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.