Friday, December 28, 2007

Forum Reveals Issues, Hopes

Speakers Thursday envisioned Plainfield as a state-wide leader in being “green,” a mecca for shopping, dining and entertainment and a place where people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds could find a place to live and raise families.

The setting was a community forum at Washington Community School, the latest in a series planned by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to plumb the feelings and dreams of the community. Due to short notice and winter break, only a few community members came out and only four spoke. Most of the points were made by Assemblyman Jerry Green, the mayor and other elected officials and city staffers.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf endorsed the call of the mayor’s husband, Peter Briggs, for the city to show leadership in adopting “green” policies for both operations and new construction. Gutenkauf also seconded Green’s stance on preserving the city’s unique stock of residential and commercial historic buildings. In a third point, Gutenkauf asked officials to “keep Plainfield affordable for working families,” echoing Green’s call for more first-time home owners and decent housing for all.

Green also said any favoritism toward landlords in the Inspections Division will come to a halt in 2008.

Frank D’Aversa, a resident since 1973, said he wants to see redevelopment projects completed within five years. Responding to City Administrator Marc Dashield call to project 20 years into Plainfield’s future, D’Aversa said, “At age 73, I don’t want to project 20 years.”

He also would like to see city residents embrace the idea of upscale housing instead of saying it can’t happen because of drugs and other negative factors in the city. Finally, he called for a more demanding school system, both educationally and in standards of behavior, and for trade schools to return.

Maria Pellum, who has taken up several community causes since moving to Plainfield two years ago, thanked officials for expressing support for historic districts. In one of her efforts, Pellum organized a neighborhood group in the Crescent Area Historic District to increase cohesion around issues of crime, historic preservation, beautification and other quality of life concerns.

“I would like to see Plainfield become a family community,” she said.

Commenting on the city’s influx of Spanish-speaking households, Pellum said, “Don’t be afraid to talk to the Latino community. We’re the same people. We have the same basic needs.”

Noting that the school population is about 64 percent Latino, Pellum urged the community at large to overcome fears of language barriers and cultural differences.

“We are humans,” she said. “We can talk.”

Resident Melvin Cody, a longtime block association activist in the West End and a new team member of the Operation Ceasefire effort to curb gun violence, said when he goes to city meetings, he sees small turnouts of older residents.

“The seniors come out, not the taxpayers,” he said, urging more general citizen participation.

By the end of the meeting, the ratio of officials and staff to citizens had dropped from about 10 to 1 at its start (20 public employees to two bloggers) to about 7 to 1 as more people came in late.

Council members Harold Gibson and Rashid Burney gave their projections of the city’s future and Green spoke on a range of state and local issues.

Gibson, said to be in line for City Council president, said the city needs more “cross-cultural connections.” He said the city’s disparate image is evident to anyone who drives down Front Street from Terrill Road to the Dunellen border.

“I’d like to see us work at mending fences that we may not see as broken,” he said.

Gibson said his watchword for 2008 is “believe.”

“There comes a time when we have to believe,” he said. “Somehow the weather changes when you come to Plainfield in terms of believing.”

Burney said he did not want to lose the city’s diversity and hoped for the city to recapture its former glory as a destination to shop. He also wanted Plainfield to become a draw for dining and entertainment, such as a jazz festival on North Avenue or concerts on the new county office building’s plaza on Front Street.

Dashield, who moderated the forum, wrapped it up by saying, “I think this is a very successful evening.”

--Bernice Paglia


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