On Thursday, Nov. 4, about 40 people showed up at the 721 Media Center on Broadway for a presentation of the survey “What Midtown Thinks.” The survey was designed by Accord-based consulting firm Philliber Research Associates on behalf of Kingston Cares, a youth services group which focuses on preventing substance abuse among city teens. The survey will be compared to an identical study conducted two years ago to help direct grassroots resources towards areas where Midtown residents see the greatest need. The 2010 survey was conducted by a group of young people hired by Kingston Cares to interview people on the street and in their homes about issues like jobs, housing and crime.
According to Philliber, the survey found Midtowners see themselves as a diverse and stable community where people were largely satisfied with youth services, schools and recreation programs, but felt they faced daunting obstacles centered on economic issues like paying rent, finding work and keeping their families fed. And, while survey respondents reported concerns about crime, gangs and drugs, Philliber said, neighborhood residents felt that their community was safer than its portrayal in the media would suggest.
“Most people within Midtown feel safe and most people in Midtown feel that they have adequate police protection,” said Philliber.
Comparing data between the 2008 and 2010 surveys, Philliber said, he noted that the number of young people who reported ever having been part of a gang declined by a third to 11 percent. At the same time, Philliber said, the perception of gangs as a major problem in the neighborhood rose significantly during the same two year period. Philliber surmised that the disconnect between actual levels of gang membership and concern about the issue stemmed from a few high-profile incidents like the killing of Charles “C.J.” King Jr., allegedly by Bloods gang members, in February.
“I think that when an incident occurs and it’s reported that the people involved are gang members, it creates a perception that gangs are a bigger problem than they actually are,” said Philliber.
Economic issues were cited as the biggest worry for residents, with 36 percent reporting that they had difficulty paying their rent at least once in the past year 92 percent citing a lack of jobs paying enough to support a family as a problem in the neighborhood.
“Hunger and problems staying in their homes are the problems families in Midtown are facing,” said Philliber.
Survey respondents also cited drug and alcohol abuse as serious problems in Midtown. Eighty-eight percent reported that drug dealers were a problem in the area, the same number said that there was a problem with young people using drugs. Seventy-seven percent said that the neighborhood was hurt by outsiders who come to Midtown to buy drugs.
Among youth ages 14 to 18, 39 percent reported drinking alcohol in the past three months while 36 percent told interviewers that they had smoked marijuana and 43 percent reporting smoking cigarettes. Just 9 percent reported that they had used drugs other than marijuana in the past three months. Jess Robie, a Family of Woodstock substance abuse specialist who led a discussion group on drugs and alcohol, said that part of the problem was mixed messages from to youth from adults in their lives.
“Kids really believe that the message they get from adults, across Kingston and across Ulster County is that it’s OK to use substances or that some substances are more OK than others,” said Robie.
Following Philliber’s presentation, the crowd was given a chance to participate in discussions on a range of topics with the goal of kick-starting grass roots initiatives to address problems cited in the survey. The brainstorming groups covered beautification; substance abuse prevention; jobs and business development; safety; housing and the perception of Midtown in the media. Each discussion group was led by a facilitator with expertise on the subject and, at the end of the session, participants presented a series of ideas for improving conditions.
Following a discussion on beautification, facilitator Arthur Zackiewicz said that the group had come up with a “carrot and stick” approach. Owners of run down properties would face fines, while residents could earn tax credits for participating in neighborhood cleanups. The group also suggested a 50 percent subsidy for businesses to buy garbage cans to place in front of their stores and an adopt-a-street program.
Job development committee suggested an online database to connect youth with jobs and better coordination of the city’s mass transit system to make it easier to reach jobs at the Hudson Valley Mall. The neighborhood image group suggested a letter writing campaign to local newspapers to promote a better image of the neighborhood.
“There’s obviously a disconnect if 72 percent of the people in Midtown think that it’s a good place to live, but the media perception of the area is so bad,” said Family of Woodstock Executive Director Michael Berg, who led the community perception working group. Berg also noted that not enough of the participants in the community forum actually lived in Midtown.
Bard College sophomore Myan Melendez was one of a dozen students who attended the forum for a class on environmental and urban studies. Melendez said Kingston reminded her of her hometown, the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, where outsiders were often more attuned to the potential for improvement than residents.
“Kingston is like the Bronx, there’s a lot of potential, but people don’t see the potential that it has,” said Melendez. “You have to encourage people to want to change it for the better.”