WILKES-BARRE — Fifteen months ago, members of the city’s multi-agency Neighborhood Impact Team swooped onto Hutson Street in response to residents’ concerns about crime and blight.
Neighbors from Hutson and surrounding streets appeared before City Council Thursday night with a desperate, angry message: Much more work is needed to make the area safe, whether that includes another NIT sweep or bringing in outside help.
“The police can’t be everywhere, and something has to be done,” Park Avenue resident Pam Elliott said, adding that like some of the other speakers she had grown up on Hutson Street.
“Excuse my mouth, but it’s become a shithole,” Elliott added emphatically.
The 2017 NIT sweep, which included members of the city’s Code Enforcement and Health, police and fire and Public Works departments, concentrated on the block of Hutson between Metcalf and Lehigh streets, looking for code violations and other issues.
Despite that, suspected drug activity and quality of life issues — including loud parties, open consumption of alcohol and parking violations — nevertheless continue, several longtime residents told council, saying they believe renters are behind most of the problems.
And in February of this year, two people were shot — one fatally — inside 77 Hutson St.
“The conditions on Hutson Street are absolutely deplorable,” said Denise Thomas, who lives around the corner on Lehigh Street, adding that renters have intimidated some older residents who dared to speak out.
“My 86-year-old neighbor will not leave her house, even to buy groceries,” Thomas said, adding that some residents “won’t sit on their porches for more than 10 minutes.”
Christa Koter, who said she owns the home where the fatal shooting took place, told council she has struggled to find responsible tenants because they are scared to live in the area.
“No one with values is going to look at renting property there,” Koter said. “How would you feel being a prisoner inside of your home? It’s not a great feeling.”
She and others suggested that much rowdy late-night traffic plagues the area, including visitors to a relatively new barbershop that moved there after problems in another neighborhood.
Council President Tony Brooks acknowledged that he had visited in response to such concerns, spending some time on Thomas’ porch.
“Last night, that place was atrocious,” he said of conditions around the barbershop.
City Administrator Ted Wampole assured residents that police leaders and Mayor Tony George are aware of conditions in the neighborhood and have had “extensive conversations” about appropriate responses.
“I know it’s not going to bring you a lot of comfort, but it’s on their radar,” Wampole said. “There is stuff happening.”
Wampole also took exception to suggestions that city zoning officials had turned a blind eye or improperly allowed the barbershop to operate there in violation of zoning regulations. And, he added, the city cannot prevent a business from opening if it conforms to existing zoning.
“We have to operate under the law,” he said. “We can’t make the rules up as we go along.”
Councilwoman Beth Gilbert urged residents to stay vigilant in the face of crime.
“Just keep calling 911,” she said. “I know it’s exhausting, but keep doing it.”
Wampole, who said he also plans to visit Thomas’ porch soon, echoed that theme.
“If you see something, report it,” Wampole said.