Show Some to Get Some

Three men, shot down on the streets of Trenton in the middle of the day, two of them dead. No one cares.

I don’t mean that literally.

Of course, these men have friends, loved ones, and neighbors. They will feel the loss of these two dead like a piece ripped out of their souls.

They sure care.

People who live on the block of Ashmore Avenue in Chambersburg, where the shootings took place, they care. If they’ve been there for any length of time, they care that their neighborhood has become increasingly dangerous in less than five years. Remember, back in 2013, after another daylight killing, this one in front of the Italian People’s Bakery, then Police Director Ralph Rivera tried top explain that horror away as an aberration. “The area People’s Bakery is in is normally a quiet and safe area. This shooting is no reflection on the area.” The news story about yesterday’s shootings don’t even mention what a “quiet and safe area” the neighborhood used to be.

You bet the people in Chambersburg care.

People throughout Trenton care that people are being cut down in broad daylight in Chambersburg, because they know that the kind of sudden violence that happened yesterday on Ashmore can just as easily happen on their block at any time, without warning. To their friends, loved ones, neighbors. To them.

The people in Trenton sure as hell care.

But outside the City? Maybe not so much. How come? Well, perhaps there is a sense that what happens in Trenton is contained in Trenton, that uncertain, random violence and despair won’t somehow translate across the city line. That what happens in Trenton somehow has nothing to do with them.

Which is more than a little ironic. Because lately, it seems that the rest of the world looks upon this entire country the same way that the rest of the country looks upon Trenton. Lawless, dangerous, poorly led, unpredictably violent and threatening to bring the whole neighborhood down. Such views depend on one’s perspective, no?

But perhaps, just a little bit, the indifference – or worse – directed towards Trenton has something to do with the attitude shown lately by many of Trenton’s public officials towards our neighbors. I speak of course about the Trenton Water Works (TWW), and the cavalier, oh hell let’s not be coy, the contemptuous way Trenton has been treating the customers of our city water utility who live in our neighboring Townships. We have a close relationship with the Townships and the 2/3 of TWW’s customers who live there, and it’s not been good lately. It’s been bad.

This isn’t anything new. Back when this space was still pretty new, several pieces in the Fall of 2010 (the Stone Age!)  were devoted to talking about how failures of the Water Works were pissing off our neighbors. For instance, this entry from October 8, 2010 describes (sorry, the original newspaper article I linked to isn’t available) how then-Mayor Tony Mack failed to show up for a meeting convened by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes with the mayors of Ewing, Lawrence, Hamilton and Hopewell in attendance to discuss that month’s TWW snafu. Nothing but ill will towards Trenton resulted from that fiasco.

Ill will that continues to this day. In just the last week, we’ve seen local mayors complain about the Water Works, as well as traditional friends to the city such as Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (“As the days continue to pass, Trenton Water Works customers are being faced with increasingly alarming alerts about contamination levels, boil water directives and conserving use. What they are not being told is how the problems will be fixed in the immediate future, and how permanent solutions will be put in place to prevent such public health risks in the future.”) and State Senator Shirley Turner (“The health and well-being of our residents is too important to allow another debacle to occur like the one we saw this week and in the past. Consumers should be notified immediately when a boil water advisory is in effect so they can take steps to protect the public’s health.”)

Note to Trenton’s Administration: When you lose Shirley Turner, you’re done!

In the midst of all this, to be frank justifiable, criticism, the City’s response has really been one of disdain. Last week a statement issued in the name of Mayor Eric Jackson (but almost certainly not written by him) blew off all of TWW’s critics. “The Mayor” simply dismissed as meaningless “the highly-charged rhetoric and misinformation being circulated by individuals and news outlets with no technical background or knowledge.”

In other words, Piss Off, Mercer County!

Below the Mayor, there is also reluctance to share information. I wrote last week how, at the end of City Council’s meeting last Tuesday night, Public Works Director Merkle Cherry came up and invited me for a conversation about the Water Works. I followed up the next day by telling him I would be glad to, if the conversation was on the record and recorded on video. He backed out of his invitation at that point. He was only interested in talking off the record, if our conversation was not an interview. That’s something I find to have no value at this point. If a Director is unwilling to speak on the record, or grant interviews, he’s not dealing straight with the public.

And, of course, City Council President Zachary Chester was nothing but defiant last week when he spoke about the City’s and TWW’s critics. He didn’t mention TWW’s customers by name, as neither did “The Mayor,” nor Director Cherry, but neither did they mention them nor their legitimate concerns. The omission is telling.

The thing is, you have to show some empathy to get some back, and this Administration and this Council have not been noticeably empathetic towards their TWW customers. Not in 2010, not now. There are few public services as intimate and as important as providing clean and dependable drinking water. Trenton hasn’t done a good job of that for a decade, and it’s acting like it just doesn’t care. That’s not endearing the rest of this County and State to this City right now.

Can one draw a solid straight line from the disregard shown by those outside Trenton about its street violence to the carelessness with which Trenton and its Water Works shows its customers?

Perhaps not, but they are definitely strongly related. Inside Trenton, there isn’t much we can actually do about others’ perceptions of the City. But we can, and need to, change the way we’ve been treating and talking about those who this City serves as customers. We need to be more mindful of their perspectives, their legitimate criticisms, their offered solutions. They need to be  better treated by TWW and the City than they have been up until now.

If we ever want to improve others’ attitudes towards Trenton and seek their help in re-building this town, we need to show more empathy toward them in this matter. We have to show some to get some.

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