A Chance to be Heard: Frustrated Patersonians Voice Their Concerns at City Hall Meeting
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 • 6:49am
PATERSON, NJ – Sometimes, the shootings in Patricia McNeil’s 1st Ward neighborhood leave her shaking in her bed, unable to fall asleep. Just around two months ago, a woman was shot in front of her home, near a few candy stores.
The other day, her neighbor wanted to show her all the bullet holes in his house.
“We need more police presence in that neighborhood,” said McNeil, referring to the areas such as N. Seventh Street and Belmont Avenue. “People there are afraid to come out of their homes.”
McNeil was just one of the concerned Patersonians who came together at city hall Monday night to address the many problems that plague their ailing city. Former councilwoman Dr. Jessie Dixon and former school board member Waheedah Muhammad helped organize the community meeting in an effort to hear potential solutions from the very people that deal with the city’s crime and violence on a daily basis.
After Rev. Estella Horne led everyone in a brief prayer, School Board President Christopher Irving moderated the open discussion, which included comments from about 16 people who addressed issues ranging from loitering laws and rising taxes to the ongoing shootings and joblessness.
Mayor Jeffery Jones, who had been criticized for not attending last week’s special meeting about late-night city businesses, was also present to offer his support, comments and explanations throughout the forum.
Like McNeil, many speakers emphasized the need for more police officers to deter crime and make people feel safer on the streets.
In fear of the city’s violence, Ronessa Johnson said she will not allow her 6-year-old daughter to play in their fenced in yard.
“That’s a problem, we should want our children to go do things in our city,” said Johnson, who like many others have seen better days in Paterson. “I went outside to play every single day – I want my daughter to have friends and be able to walk downtown.”
As a parent of three children, safety was 4th ward resident Kelley Moss’ biggest concern for not only herself, but her family. Moss has lived on 12th Avenue and 22nd Street all her life, but as of late she no longer feels comfortable there. For her, it was important for the city to implement more youth programs to keep them away from trouble.
Gary Suber, who has lived in Paterson for 59 years, described himself as “a product of Paterson recreation” and piggy-backed on Moss’ idea to offer more programs for children – particularly the younger ones.
“We have to offer the young ones something or they will follow suit in violence,” said Suber, who is currently working to put together a program to get more youths engages in construction projects.
Resident Donald Lynch agreed with both, but noted that programs like the open gym in School 21 still faced issues such as older kids bringing drugs in with them and a lacked a variety of activities for children who might not just be interested in “bouncing around a basketball.”
While more programs to keep kids on the straight and narrow was a reoccurring suggestion, resident Heidi Breuard, a single mother of four, emphasized that teaching children starts in the home. All Breuard’s children have graduated high school and went to college or furthered themselves in the military.
“It can be done,” she said.
Breuard’s daughter was killed this past February by a drunk driver, a tragedy that has spurred Breuard to take action to make the city a better place.
“I’m raising my daughter’s two children because she’s not here to raise them,” she told the crowd. “She wasn’t shot and killed – but she was killed in this city.”
Second Ward resident Frank Filippelli said the problem is not with the lack of youth programs, but the lack of volunteers combined with today’s violent culture. He suggested that town meetings might be too time consuming to have any kind of immediate effect and urged folks to engage in more “random acts of kindness,” whether it’s picking up a piece of litter or stopping by to help someone fix a flat tire.
David Gilmore, of “Lets Save Paterson,” came to the podium and immediately tackled the city’s dire financial situation. He suggested cracking down on code enforcement to consistently fine all lawbreakers from litterers to homeowners not keeping their properties clean and up to community standards. He also suggested not only creating more youth programs to “give them things to do,” but programs to assist folks who suffer the lingering effects from Hurricane Irene. He added that many 1st ward residents remain homeless or continue to breathe in mold created by the flooding.
Mayor Jones appeared favorable to stricter code enforcement and told everyone the city had just hired 10 new inspectors to bring in more money to the city. However, he added that a lot of revenue in Paterson “dried out” when the city lost a number of nonprofit faith-based organizations.
Resident Clarence Chambers, an advocate for the proposed business curfew ordinance, emphasized that if liquor stores and chicken shacks closed earlier, kids who continued to gather in front of them would prompt police action.
But resident Valerie Freeman said she sees police cruisers pass packs of loiterers all the time and they never say a word. However, Freeman was all for shutting down illegally run businesses – particularly a chicken shack on 10th avenue between 22nd and 26th that she said had sold her 14-year-old daughter a pack of Black N’ Mild cigarettes.
Jones told Freeman he was aware of defiant businesses and that those owners have been hit hard, but as a result have moved to new locations.
City activist Lydia Robles agreed with Freeman in that police should be more proactive and suggested bringing some of the retired officers back to perform auxiliary duties. Robles also thought the 6th ward could spare some of its police force and disperse them in other wards that might need more patrolmen.
Clifton resident Lyle Silverman may not live in Paterson, but he works in the city as a teacher in the Youth Building on Grand Street. Silverman can barely get through his lessons without hearing students talking about how they almost got shot the night before. It is these kids that Silverman thought should be speaking that night in the council chambers.
“We have to hear the stories from them, they are living it,” he added.
As the flow of comments came to a trickle, Jones said he hoped the Patersonians realized they were they key to change in the city.
“Expecting that government is the answer – hopefully we have blown that myth tonight,” said Mayor Jones. “We, the public, when we make folks accountable – that’s when things happen.”
Before leaving to go to another meeting, he explained that his seat is often empty at meetings because the chambers and its dais belonged to the council.
“The council rules this dais, this is their domain,” he added. “I’ve realized that when you’re not invited to the table, that means you’re on the menu.”
City officials agreed that more meetings regarding the problems in Paterson will follow in the near future.
A community group called “Family and Friends of Senseless Killings” will be hosting a march on Nov. 3 through the streets to unite people and bolster the morale in the community and motivate residents to make a difference. The march will start at noon at Madison Avenue and 10th Street in front of School 21 and end at 28th Street.
Before adjourning, Council President Anthony Davis reminded residents there will be another meeting on the proposed business curfew ordinance on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m.