the answers. The city isn't directly responsible for the breakdown of family, but the city isn't doing anything to help heal people, help build people up. I know that healing people is not the sole purpose of government, but in a very basic sense, government IS supposed to look out for people: it's why we have elections and departments within the government. Trenton must stop accepting so much RCA money, which crowds the poor and marginalized into terrible, filthy corners of this city, corners which are now gapingly open and full of cracks, oozing with violence and anger and disconnectedness and no future, qualities that definitely tear people apart, and ruins communities.
- The city must stop entertaining developers who are interested in demolishing one perfectly acceptable corner of the city, but won't even look at the potential that exists in the very adjacent decrepit neighborhoods. Maybe this smells of gentrification; I hope not, especially since real estate right now is such a gamble anyway. But maybe if a developer decided to take over an all-but-ruined block near the intersection of Chestnut and Walnut, instead of a perfectly beautiful corner near Clinton and Greenwood, maybe it would send a clear message to the drug dealers and ganglords: this is no longer the best place to do business. We need to fix the damn broken windows, you know? I didn't even read that book, but the theory resonates with me, and has seemed to have some success on my own corner. And it works so well in nearby cities who have implemented it, like New York City, where crime rates continue at an all time low.
- We need to get the major unrest with the police department settled once and for all. There will always be differences, that's human nature. But what's been going on is an embarrassment, and puts our safety at risk, and this needs to stop. The officers who serve in that department are embattled and are suffering as a result of the turmoil, but the real losers are the decent citizens of this city. Santiago needs to be removed as soon as we're legally able to do so, if the courts won't. This will help stop some of the in-fighting and get priorities back on track; and will save the Vice Unit (a department that's performed well, in my opinion and experience), which should not be on the chopping block anyway. The Santiago regime has caused too much damage within the department and community in these 5 years, and has not only put some very questionable people in charge of our safety, but this regime has — I believe — also manipulated statistics and misguided the public with the "crime is down" mantra, and ALL of it is completely unacceptable, and very, very dangerous.
- We need politicians and officials who actually care about the people, and the history; rather than their own careers and ego. Public service is not the same thing as a career in business. We don't need highly paid executives who get the job based on favor and chumminess. Our government, for a shrinking population, is too large, and we need to make some cuts, starting at the damn top, instead of at the bottom, for a change. Our mayor does not need the posse he has; he is not a movie star, or a famous athlete or, even the mayor of a very large city. Ditch the baggage, Doug. For crying out loud. And while you're at it, roll up your damn sleeves and get to work. For real. The mayor needs to take it down a notch and get out of his fancy suit and chauffeured car and set an example so that residents are likely follow his example.