WILKES-BARRE — Denise Thomas’ cheerful Lehigh Street kitchen was cool and comfortable Saturday morning, with fruit, pastries and cold drinks generously set around the table for the bevy of guests gathered on her porch.
What Thomas brought out next was anything but appetizing.
She pulled a yellow laundry detergent container out from beneath the sink, shaking it gently to produce a heavy, hollow rattling sound.
“Those are all the syringes I’ve been out there picking up,” Thomas said, gesturing toward the window facing Ivy Lane, which runs along one side of her house.
Thomas, who also is a Wilkes-Barre Area School Board member, keeps her property neat and clean inside and out, as do other longtime residents in the city’s Iron Triangle neighborhood. The problem, she and several neighbors said Saturday, is that not everyone shows the same pride of place — or respect for human life.
The alley has become a favorite haunt for drug users, Thomas said, with people frequenting Ivy Lane to shoot up and engage in other illicit activities. She believes many come from Hutson Street, one block over, and are renters.
Discarded drug paraphernalia, unkempt lawns, garbage-strewn yards and sidewalks and illegally parked vehicles are major issues, Thomas and others told Mayor Tony George and other city officials who visited the area Saturday for a walking tour.
More than that, however, people who have spent their entire lives in this once-quiet corner of the city no longer feel safe in their homes, thanks to boisterous behavior, open intimidation from transient newcomers, drug crime, and shootings — the most recent of which left one dead and one injured on Hutson Street.
“This is where we all grew up,” said Pam Elliott, a Hutson Street native who lives a few short blocks away on Park Avenue.
“We all were at each other’s houses. You walked through the alley and you didn’t have a problem. You used to be able to keep your doors open, sleep on your front porch,” Elliott said. “And now it’s deplorable. It’s sickening.”
Thomas, Elliott, the mayor and neighbors were joined on the walk by city Administrator Ted Wampole, City Council President Tony Brooks and the Times Leader. The visit followed remarks made by Thomas, Elliott and others during the public comment period at Thursday night’s council meeting.
George and Wampole said police and city officials are well aware of the issues, that remedial action has been underway and more is planned. But they also said they rely on eyes and ears at street level, and wanted to see firsthand what residents described.
“We need help from the neighbors to know what’s going on,” George said.
A neighborhood meeting with municipal and police officials has been set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, at St. Anthony’s Maronite Church, 311 Park Ave.
Narrow little Hutson Street, whose two blocks are lined by a mix of rowhouses and close-set single-family homes, seems to be the epicenter of the Iron Triangle’s problems — and the block between Metcalf and Lehigh streets most of all.
In the spring of 2017, members of the city’s multi-agency Neighborhood Impact Team (NIT) swooped onto Hutson Street in response to residents’ concerns, issuing citations for code violations and parking offenses after a woman was shot on her porch.
Things improved — briefly — residents said. But it was not the first time shots rang out here, and not the last.
Gunfire erupted again in February, this time inside a rented home at 77 Hutson St. during an alleged drug deal gone wrong. Two people were shot, one fatally, and two other men face charges in the case.
Christa Koter, another neighborhood native, owns the home. She moved out of the city years ago to give her children a safer place to live, but has worked to keep the house in good condition as a rental investment property for her family.
The challenge, Koter said, has been finding and keeping responsible tenants.
“It just didn’t used to be like like this,” Koter said after showing George the dead man’s car, which is still parked behind the house.
“When I was growing up around here people all knew each other, and they took care of their properties.”
A shrinking number of Iron Triangle homeowners still do.
“You see some people that take great care of their properties. This is one,” Wampole said as he sat in Thomas’ kitchen.
“And we saw some on Hutson Street. But then they are next to people who don’t care,” he added. “It’s disappointing.”
The few remaining neat lawns on Hutson contrast with rowhouses where garbage and debris seems to flow off porches onto the sidewalks and illegally parked vehicles straddle the curbs.
Based on what Thomas and others said, the neat houses mostly belong to older homeowners — some in their 80s and 90s, and many increasingly fearful to come outside any more than necessary. Some discreetly beckoned to George to have private conversations with the mayor as he walked by.
Thomas said one older resident was even warned by people from a rental property across the street that she should stay in her house after they refused to move when she tried to walk along the sidewalk.
“They’re afraid,” Thomas said. “We just don’t deserve this. Take care of your house, pay your taxes, cut your grass. Don’t sell dope. That’s all we’re asking.”
Her own mother, also over 80, lives with Thomas in the house they’ve called home for 57 years, since Thomas was an infant.
“Practically my mother’s entire family moved to Plains or the West Side. Some live out of state,” Thomas said. “And when they come home, when my mom’s family comes to see her, they rush out of here before it gets dark, instead of being able to stay and spend quality time.”
She insists that despite the decline in recent years, “Wilkes-Barre has been good to me and my family, and I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’m not leaving either,” she said. “My house is almost paid off, and I don’t feel that I should have to start over again at 57 years old.”
George, Wampole and Brooks looked, listened and made notes of key points during Saturday’s walk, stopping in to speak with other residents who reached out when they saw the group walk by.
“This is a neighborhood that we obviously get a lot of complaints over, and recently it’s kind of getting to the boiling point again, kind of as it was last year,” Wampole said. “As I said at the council meeting, I get it, and the mayor gets it.”
The walk paid some quick dividends. Based on a call from Wampole, 11 people were ticketed for parking on sidewalks Saturday morning.
“I talked to one lady who said they’ve been doing it all the time, and she said, ‘but it’s my house,’” Wampole said.
“We warned them, you can’t do that, and you’re going to see a ticket on the windshield,” he added. “Maybe they don’t pay attention to the first one. Maybe they’ll pay attention to the second one. And like the mayor said, then we get into the issue of warrants and it escalates.”
Parking violations are just the beginning.
George said the city will be ramping up enforcement of code violations, and if that doesn’t work, having violators hauled into court.
“If the grass is high, if the window’s broken, if you have furniture on the porch, you’re going to be ticketed,” George said. “And if you don’t do anything with the ticket, we’re going to issue a citation.
“But our problem has been that we don’t follow through on the citations,” the mayor added. “This week, we met with magistrate Malloy, and he’s going to start pulling out those citations that weren’t paid, and we’re going to start serving warrants.”
While they couldn’t get into details, George and Wampole also said law enforcement has the neighborhood in its sights.
“It’s on everybody’s radar. I don’t just mean the mayor’s and mine and the chief and the commander’s,” Wampole said, in reference to Wilkes-Barre police.
Wampole also reiterated his message from Thursday’s council meeting, after some residents said they had given up calling police out of frustration.
“They need to call us,” he said. “We’ll make sure it’s attended to.”