TRENTON — There are two cities here, twisted together like DNA.
There’s Trenton the state capital, where lawmakers, lobbyists, state employees, and businesspeople drive in each weekday. The Statehouse is its epicenter, surrounded by historic buildings and power brokers.
That Trenton fades away every night. What’s left is another Trenton, 85,000 people making a life in eight square miles. In this Trenton, a postindustrial city fighting to create a new identity and flourish once again, last weekend’s shooting at an all-night arts festival was an all-too-real reminder of daily struggle: poverty, crime, gangs.
“It’s just a lost generation,” the Rev. Mildred Morris, a retired state worker who has lived in Trenton since 1963, said of the city’s youth. Gunfire has traumatized them, she said, with violence being seen as “a part of the culture.”
An associate pastor at Friendship Baptist Church who is involved in programs to try to address violence in the city, Morris said she still remains optimistic that Trenton will rebound one day. “I do have hope for the city of Trenton,” she said.
The Art All Night event at the Roebling Wire Works warehouse, bringing thousands of people out in its 12th year, was one of the city’s signature revitalization efforts.
“People really love this event,” said Lauren Otis, executive director of Artworks Trenton, which produces the festival. More than 1,400 artists submitted work to display this year.
Early last Sunday morning, an argument broke out and ended in gunfire in what authorities say was a gang dispute of some sort. A suspected gunman was shot and killed, two other men who were shot have been charged with gun possession, 15 others were shot, and others still were injured while running to escape the violence.
“People were horrified at what happened,” said Otis, a street photographer. “It was a catastrophic crime.”
As the shooting drew national attention, nearby residents in the Chambersburg neighborhood said they were saddened but not shocked. Several had immediately assumed gangs were to blame, describing a feeling of constant low-level anxiety and fear for physical safety, a sense that gang violence could touch them if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We need to do something. It’s not safe,” said Jose Torres, 45, who arrived in Trenton two years ago from Puerto Rico. On a sunny day, music filling the air on the block, Torres said he constantly worries about his two young children.
“We try to keep them in the house. We watch everything,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
Torres echoed the frustrations of his neighbors: He had been pleased with the low housing costs in Trenton; now those housing costs weigh him down, keeping him from moving on. The city is not making the progress he’d like to see and he wants to leave as soon as possible — he just doesn’t know how.
Some people love this city and want nothing more than to see it grow; others are just trying to keep to themselves until they can move out.
“I really would like to get out from here,” said Elia Velazquez, 29, who moved to the city in 2016. “But the fact is the rent is so high everywhere else, for my family of eight, on one income.”
Rent is 15 percent lower in Trenton than in Mercer County overall. The median owner-occupied home value is $100,000 in Trenton. It’s $277,400 in the county overall and $316,400 in the whole state.
More than one in four city residents lives in poverty, and median household income is less than half what it is in the county as a whole.
And that’s inextricably tied up in race and ethnicity as well. Trenton is a majority-minority city where half the residents are black, more than a third are Hispanic, and less than 14 percent are non-Hispanic white.
It’s a diverse mix of people and cultures, and the arts festival brought them all together for what has for years been a lively celebration. Otis vowed that would continue, perhaps with a change of format or venue, but never bowing out of its mission: “connecting community, culture and creativity through the arts.”
“We’re determined to move ahead,” Otis said. “The arts has been a hugely important part in a recent revitalization and perception of Trenton.”
George Sowa, head of the nonprofit Greater Trenton, agreed that the arts community has helped make the city ripe for economic development, citing the city’s history, affordability, and access to public transit and recreation.
“There are many people who disregard the city and don’t regard it as a viable location,” Sowa said. “We are really working to change that. There are so many good things happening here.”
He said last weekend’s shooting — “an unfortunate incident” — does not define the city. “We can’t ignore it, but we can’t dwell on it, either,” Sowa said.
Addressing the complex problems in Trenton is much more difficult, residents said, than moving on from the one incident.
They pointed to Tahaij Wells, 33, the suspected gunman shot and killed during the chaos. Wells illustrates the desperate need to break a cycle of crime, violence, and a gang culture in Trenton’s neighborhood, they said.
“This young man represents the community’s failure,” said Kim Pearson, a journalism professor at the College of New Jersey in nearby Ewing who spent time in the city raising her children. “Clearly the structures that were supposed to be there to support him failed. They didn’t succeed in turning him around.”
Wells spent 14 years behind bars after he was imprisoned at age 17 for a 2002 fatal shooting.
A member of the Bloods street gang, Wells “raised himself in the streets,” said Darren “Freedom” Green, a former shift commander at the youth detention center where Wells spent two years awaiting trial.
Wells witnessed the 1996 murder of his drug-addicted mother, whose throat was slashed, Green said. He never knew his father and was raised by a grandmother, he said.
“He was damaged goods,” Green said. “The sad part is that there are a million more like him out there in society.”
When Wells was released from prison in February, Green, now an outreach coordinator for the Trenton Housing Authority, offered to help him find a job. Wells appeared worried about his safety because of an internal beef with his former gang, he said. He last saw Wells about two weeks before the festival shooting.
“I could see that he was troubled,” said Green, 49, a lifelong Trenton resident, “He was a ticking time bomb.”
Wells and the two suspects in custody, Davone White and Amir Armstrong, traveled in the same circle, Green said.
Green said more programs are needed to help Trenton’s at-risk youth.
“All they think they can do is become criminals because of their history,” Green said. “That’s all they’ve ever done.”
Mayor-elect Reed Gusciora, who takes office July 1, said the shooting was a “wake-up call to the state” to provide more resources for Trenton, where 50 percent of the properties are tax-exempt and state aid was slashed by a third under the Christie administration. The police force, which once had 400 officers, today has 290, he said.
“We’re not any city in the state,” said Gusciora, who is also a Democratic assemblyman representing Mercer and Hunterdon Counties. “We’re the capital city.”