Monday, July 7, 2008

What Trenton says to us...

I read an opinion piece on recently, about the writer's thoughts on her hometown of Collingswood, NJ. The writer, Jen Miller, too, had recently read an essay called Cities and Ambition by Paul Graham, which made her think about what Collingswood is saying to her. According to Graham, cities talk to us; for instance, New York City encourages its residents to earn more money. Cambridge tells its denizens that they need to be smarter. Collingswood, according to Miller, says, "You should be a part of us," because it strives so diligently to get people to come out of their houses and participate in the community. Collingswood has seen a great renaissance in a short time: in fact, Glen and I were living not too far from Collingswood before we moved to Trenton, and we saw quite a bit of that town's transformation. Collingswood's change made us think that the same might happen in Trenton, with a bit of work and time.

I read this piece at the end of June, as we approach our 4th anniversary in our Trenton home, and I've been thinking about it a lot over the last week and a half or so, trying to figure out what, if anything, Trenton is saying to us, and me, in particular. I am, in many ways, proud of Trenton, its history, and our house and the work we've done. There's so much good potential. And I'm also feeling demoralized that with our current administration, any revitalization is a L-O-N-G way off. Compounding the problem of the administration is that the administration more or less hand-picked a huge amount of people who are down-and-out, and so we're saddled with more than our fair share of residents and neighbors who have completely different expectations than we do, and well, that doesn't help anything at all.

So what is Trenton trying to say to me? I think the message is garbled, and even wishy-washy. I hear a desperate plea of "Help me!" and an aggressive, "Screw you, do-gooder!" I envision a trapped animal; a creature in distress who very badly needs help, but is also afraid of change, afraid to trust.

Why have I come to this conclusion? The city OBVIOUSLY needs help: it's not nearly as bad as those in the suburbs would think, or nearly as doomed as the administration at St. Francis Hospital or the management at Amici's must feel, since they're compelled to lie about the their locations. There are rumblings — loud rumblings — of change; there are new voices emerging. We're seeing a shift on City Council; we're seeing citizens question the administration more freely and openly. And we're getting bitten in return.

Take, for instance, the fact that a group of citizens is sick and tired of Mayor Doug Palmer's special treatment for certain city employees, but not for others. Former Police Director, Joseph Santiago, a Palmer crony, has been in blatant defiance of Trenton's residency ordinance, and the citizens are demanding that he either move to the city, or vacate his position; the matter is now under discussion in the courts. Palmer and Santiago have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight this lawsuit, and inexplicably, Santiago, whose position is on the line, has been allowed to make broad departmental changes in the face of our budget crunch. Not only has he been allowed to make huge sweeping changes in the police department, but he's also made some highly illogical changes: he's disbanded the effective K-9 unit, and the Vice Squad. I haven't really looked into this, but I would wager that there aren't many municipalities larger than say, Cranbury, NJ, who don't have a vice unit.

In the meantime, according to police sources over at Trenton Speaks, Santiago has sent the latest rookies, who just graduated from the academy very recently, out on patrol, without veteran officers by their sides. According to the forum, Santiago has them focusing on writing traffic tickets, in the hopes of generating some extra revenue. While it befuddles me that Santiago has the new crew out writing tickets for traffic violations, instead of sending the much more needed Vice Squad out on patrol to round up far more dangerous criminals, I'm not going to let bring me down too badly. Personally, I'm a complete square on the road and find it extremely difficult to commit traffic offenses. I follow my neighborhood's signage for the street sweeper. I stop at stop signs. I yield, probably way more than I should, because I'm not interested in getting T-boned by anyone (which is very likely here). Glen keeps the vehicles in good running order. I drive slowly through the streets in the city, and I keep my music turned down low, as to a) not be a nuisance, and b) so I can hear what's going on around me when I drive. I park where I should, facing the correct direction, and I always wear my seat beat. I don't find any of this behavior particularly difficult, though I suspect some people might, because I had heard complaints at my CPAC a few years ago about the police not wanting to be too tough on the residents regarding the traffic laws, because when they get tickets, it pisses them off, and then they call their council people to complain, who must, I assume, complain to the cops in return. I'd rather have Vice and K9, but as far as I'm concerned, bring on the traffic enforcement. Anyone who complains is probably doing something wrong anyway. And maybe the rookies will get lucky and happen to catch some drug dealers without seatbeats playing their squealy tire game before they mow into someone else's car; or they'll get some idiot before s/he T-bones a little kid in the street, or they'll get someone who has just shot up heroin on the corner; or some damn waster on an ATV etc. etc. etc. I may be a dreamer, but if this city started enforcing some of its lesser laws (like the traffic variety), we might see an overall improvement in quality of life. Still, I recognize this for what it is: a wounded Santiago spitting back some ha ha in our faces. Hopefully, chump, you'll be gone soon, and we can get K9 and Vice back, AND maybe the city can enforce some of its traffic laws, too.

Here's a good one about the screwed-up priorities here in Trenton. Newark, NJ, the largest city in New Jersey, and located about 5 miles from Manhattan, had just under 4,000 employees in 2005. There are approximately 276,000 residents in Newark's approximate 24 square miles (land). If we break this down, Newark offers approximately 1 city employee for every 69 people. In 2005, the much smaller Trenton had 1,750 employees, and we can assume that number hasn't changed much, since there have been no layoffs during our fiscal crisis. We have just under 84,000 residents in our less-than-8 square mile (land) city, which means there is 1 city employee for every 48 residents. One would think the higher employee-to-resident ratio would mean greater personalized attention in our city, but, at least in my experience, that ain't happening. And it's not that I'm a big fan of layoffs, not at all, it's just it seems that our population continues to decrease every year, due to natural attrition, white/ish flight, and homicide, but our number of city employees has remained constant. Furthermore, for every decent city employee, there are probably four who are just there collecting a paycheck. Frustrating. The large size of our government for our small population — and its overall lack of effectiveness — really shows the delusional nature of the Palmer administration.

Related to this is this city's very liberal take-home car policy. We sit here in Trenton and read about how municipalities all over the country aren't allowing as many employees to take home cars, due to the financial burden it puts on the taxpayers. How many take-home cars are in our fleet, I wonder? Hamilton, NJ, home of so many former Trenton residents, has changed its policy. Buffalo, NY is only allowing 50 people to take home cars, down from 85. And, get this, there are some employees in Buffalo who VOLUNTARILY turned in their take-home car, including their public works commissioner (read the story here). Buffalo, by the way, is the second largest city in New York, with a land area of 40+ square miles, and a population of approximately 292,000. I digress. Trenton, in addition to sucking its taxpayers dry, was also deemed to be a "Green City," by the mayor, and as such, we should be finding ways to be more gentle with the environment, and more inclined to repurpose old buildings, and find ways to cut fuel costs. This is not happening at all.

Adding to Trenton's confusing and sad "Help me" and "Screw you, do-gooder" message is the dysfunctional attitude of our mayor. He claims to be in touch with the citizens here, when he's not off posing for Esquire magazine; when he's not off participating in this summit or that round-table; when he's not turning a blind eye to an already screwed up police department that assigns extra officers to his posse. He defended our residency ordinance for years, until he felt the need to move to Hunterdon County, and until his pal, Joe Santiago, needed some special treatment. He says he's working hard for people here to be able to afford their homes, and yet, he continues to accept money and obligation from the richer surrounding municipalities who don't want their fair share of low-income residents; in accepting this money, and the people, he is screwing over not only those who already live here, but the ones who will live here: there are not many jobs in the area; and the schools are currently alarming, as well, which just perpetuates the cycle of poverty. He claims to care about the environment and taxes, but his actions clearly show opposite, as stated above. All of this has been address before here, and by the other area bloggers, so I'll let it go at that, for now. However, one little bit of proof that Palmer might be making a screwy impression outside of this region is this. In case you don't feel like clicking the link, I'll sum up: Palmer has been bestowed with one Seattle-area blogger's "WTF Award" after he defended former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's, hmmm, uncomfortable comments to a reporter at USA Today, about her support thanks to "hard working, white Americans." Palmer came to her defense and said, "It's not like she was saying something behind closed doors. She said it to the media."

Huh? One never knows what truly goes on behind closed doors, and really, that might not be such a bad thing, when you think about it. After all, we DO have doors, right? So, I dunno, Doug, maybe it would have been okay if Hillary made her comment privately? Better yet, she's been in the public spotlight for long enough that it would have been so much more appropriate if she hadn't made those comments at all.

Trenton's message is confusing, and that is due, hugely, to our mayor, who talks out of both sides of his mouth; but not all of Trenton's problems are entirely his fault. Most northeastern US cities have declined in the last 40 years, for a host of reasons. However, many are making a comeback; many smaller, run-down towns have also made a transformation. I think this has been possible because those municipal leaders do not have an adversarial relationship with their residents; those municipalities were run by people, unlike Doug Palmer, who are very focused on their home town, instead of the advance of their own political careers. Despite the state of affairs in Trenton, I think a renaissance is possible here, but it will take a bit more time and a lot more work than we previously thought. Sending Doug to Hunterdon County permanently in 2010 will be a BIG step in the right direction.

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