Five years ago Wilmington was a basket case. There were good things happening, sparks of hope and economic vitality, but everyone in this state knew the city was reeling, in deep distress, mired in a downward cycle of poverty, violence and dysfunction.
The mayor and his team were overwhelmed, seemingly paralyzed by the enormity of the problems they faced, and largely absent of ideas or a plan to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation. Crime was spiraling out of control, communities were in tatters, businesses were fleeing downtown.
It was a city in crisis.
Yet, few spoke publicly with candor about the urgent need for intervention and the serious peril of the poor management and communication from city hall.
In early 2014 we sounded such an alarm, predicting that a lack of action – laying out a clear plan and speaking regularly and confidently about the city’s prospects – would have severe implications for Wilmington’s reputation and, by extension, its precarious economic situation and indeed the welfare of the entire state. The city was crumbling but the lack of outrage was baffling; what would come next was entirely predictable.
Violent crime continued to escalate, and a mounting urban death toll inspired a run of deeply damaging stories in national and local media. The city was caught flatfooted, playing defense, and Wilmington gained the deplorable tag of “Murder Town USA.”
Half a decade later the city is under new leadership and there is a palpable feeling that Wilmington has turned, ever so slightly, a dangerous corner. A positive McClatchy News Service report from last week, “The ‘most dangerous’ place to be a teen: This city fights back against gun violence,” outlines some of the reasons for the new optimism.
The article details efforts led by Mayor Mike Purczyki and his new chief of police Robert Tracy to apply a data-driven approach to community policing, deploying resources where they can make the greatest, most immediate impact. From the article:
Murders fell from 35 in 2017 to 22 last year, and the number of shootings, fatal and otherwise, fell from 194 to 79. Included in those numbers are juvenile shooting incidents (defined as 17 and under), which fell from 18 to eight, and the number of juvenile shooting victims, which fell from 19 to eight, one fatally. Nineteen of Wilmington’s 22 murders last year involved guns.
It’s certainly premature to claim victory, still, far-too-many (one is too many) Wilmingtonians, particularly young people, are dying and the McClatchy article characterizes these results as “modest gains” and “herky-jerky progress.” But total victory is beyond our mortal reach, so we should rightly recognize that progress means lives saved and success is contagious.
Chief Tracy is leveraging technology and approaches that have worked elsewhere. These are smart and overdue tactical responses to long-simmering problems.
Of course, at the heart of those problems lie some of the most complex challenges known to humankind – poverty, hopelessness, trauma – and chipping away at them requires strategies that go well beyond law-enforcement and public safety. The world’s greatest public policy masterminds and billions of dollars haven’t been able to consistently ameliorate or “resolve” these difficulties. So meanwhile we are left with other tools to lift people up and provide hope: the creation of jobs and economic opportunity through investment and growth and the building of strong communities.
On that score Mayor Purczyki also deserves credit.
The mayor is now halfway through his four-year term. A promotion for an upcoming campaign event trumpets his success in making the city safer, growing its economy and revitalizing neighborhoods. In addition to the 68 percent reduction in gun crimes, accomplishments cited include new hotels, restaurants and entertainment options on Market Street, the 76ers Fieldhouse, $100 million in redevelopment efforts in the Governor Printz area, a $4.5 facelift for Rodney Square and a new $20 million stadium where crumbling Baynard Stadium once stood.
It is possible some of these things would have happened no matter who was in office. And obviously many civic, educational and business leaders have contributed mightily (BPG Group being a driving force). But the mayor’s relentless boosterism and deal-making fingerprints are all over these achievements. Competence and communication can go a long way.
It’s not a bad resume two years in.