Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cogs

Glen, Matty, and I joined a group of about 20 street walkers last night. The group included Police Director Irving Bradley (who gushed over Matty, which wins him points with me), Community Affairs officer, Detective Bob Russo, a few other policemen, a representative from Inspections, at-large councilman and mayoral hopeful Manny Segura, a large contingent of Villa Park Civic Association members, and us. The original plan was for the director to walk through Villa Park and listen to residents' concerns about problem areas, as a kick-off to the formation of the Villa Park Neighborhood Watch program. We bundled up and joined the group, hoping to convince the Police Director to walk through our streets in the near future. We are not exactly part of Villa Park, nor are we part of Wilbur, though we've been called both. Realtors will say that homes for sale here are in quiet and lovely Villa Park; reporters will say that the violence up the street took place in the crime-ridden Wilbur section. Neither is correct. But I suppose, neither is totally wrong either. We are a neighborhood without an identity.

But maybe that's okay. Last night, we were totally surprised and energized that the members of the Villa Park Civic Association, as well as the police representatives on hand, were including our street and a couple others on our side of Hamilton Avenue, in the walk last night. So, like members of the Villa Park group, we pointed out the recurring nightmares on our block, and everyone got to see a pile of tires dumped in the alley. And, was nice to do the "East Ward Holiday House Tour," as many houses were beautifully decorated, everywhere we walked. Equally, it was interesting to hear what the folks from Villa Park were saying about our side of the tracks. We have more uniform homes here, resulting in a more cohesive-looking street. Our houses have a bit of front lawn. Larger porches. More trees. And, with the Christmas lights lighting some homes, I live on a pretty street. As long as the thugs stay inside.

Detective Russo urged us to see our neighborhood as part of Villa Park, and I believe the members of the VPCA are happy to have us. However, the desire to branch out on one's own, or to form yet another group, is so strong in Trenton. We all think our way is the only way, our problems and concerns are unique to the specific area in which we live, and we don't always play nice with others. It's a struggle for me, too. I have an ego and opinions, just like everyone else; and really, a designated group for our neighborhood would not be a terrible idea. But I can't get behind that after being made to feel so welcome last night. We ARE more like Villa Park than Wilbur. There's a perfectly good wheel, right across Hamilton Avenue, a wheel that's very willing to ride down my street. Why should I reinvent it?

We got in late last night. I heated up some cider, and we drank it in front of our tree, while Matty played with a kiddy tool bench, which was an early Christmas gift from one of Glen's coworkers. I checked my email and read we now have at least 9 people, to date, interested in running for mayor next year. It gave me a headache. Several of the hopefuls are already aligned politically, and have the same or similar positions on the issues. Some ran in 2006, and lost handily, and maybe their money could be better spent another way. I'm not trying to ruin anyone's dream of ruling our city, but COME ON. Why is ego so strong in Trenton? Based on what we saw in the South Ward's special election last month, I can only imagine what chaos will happen in the ward and at-large races, since it seems all seats will be open. On one hand, I find the show here in Trenton to be hugely entertaining. We could (and should) have our own reality TV show. But after awhile, the entertainment in Trenton, like reality TV, makes my brain and soul atrophy, and it might be doing the same to everyone else's. My bet, though, is that most people don't realize it. Why can't we work together and put ego aside and be functional little cogs in the machinery? I mean, it's OBVIOUS the machinery that is Trenton is broken; we NEED cogs; but the machinery will remain broken if everyone wants to be the boss.

The deadline for the paperwork expressing intent to run for office is still a few weeks away. If you love your city, you do not need to run for office! It's my hope that some folks will come to their senses and not submit that paperwork. What am I smoking, you ask? I know. I know. I'm a dreamer. Unfortunately, I suspect more people are going to crawl out of the woodwork and run. How annoying. And how wasteful.

~~~~~

An aside, maybe the attitude of "my way is better" is infused by our very system of elections, which are in May, which is permitted under election law, though many municipalities choose to have their elections in November, along with the general election. It costs more to have elections in May, and in a city already strapped for cash, does that make sense? We already have the machines here in November for the general election, so wouldn't be more prudent to just move our municipal elections to the same time? That might increase voter turn-out as well, and eliminate the need for run-off elections — and a return of the bulky election machines — in the spring.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Palmjob

Doug Palmer announced today that he would not seek a sixth term. He also said he had a lot of work to do, so he can hand the new mayor a better Trenton than the one he received in 1990.

The Trenton Palmer received way back when had problems, but crime was not as high, and businesses were still open, and gangs were not an issue. There were more people here in 1990, and most adults were gainfully employed. The schools, too, had their problems, but today, almost all of the Trenton schools are a failure.

Palmer has a lot of work to do in the next seven months, indeed.

~~~~~

Glen and I met George in front of the War Memorial, on a stinking hot day in the early summer of 2005. He told us he used to live on Division Street, not too far from where I once lived, after I graduated college. George had just moved out, he said, because Trenton "turned a corner, and was too far gone." Glen and I had bought a house near the high school only a few months prior to this man's proclamation, and it was just too soon to hear that the city in which we bought our home was "too far gone." Surely, Trenton would improve, or at least hang tight, if people didn't leave, if people fought harder. We were new and fresh to the city, and we were ready to work for what was right.

I believe the failures in this city are, in part, a result of the good people giving up too soon. However, we elect leaders to inspire, to show us the way. Trenton faces terrible enemies now: gangs, poverty, crime, and overall decay. Had Doug Palmer infused the people of Trenton with courage and confidence, people wouldn't be retreating. We wouldn't be sinking further into despair and ruin.

During the mid- to late-90s, after Doug Palmer had settled into his tenure, our nation began to enjoy an economic upturn. But business — except for the drug trade — steadily declined here, counter to the national trends. When he took office, he had a grand vision for the city's youth, and I wonder about those kids born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who grew up only knowing Palmer as the mayor, the mayor with a vision for their future. Those kids now, in a perfect world, should be entering college, getting their first jobs. Precious few of them are, but that's in spite of, and not because of, any Palmer contributions to their future. He appoints the school board, so he is accountable for Trenton's dismal drop-out record; he is to blame, in a big sense, that so few city kids go on to college, and choose a dangerous life of crime instead. The reality in Trenton's schools does not reflect the trend in New Jersey, where most municipalities enjoy high graduation rates; most New Jersey municipalities proudly see many of their high school seniors off to college.

We bought a house in between what we thought was the safe Villa Park, and the edgy Wilbur. In 2004, many houses over here were getting renovated. Our street was repaved. Not long after that, new trees were planted a few blocks away on Olden Avenue. The stage was set for a rebirth, it seemed. In 2005, though, the drug dealers set up shop on our corner, and operated seemingly without consequences. It infuriated me to watch people inject heroin into their veins right outside my dining room window, to chase the dealers off my steps, to feel the burn of embarrassment when people came to visit. They thought the same thing George did, that Trenton was too far gone. I knew they were thinking, "I told you so." It ate me alive. I hate to be wrong.

My husband is Canadian, and we bring goodies unique to Trenton to his family with each trip north; we take his family and friends to the colorful local restaurants when they visit. Those establishments started closing shop, most recently, Pete's Steak House. A guy was shot and killed down the street in 2005; Glen saw him die from our living room window. Glen's car was t-boned by a guy with no insurance. Two more murders occurred within feet of our home the summer of 2008. The young kids, instead of getting legitimate summer jobs, became look-outs for the drug dealers, and would drive around on illegal off-road vehicles to keep track of the location of the police. The city council president (and now, official mayor-wannabe) Paul Pintella, called us, and people like us, Johnny-Come-Latelies: to him, we were too new to have an opinion that mattered. We were insulted by a local columnist for being white; for disagreeing with the status quo in our city.

This does not happen to other people we know.

We endured terrible personal losses while living here, and planted flowers and decorated walls in memory of those we loved and lost. We put a patio in, and some new trees and shrubs, and continue with other renovations around the house as time and money permit. The drug dealers have become more discreet. We try to improve the lives of the local stray cats. We got to know our neighbors. We cook some fabulous meals. We have a baby boy.

This is our home. We dug our heels in. There is, I think, hope.

It's been four years since we talked to George, the guy who moved away from Division Street, but his words are never far from my mind. I thought about him when I saw an unruly bunch of long t-shirt wearing knuckleheads creating a ruckus on a porch up the street not too long ago. I thought about him the day nearly all of my majestic bearded irises bloomed at once, after years of waiting. I think about George, in fact, every single time there's a significant event here, good or bad. He's either right or wrong, depending.

And what is happening here? There are battles won and lost every day here. Palmer, like George, has left the city long ago; he stopped fighting; he stopped inspiring his people. I hold Mayor Palmer responsible the for the departure of Trenton's once-thriving businesses, for the increase in violent crime, for the demise of historic buildings. Two decades is a long time to rule, without a single notable accomplishment; but I admit that pointing out the guilty party will not rectify what's wrong. We need to start focusing on the future, and coming up with strategy for winning the war. For that to happen, we need to bring in someone who isn't afraid to roll up his or her sleeves and get to work.

We can do it. History is vast, and people are resilient.