Best of 2014: We are all Wilmingtonians

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!

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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.

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17 Comments

  • Thanks for writing this – binding together the lot of the county and the city is an interesting, perhaps critical, idea to explore. I think many Delawareans underestimate how much Wilmington (and what it has come to represent to those that don’t live here, don’t get the whole story) matters – or could/should matter – to our shared prosperity. The problems of Wilmington are not unique to Wilmington, or to city life, or even any particular group of people – these problems can and do spread in the receding wake of the opportunity. Wilmington is still beautiful, still full of great people! I’ve invested my life here because it means something to me, and because any risk in the investment feels well worth it. Those who have no bond with the heart of the city flee, avoid and mock the results and roots of our problems at their own risk, too – and support the wasting of SO much potential.

  • This an excellent article, probably a real eye opener for some. The Mayor should form a task force from city, county & state leaders, as well as knowledgeable citizens. Delaware as a whole has a lot to offer but you might question it when crime rates are what people talk about or how dirty the streets are in the county. Our image to tourists is becoming more negative as they watch the news or drive down our highways. Where is the respect & pride? Where is the tax money going? It’s not just the drugs or unemployment. There are many issues that need addressed, one step at a time – a positive vision for the city & state where many work & call home. I am only one single voice who thanks you for this opportunity to speak out. I hope others will support you & share their feelings & ideas too. And maybe 2014 will be a better new year for us all.

  • Great article. While larger states like New Jersey can have problematic cities, it doesn’t define the entire state. Delaware is too small, and Wilmington’s problems can’t be brushed away and marginalized as in Camden. Wilmington is New Castle County and New Castle County is Delaware. No other state is so tied to the fortunes of its largest city. The small size of Delaware makes it a unique place for government entities at local and statewide levels to intercede before it gets any worse. The links you gave to to what is going on in New Orleans post-Katrina give hope that there is nowhere to go but up.

  • Mr. Fleming, you only need to look several hours drive to the South and our Nation’s Capital where the population is increasing dramatically, the murder rate has dropped from 450 just twenty years ago to just over 110, and where home values have soared. In a city which twenty years ago there seemed to be no hope and and crime and corruption were as common as broken glass, now $400,000 townhouses are the norm. What possibly can be the reason for this? Firstly, the Federal Government has substantially increased hiring however that was mostly in the suburbs but it did add to the job market. The newcomers to Washington are buying houses,and are much more highly educated than the typical Washingtonian of the 1990’s.
    A more educated and diverse (it works both ways) voter base has begun removing the most corrupt of city officials,Wilmington is a long way from taking that step. Young Caucasian and Asian parents, through Charter Schools and new neighborhood demographics have taken control of several Elementary Schools and ousted the Sorority Sisters who controlled Teaching and Administration. Because these new Washingtonians have invested a great deal of money in their homes and are not planning to leave, they have already begun to change the Middle and High Schools.
    Finally Mr. Fleming reread you own writing, you want more entrepreneurs and young people just like the District of Columbia has attracted, but you are leaving out they just happen to be educated and Caucasian or Asian.

  • Michael Fleming’s January 2 article “We are all Wilmingtonians” addressed the increasingly alarming crime rate that plagues Wilmington and the complexity of the situation. As the executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning, I was pleased that he included the promise of quality education as a long-term solution to fighting crime.

    There is no quick fix to the crime situation in Wilmington. Of course there are steps that can and should be taken to provide immediate changes, but the most effective, long-term program to curb crime is an investment in quality early education for all of Delaware’s young children.

    The Office of Early Learning and its partners continue to work hard to promote the need for quality early learning for all children from birth to five years of age in Delaware. Investing in quality early education and learning is one of the most effective strategies to prevent criminal behavior before it begins rather than relying on later rehabilitation. Reduction in crime keeps the public safe, diminishes the pain and suffering of victims and their families, and decreases the cost of crime for taxpayers and society.

    The research demonstrating the value of high-quality early learning is quite convincing and the cost savings associated with reduced criminal behavior of those who received a quality early education is substantial.

    Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national, bipartisan, nonprofit anti-crime organization of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general and other law enforcement leaders and violence survivors wholeheartedly recognize quality early education as a crime deterrent, and point to two persuasive documented examples to support their stance:

    • Findings from the Perry project in Ypsilanti (Michigan) in which 123 children were traced from ages three and four to age 40, demonstrated that the half of the 123 participating three and four-year old children from low-income families who did not attend daily preschool programs, backed up by weekly home visits and parental participation were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by age 27 than those who attended preschool.

    • Chicago’s publicly funded Child-Parent Centers have served almost 100,000 three- and four-year-olds since 1967. For 14 years, researchers tracked 989 of those children and 550 similar children not in the program. The children who did not participate were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

    We continue to work with our partners to provide resources for families through Delaware Stars, which promotes high-quality early learning for young children and sets the Stars quality rating that guides families seeking the best program for their child, a family-oriented website, http://www.greatstartsdelaware.com and events.

    We must join together to make Wilmington a safe place for all its residents. If we are committed to building a strong society of productive, law abiding citizens we must all invest in quality early childhood education and learning for all children in the first state. The evidence is clear. We simply cannot afford not to make that investment.

    Harriet Dichter
    Executive Director, Delaware Office of Early Learning

  • Michael,

    Your article provides a clear, concise direction for Wilmington and State leaders to take action. The complacency about the risks threatening Wilmington’s future is unacceptable for the well-being of the residents of the city, county and the state and our visitors as you point out. You have written a great call to action that provides a way to confront a crisis to create an opportunity for a better Wilmington.

  • First, I applaud Michael for raising these important issues and caring about his community. Considering the resurgence of surrounding cities like WDC and Philadelphia, Wilmington’s decline hasn’t received the attention it needs.

    The crime issue is perplexing as violent crime is on the decline in many cities. City Hall needs to examine these success stories and implement best practices–this doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.

    I’m sure we all have our own ideas on how to spur an education and economic renaissance, but I’m happy that Michael has shined a spotlight on this sad situation.

  • I mov’in to Wilmooo. We’re going to get this fixed in ’14. Ditto Vote Fleming for Delaware. you should get a summer home in Trolley Square.

  • Thank you Michael for depicting reality rooted in collaborative hope and demand for solutions. Just today the Wall Street Journal reports that NYC had the fewest murders last year (333) since 1963. For a city with 1,000,000 children in the largest school district in the country, NY has created and enforced policies that are working. For our approximately 17,000 children, access to excellent schools is fundamental. As Harriet Dichter says, opportunity must start at the beginning with quality early care. A vibrant city is possible here like nowhere else – yet with an aligned, multi-stakeholder vision.

  • Thank you, Michael. (I saw this piece first in the News Journal.)

    Where do we go from here? What do you see as our next step, strategy-wise?

    Is this a call to energize government; or a call to energize ourselves, with the possibility and hope that government will follow?

    I would imagine from reading your Rebuilding Delaware series that you see it primarily as the former. I tend to see it as the latter, in recognition of the power and responsibility each of us ultimately has to act; and the sense that we have perhaps delegated too much of that power and responsibility away. In either case, what is the most valuable immediate arena for action; what is the most critical point of leverage where we could apply ourselves?

    I agree that there are many people and organizations doing wonderful and exciting things in Wilmington and beyond. One possibility is, then, that coordination of these efforts is where the most untapped value lies. Providing the glue that knits (sorry, my metaphors are running away from me!) these various strands into a more comprehensive and forceful and effective whole, or at least a more tightly-connected web that blankets the region and the scope of issues. This is related to your call for focus and priorities.

    Another possibility is that our most critical next step is engaging more of the unengaged in the community; getting more of us Wilmington zip-codees or New Castle Countians particularly to see themselves as members of a common community with urban Wilmingtonians, and then deciding what that community and responsibility means. Many of us, for instance, have plenty of food and education; how do we translate that into a community that has enough? What are the consequences of our daily choices, how do they impact our area, the resource-shed that is Greater Wilmington, positively or negatively?

    You will propose different points of leverage, if you see the major task as energizing government and institutions.

    What is the next step? If we are concerned, what is our strategy for action, first at a high level, and then in tactical detail? I welcome a conversation.

  • Bet not many suburbanites went downtown Wilmington to see the Christmas Parade as they probably felt safer going to Philly to see their parade. How crazy is that, a city of about 72,000 cannot control its violent crime to the extent that people feel safer going to a city with 2-3 million people over visiting their own tiny city?

    I believe that the city and the county need to join forces on this problem and start “Operation Giuliani”. The reason I say both city and county is because if the city does Operation Giuliani on its own then the criminal element will simply move to the suburbs. So to rid our area of this blight both city and county need to work together on this.

    What I’m presenting below is from Guiliani’s Blog site. It offers a short description of his basic plan that was called The Broken Window theory. If both Wilmington AND New Castle County did this together in a partnership, we could finally end this travesty of gun violence that’s become the city of Wilmington’s new name: A place where thugs with sagging pants rule with guns.

    “The “Broken Windows” theory of policing first appeared in the March 1982 edition of the Atlantic Monthly in an article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. In essence, Broken Windows theory states that major crime will be reduced by enforcing laws on minor offenses because, A.) The rigorous enforcement of standard-of-living crimes such as vandalism creates an environment that is hostile to the individuals who are likely to commit more serious crimes, and B.) Individuals who commit smaller offenses are more likely to also commit more serious crimes. According to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, roughly 2 in 13 subway fare-beaters had felony warrants. Enforcement of small offenses like turnstile jumping leads to the capture of serious felons, keeping them off the city streets.

    “Broken Windows” policing worked. Felonies in the city’s subway system dropped 75%. One out of every seven turnstile jumpers was found to either possess a weapon or be wanted under a felony warrant.

    The other critical benefit of the rigorous enforcement of “Broken Windows” policing is that ridding the city of criminals who perpetrate quality-of-living crimes usually leads to fewer law-abiding citizens fleeing a community.

    Mayor Giuliani made “revolutionizing” New York City’s fight against crime his mission. His underlying philosophy: “Broken Windows” policing. His main weapon: a truly revolutionary tactic called Compstat.

    Even the New York Times was forced to admit (after criticizing Compstat at its initial implementation while trumpeting competing programs in cities such as San Diego) that “the regular Compstat meetings are probably the most powerful control device ever devised for police.” Compstat’s success led to Harvard bestowing its prestigious “Innovations in Government Award” on the program in 1996.

    Compstat’s success has been long-term, which has diffused the main criticism of the program, namely, that crime was already falling nationwide by the time of its implementation. While true on its face, this criticism fails to note that New York City’s crime reduction was three to six times the national average. New York City today remains the United State’s safest big city, while cities like Boston and St. Louis saw homicides increase 67% and 22% in 2001. Chicago had 20 more murders than New York in 2001 despite having 5.1 million fewer inhabitants. And what about that vaunted San Diego crime reduction program? San Diego experienced 16% more crime than New York City in 2001, with its crime rate rising by 3.9 percent while NYC’s fell by 7.6%”

    For more details on the Comstat part of Giuliani’s program, read the entire article taken from Giuliani’s Blog:

    http://giulianiblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/rudy-record-crime-reduction.html

    The point I’m making is Giuliani’s plan worked and worked well. Why do Wilmington’s mayor and the past two mayors [it’s not just the current mayor] avoid trying a tried and proven idea, because they didn’t think of it??? Sure let’s reinvent the wheel as our city continues to crumble to a vast urban slum.

    So once again I call for the mayor and the City Council to pull their collective heads out of the sand and invite the County to join forces with them in enforcing the Broken Window plan utilizing the Comstat program to insure the various police departments are doing their part to enforce the plan through out the city and county. I’d call this “Operation Giuliani”.

  • Why are you blaming our cash strapped schools for this mess? They are doing more with less these days… and they get blamed? It is an expedient, easy point of the finger, blaming schools that is. But the problem is that facts (oh those stubborn facts) contradict. General public schools in the city are outperforming the cities charter schools. And Eastside, touted as a charter outperforming general public schools, has SIGNFICANTLY reduced their numbers (i.e. they have asked behavior problems and those with severe special ed needs to leave). Look, I like your article, and I was with you until you threw area schools under the bus. Just like a lot of people tell journalists to go on a ride along to understand what police are working with, I say go to a city school and see what they do on a daily basis. You may change your tune.

    And to get a little more in depth about it… Public schools are actually performing at a somewhat higher level if you look at the overall trend over a long period. The problem is that Wilmington chose a niche in the banking and corporate sector, that only the top college graduates can hope to compete in. I don’t know if anyone has realized this or not… BUT THERE IS NOT A FOUR YEAR COLLEGE WITHIN CITY LIMITS! Why are public lower schools getting blamed for unemployment when MANY cities would be hard pressed to produce competitors for these jobs! Outside of NYC I can’t think of a city that can employ the majority of ITS citizens in the types of jobs that dominate our city. This city turned its back on the working class and now journalists want to blame schools. That is TOTALLy unfair.

    Having said all that, do I think schools in the city could do more? Absolutely… But they are being asked to do more with less… and less and LESS. And like I said, charter schools are performing worse in the city and immediate area. Two are set to close this year! The plan by the governor may be well intentioned, but it treats schools as if they are the problem… instead of realizing that they are fighting the good fight with VERY little and just need help, mainly personell that allowed them to make growth before the recession hit and they lost their support personell. They are running bare bones.