For months I worked on a project on Wilmington’s violence and drug problem. The two go hand-in-hand, as much of the violence in the city stems from the infiltration of hardcore drugs from Philadelphia, Chester, Baltimore and the surrounding areas. Wilmington’s position off of I-95 makes it a hot bed for traffickers between the major markets of Philly and Baltimore. The same could be said for Chester, which has also had many of the same issues for years.
I can remember interning here in 2009 and stabbings and shootings seemed like such a big deal. Looking at crime statistics for this project, they certainly happened often then, but now they just seem so commonplace. Wilmington has had at least 150 people shot this year, surpassing it’s previous record of 142 victims from 2010, and the year isn’t over yet. Look back 15 years to 1999 when “only” 57 people were shot and the rate has nearly tripled. Granted, ’99 was a bit of a low anomaly. The 90’s shooting averages were still closer to half of what Wilmington sees now, though, and the city currently ranks as one of the most violent in the nation for a city of it’s size.
Reporter Andrew Staub and I followed a group of citizens working to curb some of this violence and stand up to take the city back. Gina DelleDonne and Tami Duonnolo organized the “One Corner at a Time” group and began holding sit-ins on street corners with known crime issues. The duo spread the word each week before they held a sit-in to hopefully draw local residents out to join them. Their hope is that if the neighborhoods begin putting their foot down, the people causing the violence will find they cannot operate in those areas anymore. All this in response to their belief the powers that be in Wilmington, were exhausting options.
Wilmington’s mayor, Dennis P. Williams, vowed he wouldn’t “hug thugs” when he campaigned for the office, and shook up the police department installing his own handpicked police chief. The Wilmington City Council, though, has had a tumultuous relationship with the Mayor, and talks of a “shake up” in the police department from Williams a few weeks ago left some in the department saying Williams micromanages them. Needless to say, this has left many citizens frustrated as they look for answers from those tasked with solving the problems in the city.
Interestingly enough, and a bit of a side note here, I’ve seen several members of the Council publicly active in working to fix the city. Councilwomen Sherry Dorsey Walker and Maria Cabrera joined the “One Corner at a Time” leadership at, I think, every corner we covered them at and I think Councilman Robert Williams was there for at least one. Councilman Nnamdi Chuckwuocha has been working personally with youth in the city to paint boarded up buildings in an attempt to beautify blighted neighborhoods. I followed Councilman Darius Brown as he walked through neighborhoods in what are DEFINITELY Wilmington’s roughest areas with police and talking with residents about what can be done to make it safer (actually on this assignment was followed for two blocks by a woman screaming at me for taking photos on her street and the police eventually had to send her on her way).
The first time we were ever to meet Gina and Tami was at 5th and Scott Streets. I got there a good thirty minutes early and decided I might as well grab a sandwich while I waited. Andrew arrived just five minutes or so after me, but decided to wait there. It wasn’t long before he was approached by someone who threatened if Andrew didn’t leave, he would regret it. When I came back and Andrew told me the story, I knew this group was in for an uphill fight.
We were fortunate that Wilmington Police officers were there every night the group was out. That alone probably kept most anyone from bothering them, but I noticed as each week went by, and we got into seemingly rougher areas, the number of officers grew. Where we had two the first night, we had four in Kosciuszko Park. A few weeks later at 6th and Madison Streets (just a about six blocks from where my wife and I just bought a house) we had at least eight at one point.
Sixth and Madison was an eye-opening experience for me. Again I arrived way earlier than the group, this time we had a timing miscommunication. I was left sitting on one of the city’s more dangerous street corners for an hour before anyone showed up. As I got out of my car a group of men shouted at me to come over to them. Figuring the odds I’d get shot in broad daylight were low (I know now that was foolish having covered at least three shootings before 3pm) I walked over to talk to them. They asked why I was there taking pictures, I explained who I was and the group I was covering. They laughed at the thought the group would do anything. One man, through heavy laughter responded, “good fucking luck.”
The weirdest part of the exchange, though, was the number of times they asked me if I was a cop. As if police officers walk around bad neighborhoods in plain clothes with two cameras hanging off their shoulders and just hang out. I reassured them I wasn’t, but there would be several when the group arrived. It wasn’t long after I walked away that the officers tasked with standing with the “One Corner at a Time” group arrived and many of the people I had talked to disappeared.
I had a few other nights with the group as the story sat waiting for a chance to run. We’d head back out here and there to freshen the art, or grab more video. It was November when the story finally ran, and it was a relief to see it in print after months of work. I’ve run in to Gina and Tami since it was published and they continue to hold sit-ins, though they aren’t staying as late now that it’s gotten cold. I may venture back out and sit with them myself once the wife and I finally move and become real Wilmingtonians.