Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Waterbury, the new Wild West

After much consideration, I think I know what I think about the recent incidents in my neighborhood involving guns, fights and insufficient police presence (at the time--loads of police presence since then; my complaints brought an immediate strong and good response from the Mayor's office and from the Police Department). I had a lot of responses from the police, city officials, and private citizens in Waterbury and outside Waterbury, and I have had ample time to calm down and think things through rationally.

A response from J. Paul Vance, Jr. sums things up very well: "There are some areas of Waterbury that sometimes I wonder if we have just ceded to lawlessness and it is not acceptable." I think Vance is on to something with this idea.

Several people responded to my story with the insistence that police in suburban towns would have responded to the report of gunshots and to the report of groups of people fighting in the street with extreme presence: immediate convergence of five or six police cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing, followed by the police not leaving the neighborhood until they had figured out who to arrest or until everyone had gone inside for the night and order was firmly restored.

I'm still not sure what I think about that, since it sounds a little too much like a police state. But there's no denying the pervasive lawlessness that exists in Waterbury. There is an expectation that the Waterbury police won't do anything unless someone gets killed. There is an attitude, which seems to be widely-held, that there is no real law enforcement here. If you want the law enforced, you have to demand it.

For example, there is no enforcement of road laws and everyone knows it, which contributes to a Wild West feel in Waterbury. There have been fatal collisions caused by excessive speeding and by running of red lights. Speed limits and stop signs are in place for good reasons, and should not be ignored. But in Waterbury, there is no law, it's the Wild West, and if you have the audacity (for example) to obey the 25 mph speed limit while driving past Fulton Park on Cooke Street, which is typically narrow, lined with cars, and prone to small children running across the road, the chances are good that you'll end up with an infuriated driver behind you. If you're lucky, all that driver will do is pass you on the other side of the road (despite the fact that it's not a passing zone) while shouting insults at you. Imagine that: being punished for obeying the law.

There was a snippet article in today's Republican-American noting that the Board of Aldermen have voted to amend the city's noise control ordinance allowing police officers to use their discretion to determine if a noise is too loud, rather than relying on a decibel meter. While this sounds like a lovely thing, I wonder if it will have any effect. There is no neighborhood in Waterbury that isn't plagued by car stereos with the bass jacked up so much that your house's wall vibrate when they go by, but I have never seen any sign of the police doing anything about it. The snippet article (in the "Daily Digest") also noted that the updated ordinance gives residents a new way to complain to the police. Wild West again--the law is sitting back waiting to be told to do their jobs by outraged townfolk.

One person told me a story about a friend of his who phoned the police to report an incident on Congress Ave. (I think I'm remembering the street correctly) involving a violent fight between a couple. According to the story, it took the police 20 minutes to arrive. I can't vouch for any of the details of this story (let alone my memory of how it was related to me!), but the conclusion was that this never would have happened in a "nice" neighborhood or town.

This led me down another avenue of thought. What defines a "nice" neighborhood? Generally speaking, the "nice" neighborhoods have well-kept houses with no boards over windows, sidewalks that are in good condition and wide enough to use (WHY do so many sidewalks in Waterbury have telephone poles in the middle, making them unusable?), streets that are free from potholes, streets with fresh, easy-to-see, painted markings, and well-maintained landscaping.

In my neighborhood, there is a large number of boarded up, abandoned, decaying buildings. The sidewalks are mostly unusable, with sink holes in a number of places. The owner-occupied homes have decent landscaping, as do some of the tenant-occupied homes (although other tenant-occupied homes are in a terrible condition).

Last summer, the small children in my neighborhood (which, I should add, has no park; there is a very small playground at the WOW Center, but it is locked behind a gate) found most of their entertainment in destructive behavior. On one of the occasions when I scolded them, I asked them why they would try to tear down their own street. Their answer? "It's already trashed."

I can see their point. Eight years old, all they see is the decay and neglect. If the city doesn't care enough to take care of the neighborhood, why should they?

Litter is a huge problem in Waterbury, more than in other cities. As I understand it, the psychology is that people are more likely to litter if trash is already present. Like the eight-year-olds, are other people littering in Waterbury because they figure the city is already in such a state of decay, a little more trash won't hurt any?

My attitude is that I love this city, I love my neighborhood, I love my street, I love my home. I feel that I have a responsibility to make my house and yard look good because other people have to look at it. I do what I can to improve the city, because I think it's the right thing to do. I draw inspiration from the civic leaders of the past who made the city a better place. And I recognize that not everyone shares my viewpoint.

I think that Waterbury's future will be bright if we demand it. One of the many components of this is to get rid of the Wild West lawlessness. We need to demand a higher standard of behavior, and we need to expect that the laws will be enforced throughout the city, even in neighborhoods where the residents are afraid to complain.

Most of all, we need a public awareness campaign. We need to change the public sentiment in this city from "who cares?" to "I care, and I know I can make a difference." The city needs to do everything it can to get rid of the blight, but until a large majority of the residents understand the power of civic pride, progress will continue to move at a snail's pace.


PBC said...

"I care, and I know I can make a difference."


Anonymous said...

well put and true

Eldee Stephens said...

I cannot believe just how spot-on these comments are. I thought I was the only one who notices the lawlessness around here. The police (and the mayor's office) seem to take great pride in the (relative) lack of violent crime in the city and, of course, PAL; but how much of the 'lack' of violent crime is because the police don't file reports or bother showing up to complaints?

The litter in this city is unbelievable, as is the noise, as is the lack of enforcement of 'quality of life' issues. Landlords are allowed to keep homes and commericial properties in total disrepair, dumping is everywhere, the streets are in terrible shape (to say nothing of the sidewalks). Does the city have any idea just how much this impacts growth? How many businesses would come to this city, look around, and say, 'yes, this is wonderful. I want to move my business to a poorly run garbage dump with blisteringly high property taxes, poor schools, and an invisible police force. Where do I sign up?'

I love Waterbury -- and its potential. I desperately want it 'cleaned up,' physically and otherwise. Police chief O'leary plans to run for mayor? Who in their right mind would vote for that guy? If this is how his police force works, can anyone imagine what the city would look like?! I appreciate the mayor's office for concentrating on budgetary issues and performing the necessary legwork to rebuild the administrative infrastructure of city government. Now I would like them to use it; fine litterers, reckless drivers, jaywalkers, and others contributing little but anti-social behavior to the city. Demand police action, provide the funds, and if significant progress is not forthcoming, start firing people.

Visitors that come in to see us never understand the appeal of Waterbury. We point out the Mattatuck and Timexpo museums, the Palace, the beautiful and historic downtown and Green, the 'giant village' feel of the city. All they see is lawlessness and filth. Maybe they're more right than we are.

So: how does this change? What are steps to take? Among the easy ones:

1. Send letters to the Republican American. Trust me, they'll love 'em.
2. Send letters to the mayor's office, or call the Citizen's Service Center. If there's litter, call. If there's noise, call.
3. Keep calling the police. I realize that they won't show 75% of the time, but it only takes a minute. You never know.
4. Show up at city board meetings. Watch the newspaper, and when there is a public meeting of some organ of city government, and you have the time, show up. There is very little citizen attendance at these things for a city of this size.
5. Pick up. If you see trash, and there is a receptacle nearby, please pick it up and throw it away. Get the exercise of walking a few extra paces.
6. Don't be afraid to ask people to turn it down. The worst thing they'll do is say no, in which case you're no worse-off than before.
7. For the love of all that's holy, VOTE! In every election. Without fail. And show up to the local committee meetings of your party. Don't let 20 people decide who to run in your name!

Things can change. Even if incrementally, it's worth the effort. Children don't deserve to grow up in a rubbish heap. And neither do their parents. The effort will pay off if sustained. Just remember what Waterbury was like a decade or so ago.

Eldee Stephens
Bucks Hill, Waterbury

Anonymous said...

Slow police responses are nothing new. About 20 years ago, my mother was woken up at night by several people walking around her house off of the upper end of North Main Street near the Wolcott line. She thought they were trying to look in the windows, a belief later confirmed by footprints in the snow. She of course was terrified immediately called 911 to report a burglary in progress. A police car showed up all right ... almost 30 minutes later, after the people had gotten back into a car and driven off (the police later determined that the men were drunk, and thought my mother's house was someone else's).

As the police were leaving, after taking a report, one of them told my mother a tip that could well be a lifesaver, even if not 100% legal: if someone is trying to break into your house, call 911 and tell them there's a fire. The fire department will arrive well before the cops will, and any burglars will run off when a fire truck pulls up.

Waterbury Girl said...

When I was growing up in the '80s, I (and many other young women) was told that I should cry "fire!" if I were being assaulted/raped. Crying "rape!" would supposedly be ignored by anyone listening, but "fire!" would get everyone's attention.

Reporting a fire when there's a possible break-in is a problem if there really is a fire somewhere else.

I've lived in several different Waterbury neighborhoods and have called the police for a variety of reasons (neighbors trying to kill each other being the most frequent), and their response time is always five minutes.

Judging by the comments my posts have been inspiring, I'd say a lot of people like to find fault with the police and the city administration. I can't/won't vouch for how things were 20 years ago, but one of Waterbury's great assets right now is the number of people, from private citizens to police to city officials, who genuinely care about the city and its people.

One of our biggest problems is the recent past: decades of infrastructure neglect and political corruption will take a lot of time and money to overcome. One of our other big problems is the negative image the city has.

Things won't get better unless we all do what we can.