TV show ‘Murder Town’ a dubious distinction, but an understandable perception

Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher
Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher

Murder Town USA, Newsweek magazine’s handle for the City of Wilmington a year ago, is now the issue in play in Delaware.

Variety, the show business trade newspaper, announced that A+E Studios had inked a deal for a “put pilot” for a TV show named “Murder Town” starring Jada Pinkett Smith as Wilmington’s first black district attorney. Wilmington, um, Murder Town, will figure prominently in the ABC lineup, a story the News Journal played prominently and appropriately on Nov. 12.

Frankly, Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams had it right in his first response, which he should not have backed away from.

“A bunch of has-beens playing in different roles to try to rebuild their acting careers. That’s OK. If they want to come into Wilmington and spend some of that money, go to the west end, the Hotel du Pont, bring in 500 people to spend at our restaurants. I’ll take their money. I just hope they get somebody good looking to play me,” the Mayor told the News Journal papers.

Given a day to reflect, perhaps under some urging from his subordinates, and frenzied calls to City Hall, the mayor quickly abandoned his initial response.

Instead, he hastened to get in front of the parade of Wilmington civic leaders decrying ABC’s decision to move forward with such a Wilmington-based production.

“That’s no longer the case,” the mayor said in backtracking his initial offer to roll out Wilmington’s red carpet to the TV show production company. “Why should I – when all you are going to do is beat us up and talk about violence in the city when we are trying to curtail that and turn that around? Why should I let you come in and pour hot sauce on the wound?” Williams asked.

“They are not going to get any cooperation,” Williams said. “We are not even going to shut the streets down for them.”

The city cannot let the media define it, he told the press. And he issued an open letter to ABC last week to that point.

At the heart of it is a Newsweek story last December by Abigail Jones, headlined “Murder Town USA (aka Wilmington, Delaware),” which called Wilmington one of the most dangerous small cities in the country and chronicled efforts to quell crime.

Frankly, Mr. Mayor, it’s not the media that is defining the City of Wilmington, it’s the City of Wilmington that’s defining the City of Wilmington.

“Perception is Reality” is an old saying in public affairs and public relations, and the media. But, the level of transparency in society today makes masquerades very difficult to carry off and sustain for long. Hence, that old saw today should be, “Reality is Reality, from which Perception flows.”

As business people, each of us sees such perceptions at work, and they’re hurting our home town. The combination of the urban — often random — crime and violence coupled with the diminishing stature of public education combine exponentially as a disincentive to economic development, to presenting our city, indeed our entire community, as an attractive destination for businesses to locate and grow.

I’ve lived in New Castle County since 1978. I’ve moved counter to trends, having lived in Wilmington, and its immediate environs, since 1998. And, I’ve done so by choice. I’m in the city daily, passing through Hilltop and West Center City and LoMa (Lower Market Street) near Amtrak virtually on a daily basis, usually two or three times a day.

I’d love to see a city that is thriving. Ours is not.

In fact, my own Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Wilmington, the oldest and largest in Delaware, has set as its 2nd Century objective — since its Centennial last year — to make Wilmington a “world class city.” Our programs often focus on the diagnostics about the problems, along with prospective solutions.

Frankly, we’re working on infrastructure issues, like parks. We fund scholarships. We’re getting a mentoring program underway. I’ve been a part of inner city public health campaigns for three decades, and of criminal justice reform programs for over a decade. All of it is good.

Rotary members, and virtually every civic leader of any stature, are devoted to making our city better. I am. Others are. We’ve drank that Kool-Aid. All of our futures are intertwined in the lifeboat named “the City of Wilmington.”

The News Journal last week quoted a Trinity Vicinity doctor after church:

“You don’t like to have your community labeled “Murder Town USA,” obviously, but I think in some ways we deserve it until we fix the problem,” said congregant Dr. John Goodill of the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew & Matthew. “The problem is there, whether we have a TV show about it or not.”

And, once again, the good doctor has correctly and effectively diagnosed this illness. Whether by inadequacy, design, or whether by the people he’s chosen, this mayor clearly seems to be failing this city in making the changes he promised voters he would make.

Before accepting them under pressure from others, he even rejected a variety of proposed changes (e.g., a homicide unit) from an outside expert panel with far greater competence than he learned in his own years as a cop.

The respected 12-step method — created in 1938 and used now by over 200 organizations — starts with the premise of acknowledging that we’re powerless in the face of something we cannot control.

That’s the contribution that this “Murder Town” TV show may make, to help us understand the powerlessness of the current situation, and help this city and its leaders to reach down deep and find some ways to defeat this social pathology.

Meanwhile, just who do you think should play Hizzoner, Mayor Williams?

Will Smith? The mayor would like that! Morgan Freeman? His roles as a cop would appeal to the mayor. Wesley Snipes? Some could see that.

Who would you choose?

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