As we bid adieu to 2014, Town Square Delaware has made it an annual tradition to share some of the previous year’s best features with our readers. Cheers to both a new year and new contributions in 2015!
The sad, steady decline of our state’s largest and most important city should deeply concern every Delawarean. Just as we are all invested in the health of the First State’s natural and economic resources – our beautiful coastline, our world-renowned courts, the University of Delaware, etc. – for reasons both moral and practical, we all have a serious stake in Wilmington’s fate.
Unfortunately, as heartbreakingly-detailed in recent News Journal articles, the city is fast becoming a criminal mecca, with shootings and violent crime rates among the worst in the country.
Crime is of course a leading indicator of communal despair, a bracing byproduct of social and economic distress. And like faded, dangerous towns such as Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan, Wilmington is beset by multi-generational economic deprivation – options for brighter, healthier lives simply unseeable for an increasingly poor, disaffected and immobile population.
“Official” unemployment in the city stubbornly hovers at more than ten percent, with real unemployment significantly higher, likely well north of 20 percent for young men. Since 1999, median household incomes among African-Americans – nearly 60 percent of city residents – dropped 26 percent.
That is worth repeating: Since the beginning of this century, well over half of Wilmington’s population has literally been left behind, with their income not just stagnating – it has plummeted.
While Wilmington’s challenges are not entirely unique, its plight is all the more glaring because it is our state’s marquee, gateway city, not to mention its paradoxical prominence as the central business district for the “corporate capital of the world.”
The city’s stricken status should have a special sting for the tens of thousands of us who – regardless of technical accuracy – claim Wilmington as our hometown. Indeed, most New Castle Countians northeast of Hockessin receive mail at a “Wilmington” address.
The News Journal reporting suggests a corollary of the broken window theory that should also motivate action by those beyond the city’s boundaries: As crime and poverty festers in one place, inevitably it will spread. In this case, Wilmington’s problems are leaking into Newark, Middletown and Dover.
From a reputational standpoint, Delaware is still such a small state that our performance across so many social and economic indices will suffer as Wilmington struggles.
Then there are booby prizes like being tagged “least friendly” city by Conde Nast Traveler and “most dangerous” in Parenting Magazine. However flimsily concocted these lists may or may not be, starring on them leaves an impression that can be hard to shake (thanks, Google).
Negative perceptions can have real consequences for our state, but behind the data and rankings is a tragic reality of so many of our neighbors mired in poverty and afraid for their safety.
If ever there was a situation that called for aggressive and imaginative new approaches, this is it. If ever there was an opportunity to distinguish Delaware through unparalleled inter-governmental collaboration – particularly when the city, the county, the state and our Congressional delegation (all three of whom happen to be city residents) are controlled by the same party – this is it.
The first priority must be getting crime under control. Whether deploying a community policing model such as the plan proposed by Councilman Bud Freel, utilizing new technologies or some combination of both, Wilmington can only benefit from piloting a mix of creative, empirically-based programs. And both the nature and acuity of Wilmington’s crime calls for an integrated federal, state and local response.
The longer-term solution to Wilmington’s problems – or, put more positively, turning this crisis into a genuine opportunity – requires a comprehensive strategy. And that must begin with a unifying, differentiated vision: What do we want Wilmington to be?
If the status quo is unacceptable – and how can it not be? – it seems there are two options: either truly commit to becoming a great city in the traditional sense, a showcase of urban renewal and dynamism, or rethink the entire idea of the city itself.
Either way, there is nothing to lose by making Wilmington a place where schools are pushing the boundaries, with new methods and structures, and disadvantaged families can choose what is best for their child. In other words, throw the current model out the window and make the entire city of Wilmington an education enterprise zone. If New Orleans, with one of the worst-performing systems in the country, is gaining national headlines for a “revolution” in its schools, why can’t Wilmington?
And if other cities have found a formula to become thriving magnets for entrepreneurship and young people, Wilmington can do the same. Don’t laugh: There could be worse fates than to sit smack dab in the middle of the busiest, wealthiest region of the country, midway between the nation’s two hottest cities, along America’s preeminent rail line and highway. Let’s leverage Wilmington’s location and low cost of living with a mix of incentives that give young entrepreneurs an offer they can’t refuse.
Lastly, in considering Wilmington’s future, everything should be on the table including the governmental structure itself. There is no stone-etched decree requiring any metropolitan construct to continue as previously defined and if, for example, a city-county consolidation in some fashion is in the state’s best interests then it should be explored.[i]
Wilmington’s problems are complex and difficult. Every day, throughout the city, smart, dedicated people in government, private business and non-profits are advancing a range of fantastic projects and programs to conquer them. Yet, transformation will require focusing, prioritizing and aligning these efforts, setting clear goals and most importantly, acknowledging that more of the same will not work.
[i] It is hard to see that the existing layers of government have produced great results. There is roughly one city employee for every 64 Wilmington residents. Prior to its bankruptcy, Detroit’s ratio was one in 51; today it is one in 73. Putting legitimate questions of efficiency and accountability aside, from a financial standpoint, Wilmington’s increasing fiscal burden and eroding tax base are going to make that an unsustainable ratio.