Mayor of Two Cities

Jim Baker wants everyone in Wilmington to believe in its—in their—greatness. There’s just one small problem remaining to be solved…

Photograph by Michael SahadiFrom his office on the ninth floor of the Louis L. Redding City-County Building, Wilmington Mayor James Baker pauses before two large picture windows.

Every perspective reveals new building, much of it the result of his vision. To the south are new high rises, the new courthouse on King Street and, beyond, the new residences and office buildings on the Christina Riverfront. Home ownership in the city has, in fact, risen since he took office in January 2001. Wilmington, he says, is on the verge of becoming a world-class city, yet…

“We are our own worst enemy when it comes to believing we are a world-class city,” he says. “We have become isolated. We don’t let our minds think beyond our own lives. If you live on the West Side, you’ve got to know what goes on in the East Side. We have got to make our citizens aware of our progress and make them proud of it.”

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Baker is well into his third term in office, a first in Wilmington. Until him, there had never been a three-term mayor. For black mayors across the country, it is also a first. None has ever won a third term. It is a grand accomplishment, but accomplishment should not be confused with legacy.

Baker’s legacy is largely one of building and development so far—$2 billion worth over the past six years. He spearheaded the Wilmington Economic Development Corporation. He championed redevelopment of the Riverfront and Ships Tavern District. He created and funded a Neighborhood Improvement Plan and an environmental enhancement program for downtown neighborhoods, which has generated $100 million to improve streets and walkways.

Baker has also fostered growth of a downtown educational district, which includes a presence by nearly all the state’s colleges and universities. He has created scholarships for promising students, and he has supported the arts.

So it’s no surprise when colleagues say Baker’s tenure has been a master class on how to get the things done. Yet many say Baker’s political face is a mass of contradictions

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A high school photo of Baker’s father, John Franklin. Some say he is a loner in a world of glad- handing, a man of high principles and unfiltered candor, a coalition builder who is uncomfortable in crowds. They say that in the most public of offices, he has remained aloof, that he is sometimes downright cantankerous, yet he believes the right people in the right place at the right time can transform entire cities.

“People assume that if you’re a politician, you’re a back slapper and a hand shaker,” says city councilwoman Loretta Walsh. “Jim Baker could care less about that. In his mind, I don’t believe he sees color, wealth, influence or family connections. He simply sees the city of Wilmington.”

Listening to Baker speak as he stands at the window, it is evident a part of him would like to place sections of Wilmington into an America that used to be, the one he was born into in Fostoria, Ohio, in 1942. That America was a black-and-white photograph of neighbors caring for neighbors, an America of self-sufficiency that solved its problems through hard work.

It was in Fostoria where Baker, at the age of three, heard his first political voice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the radio, as well as the Cisco Kid, Jack Benny, and the Reverend C.L. Franklin from Detroit. Fostoria was where he first read about Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass, where he first heard Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and the big band sounds his mother Althea, a singer, gave him.

“Jim’s formative years were spent surrounded by strong women, and you see their influence,” Walsh says. “Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do that,’ he comes up with solutions.”

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When Baker was a child, his father, John Franklin, a union organizer, died in a car accident. Baker and his brother John Franklin Jr. moved in with their grandmother, Daisy Newman, who held firmly to the belief that the truest form of learning happened outside a classroom. Though her formal education ended in the fourth grade, she shuttled the boys to church meetings, to NAACP rallies and to Cleveland, via train, where Baker would watch white-gloved Pullman porters walk by him with silver trays of food. Newman took the boys aboard ships in Lake Erie. She paid a dollar a week for their piano lessons. She pulled books from bric-a-brac shelves and yard sales and made them their own libraries. Baker’s other grandmother, Emma Baker, not only asked Jim to read passages from the Bible, but to question it.

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Mother Althea in 1945.“I was once a very bashful person,” Baker says. “As for getting involved with people, I never did. I was always thinking about things and writing them down in diaries.

“I read a lot of geography and science, but I was truly fascinated by history,” he says. “I read about Lincoln and the Roosevelts, and I always thought it was grand that they rose above their lot in life to become what they did. I thought what a great idea it would be to eventually become president, but I soon realized that it probably wouldn’t ever happen to a man of color.”

Baker came to Wilmington as a 24-year-old VISTA volunteer in 1966. Fresh out of the Air Force. “I really wanted to volunteer in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or New York,” Baker says, cities with solid African-American communities already in place. “All I knew about Delaware was that Dover was the capital and that it still had the whipping post. I didn’t even really know where Wilmington was, but I knew it was near Philadelphia, so it couldn’t be that bad.”

A young black person in Wilmington, back then would see few people with his or her skin color speaking up for African-Americans. There were juggernauts such as Louis L. Redding and Judge Leonard Williams, but they were the rare voices in a city that had become deeply divided by class and race. Baker was relegated to renting a room at the YMCA on 11th and Walnut because his skin color prevented him from leasing an apartment.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Baker saw smoke rising from West Center City. He immediately left the YMCA and ran toward the plumes. Bottles thrown by angry protesters were flashed in the streetlights, but flying bricks were invisible. Molotov cocktails flew at fire trucks.

“I had staff pinned down by snipers between Market and Washington,” says former city councilman Richard Pryor, then a social worker for Catholic Charities. “There was madness going on, but in all of that heat, it was the youth workers who were the only ones trying to calm things down. Jim was part of that group. Things were so polarized, but Jim remained cool and collected.”

It has been well documented that what saved Wilmington from destruction was the effort of groups such as the Wilmington Youth Emergency Action Council and Catholic Charities, dialogue between black and white community leaders, and street workers like Baker. He met regularly with angry youth who called for radical change by any means necessary.

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“I understood their rage—the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, the Muslims,” Baker says. “But days after, when they looked at what they created—there just had to be a better way of getting their voice heard.”

Jim Baker (left) at age two, with his 4-year-old brother, John, in 1944. At that time, there were five African-Americans on the 13-member City Council. Over the next several years, Baker, with future council members such as Ted Blunt, Norman Griffiths, Chezzie Miller, Jea Street, Theo Gregory and James Sills, became part of a rising black voice.

Baker worked with gang members in West Center City, which led to a position as deputy director for social and human development for the Haskell administration. He was elected to City Council in 1972.

“Jim generated more legislation than any other councilman,” Pryor says. “His was a serious attempt to get at the issues, to get us thinking. There was a presence about him, and even though he was not an orational wizard, he had tremendous respect from the community because he reached across racial lines.”

The relationship between Blunt and Baker began as one of almost continual argument. “I knew he was a knowledgeable guy,” Blunt says, “and I thought I was a knowledgeable guy, and when you believe you are right, you think anyone who doesn’t believe what you do is wrong. We both thought the other was wrong.”

But Baker taught Blunt something, “that the goal of leadership is to do it for the people,” Blunt says. “He taught me that he and I were going to disagree, but at the end of the day, it’s not really about us.  It’s about the people of this city.

“If you’re going to be a leader in Wilmington, the first thing you need is knowledge of the subject matter or the city. Secondly, you need a connectedness to the people affected by policy-making decisions. Third, you need to have the courage to move forward, even though people may disagree. Just because you believe in those principles, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but at least you have the conviction to proceed.

“Throughout his time on the council and as mayor, Jim has possessed all three.”

In 1985 Baker became the first African-American to serve as council president. At some point, he noticed the Christina Riverfront. A thriving center of shipbuilding through World War II, it had disintegrated into a wasteland of abandoned warehouses and industrial equipment. Where others saw a hopeless brownfield, Baker spied gold.

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“It is historically accurate that decades ago, Jim was talking about looking to the Riverfront as the city’s new frontier,” says Michael Purzycki, executive director of the Wilmington Riverfront Development Corporation of Delaware. “With his role in the Riverfront, he’s the perfect executive. He provided the vision for the entire project, he looks for economic support, and he’s willing to let people whose talent and judgment he trusts execute the plan.”

Baker’s 1961 Fostoria High School yearbook photo. In 1995 the Riverfront renovation was introduced as a state-funded, multi-million dollar project to stimulate economic vitality. Once crumbling parking lots are now the site of fine restaurants. A shoreline once strewn with litter is now a paved river walk lush with native plantings. More than 60 townhouses and 170 apartment units have sprung up on what were acres of crabgrass. There’s a ballpark and major events facility. Amtrak, ING Direct, Barclays and AAA Mid-Atlantic all now have offices there.

The Riverfront has generated nearly $67 million in revenue for the city, county and state since 1996. The city, which invested $16.8 million through 2006, received more than $18.5 million in revenues from 1997 through 2006. Revenues in 2006 alone were close to $6 million. That’s a 35 percent return on investment.

“The uniqueness of this project is its integration into the city,” Purzycki says. “The Wilmington Riverfront was never intended to be separate from the rest of the city, but to serve as one of its investment spine centers, to re-direct and consolidate that investment on Market Street.”

Many consider the Riverfront to be the crown jewel of Baker’s administration. To others, it is an Oz-like fortress that has taken what urban renewal, redlining and the construction of I-95 did to the city decades ago: draw a sharper line between the haves and the have-nots.

Critics say Baker is mayor of two cities: one of luxury housing on the Riverfront and stately old homes in the Highlands, and one of Hilltop and West Center City and Southbridge, where buildings decay and dealers sell drugs on the streets. They claim he is more concerned with wooing new corporations than with rebuilding neighborhoods riddled by crime.

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“I believe the lower-income areas of this city are tired of no one listening to them,” says Joanne Burke, a past president of the Cool Springs-Tilton Neighborhood Association and Historical District. “Who’s going to listen?  If you give them something to rally around, they would. But the lower-income people of this city feel powerless.  People in positions of authority aren’t listening to the disenfranchised.”  

Says Baker, “A lot of residents don’t see the changes going on. We have to make people feel connected. They see downtown changing, but not their own neighborhoods. We’ve got to make these new corporations who move to Wilmington know that they are part of this neighborhood.”

In some of those neighborhoods, a monster haunts Baker’s current term: violent crime. On November 23, readers of The News Journal saw the front-page headline “2008 is Wilmington’s bloodiest year”—121 shootings and 23 murders—and photographs of police tape and body bags.

A newspaper clipping from 1974.In the final hours of 2008, Anthony Meek, a 35-year-old Wilmington resident, was found at about 11:45 p.m. on the 2300 block of Jefferson Street, the victim of a shooting. Meek became the 26th homicide in Wilmington last year. It is a record.

As Baker gazed through his window, the murder rate was still 25. During a meeting a few minutes later, he chastised staff for talking about violence in terms of the number of homicides. Yet in private conversation, the issue of gun violence invaded nearly every topic he raised. The single most important task of his third term, he says, will be to understand this presence and change it.

Baker talks about 12-year-olds waving Glocks on streets where corner boys peddle heroin. He speaks about the disintegration of the African-American family in the communities where most of the gun crimes have occurred. He points out that Wilmington’s high school dropout rate is nearly 60 percent, that 40 percent of African-American children have never been to church, that 70 percent of African-American children are born to single mothers.

“We have the police working on part of the problem,” he says, “but the institutions need to change, and by that I mean the family structure, the church, the educational system and the criminal justice system.

“Just saying that all we need to do is re-deploy more police on the streets is silly. Our goal is to eventually end this murderous madness, this world that says it’s perfectly fine to end someone’s life because they looked at you the wrong way or disrespected your friends. We have to change the mindset of the people, and that’s hard, but if you don’t look at the real problem, at the real data, you will lose, lose, lose.”

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In 2007 Baker and then-U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly established a Wilmington arm of the Federal Enforcement and Detention/Urban Policing Program, FED UP, an initiative to reduce shootings in Wilmington. Under FED UP, all adult felons found in possession of firearms are immediately placed in federal custody. Of the 50 FED UP cases prosecuted by the start of the year, 21 have been resolved, resulting in 20 guilty pleas—a 95 percent conviction rate.

On a circular table in Purzycki’s office, there is nothing to remind a visitor of the Wilmington Riverfront, no photos, blueprints or artist’s drawings. The table is filled with books with titles such as “What Works in Corrections,” “But They All Come Back” and “Code of the Street.”

Purzycki is co-chairman of Baker’s HOPE Commission, begun in June 2005. His reading is related to the commission’s chief goal: to identify and address the social and community issues related to crime and violence in Wilmington.

The new city council president at 45 in 1987. Baker charged the 25-member executive committee with examining existing social, educational, recreational and cultural programs, then improving their availability to residents of high-crime areas. In March 2006 the commission delivered a plan for strengthening communities, providing jobs and economic opportunities, incorporating community policing, mobilizing communities and spreading a general feeling of hope.

“We are tackling the larger issues of problems that affect every city in America,” Purzycki says. “In the ’70s, a war was declared on drugs that ended up jading people on all levels and disfiguring our cities. Yes, we have to intervene, but the bigger purpose is to close the gap between differing points of view. In Wilmington, there are neighborhoods in crisis, and our objective is to save human lives—as well as inspire them—in these neighborhoods.”  

The commission has yielded mixed results. Former member Derrick Johnson, pastor of the Joshua Harvest Church, says the core mission of the group—find ways to reduce violence in the city—is caught up in “the paralysis of analysis.”

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“You can’t solve the problems of the streets from research data,” Johnson says. “You need to talk directly with the burglar that got away. If we’re serious about making change in this city, we’ve got to stop talking to professionals and get the data from the guy who has warrants out on him.”

Baker says the delay in results is due to a difference of philosophies. “The problem with the professional side is that they always want to be right,” he says. “The people representing the street say that action is needed now, but that action doesn’t produce long-term results.”

Which leads to another thought: “The only part of my tenure I haven’t enjoyed has been watching the destruction of the African American community in this city.”

There are vast differences between the black youth of 1968 and the youth of today, he says. He sees a generation of African Americans severing all connection to the mainstream and building their own coalitions.

Baker is sworn in to his historic third term in January.“When we were fighting for civil rights, we were all behind the grand idea of freedom. Today the young people in these communities are moving inward. Their anger is not at the system but at the mainstream, and I don’t have a way of reaching them. A rapper communicates better to them than we can. The films they watch, the music they listen to, their message is that it’s OK to be a crook, that it’s OK to be a thug. There is no moral fiber running through it, no theme of good and evil.

“In the ’60s we lived in an age of we-ism, but now we live in age of me-ism that says, ‘If you don’t let me through that door, I’m going to create my own world,’” he says. “On that side, you have different rules and punishment for violation of those rules.”

On January 20, something happened Baker thought he’d never see: A black man was elected president of the United States. With chief of staff Bill Montgomery and his wife, Baker stood in the cold to witness Barack Obama sworn in as the nation’s 44th president in Washington, D.C. Crushed against an onrush of celebrities, the three retreated to their hotel, where they watched on television.

“Listening to Obama speak, you felt so good for the country,” Baker says. “There have been four presidents whom I have felt done that to me: FDR, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and now Obama. Many presidents say words, but not great words. These four have.”

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The truth in all of Baker’s vision of how America used to be is that he is almost 67 years old, and the lost society he worries about are between 18 and 25, black men mostly, who wander a shadowy world without values, a world of mistrust and anger. Baker spends many hours wondering how to reach those young men.  

Derrick Johnson once lived in the projects of Riverside. Charismatic and smart, he pimped, ran gambling rings and dealt drugs. In the 1970s, he was convicted of murdering Henry C. Edwards, so he lived for several years in cell 17 of the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna, often spending all but a half hour a day there.

In 1982 Baker was asked to visit the prison as part of a program to introduce inmates to positive role models and community leaders. That’s where Johnson met him. Johnson describes the event “as more of a confrontation.”

“I was expecting this know-it-all to tell me how bad I was,” Johnson says. “The first thing I noticed about him was that he wasn’t scared. Then I was amazed at how well read he was. He’d read everything I had and then some. I gave him my opinion on something, and he looked right at me and said, ‘You’re an idiot.’”

Soon after, Johnson wrote Baker a letter. Baker replied. “He wrote that of all of the people at the prison, my perception of life was the most flawed,” Johnson says. “He wrote that if my perception of life does not change, the prison cell I live in will remain with me everywhere I go. He told me that my life would mean nothing if, when I got out of prison, I did not use my life to serve the greater good.”

Today Johnson is pastor of Joshua Harvest Church, which he founded in 2001, in West Center City. His congregation numbers close to 700. He serves on the boards of several city-based committees, and he founded the Hood March three years ago, which has drawn thousands of people to mourn and celebrate the lives of those who have died in the city as a result of violence.

In his office at the Claymore Center, Johnson holds up letters addressed to him from inmates. He gets more than 30 a week. He plans to answer each one.

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One of Walsh’s favorite television programs was “The Wire,” a critically acclaimed HBO drama about the gritty streets of Baltimore. “In many ways, Jim Baker’s tenure as mayor is a lot like the show,” Walsh says. “His first term, like the series, was when we learned all the components of the story. It was when Jim put together people and programs and made things happen. In the second term, you saw Wilmington flourish with new businesses and corporations, but just like in the show, cracks were beginning to show.

“By the last two seasons of the show, just like his third term, everything will come to a head. He will need to shore up the key components of his mission, which have been providing for the economic safety and rehabilitation of our neighborhoods. His legacy will be determined over the next four years, not by the first eight.”

That legacy depends on convincing people to believe in the city and in themselves, even if they seem to have little reason. Then it depends on getting those people to work toward the vision.

Baker gazes through his window.

“When I look out ,” he says, “I am looking at one of the best cities in the world. I see a vision for the grandness of Wilmington. We do not need to settle for mediocrity. I know we can become a world-class city. If we can all believe that, then we can get there. Just think of what we could do.”

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