By Travis Kellar, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Confronted with data showing a dramatic increase in gun violence in the city over the past 10 years, city business owners and activists offered differing opinions on the seriousness of the city’s crime problems.
Recent reporting by the Times Leader revealed that police statistics showed aggravated assaults with firearms increasing 300 percent between 2005 and 2015. Police officials cautioned the data wasn’t necessarily precise, but acknowledged the trend was accurate.
For Daniel Carey, the stigma of violence that seems to plague the city didn’t deter him from opening up his barber shop in South Wilkes-Barre. Carey, 54, opened up Carey’s Avenue Barber Shop on Carey Avenue in September. He called his location the “perfect” place, both due to his sharing of the street name as well as being in the area where he grew up.
Despite data showing that there was a concentration of violent crime in the area over the years, Carey said that didn’t factor into his decision to open up shop. “I wanted to be a barber in South Wilkes-Barre,” Carey said.
Carey noted that while crime didn’t sway him from his decision, he did invest in a security system.
“If I was concerned about that, maybe I would have gone out to try to open a barber shop in the Back Mountain, or up in Mountain Top,” Carey said. “This is my town, this is where I live.”
Phil Rudy, owner of Circles on the Square, said that the downtown area has been “devoid” of any violent crime.
Rudy explained that he has been at his current location on Public Square for about 31 years. He said that he couldn’t recall any shootings in the immediate downtown area throughout his tenure.
He also said that while there is drug activity in the downtown core, it’s not as open as it once was.
Rudy said that in the 1990s and 2000s, “you could watch and see drug activity, transactions, happening all over Public Square, and it wasn’t a target of enforcement.”
Rudy credited the city’s Hawkeye security camera system in the downtown area with forcing drug activity out of the open.
“It’s not physical now,” he said. “You don’t see it.”
John Maday, president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, agreed with Rudy that the downtown area doesn’t have a major problem with violent crime.
Both Maday and Rudy also pointed out that the large concentration of people in the area help make it less prone to crime.
“The more activity you have, the less chance you’re going to have some type of criminal activity,” Maday said.
Rudy agreed. “This is a population cluster,” he said, referring to the downtown area. “The streets are rarely empty. It’s hard to find a place to be alone downtown, or to be a target or a victim.”
Community activist Darlene Duggins-Magdalinski said that while crime is still an issue in the city, it’s not as bad as it could be.
“2013 is when it really was getting bad,” she said, referring to the year that there were 13 homicides.
Though U.S. Attorney Peter Smith and Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Marcella Lendacky attributed the city’s violent crime to drugs, Magdalinski insisted that it was related to gang violence.
“We cannot overlook that we have a gang problem,” she said.
Perception versus reality
Despite the uptick in violent crime over the years, Carey and Rudy had their questions about the data.
Carey said it’s important to think about who is committing the crime to come to a better understanding of the data.
“Each individual case is obviously separate,” he said. “How many of these are related to drugs? Is there something law enforcement can do to tap down more on the drug enforcement?”
Rudy wondered how other third-class cities, like Allentown, compare to Wilkes-Barre in terms of crime statistics.
He added that, in spite of the shootings, he felt that Wilkes-Barre is a “fairly safe city.”
“You go back 20 years ago, we didn’t have these random shootings, drive-by shootings, shootings in the street,” Rudy said. “They did not happen.”
Rudy attributed the uptick in violence to a “cultural change” caused by out-of-state residents moving into the area. Carey also said that he believed that the increase in crime is related to people moving to the area from New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Rudy also said that an influx of Section 8 housing in the downtown area seemed to be “encouraged” by city officials in his 31 years in the area.
“It was alarming how much of downtown was devoted … to Section 8,” he said. “That’s not the kind of resident that a strong downtown needs.”
Changing of the times?
Magdalinski also believed that the city lacks a sense of community that would help bring the community together.
“We are missing the three A’s of life — attention, affection and achievement,” she said. “We’re lacking that as a community.”
Carey, referring to his childhood in South Wilkes-Barre, also spoke of how different things were in the area. He explained that during his childhood, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to walking from Carey Avenue all the way to Public Square and back.
He also said that his parents never locked their doors and that children were often found either at the Osterhout Library or Miner Park.
“When I was raising my kids, they had to hit a certain age before I actually said, ‘Okay, you can cross Carey Avenue to go to Miner Park,’” Carey said, but added that was primarily due to increased traffic on the roadway.
Rudy said that despite believing that the city is safe, misconceptions prevent others from seeing the city the way he does.
“There are still people who have a misconception, either from lack of experience or just fear,” he said. “People have a lot of misconceptions.”