This article was originally published in the July 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
‘Complexity and Contradiction” is the seminal book by American architect and Trenton’s Fire Headquarters designer Robert Venturi.
It is a title that also helps sum up a general sense about Trenton’s June mayoral election and the shooting at Art All Night.
And while Venturi is talking about creating a building, the same can be applied to the everyday activity of building or maintaining a community.
A good point to start is Venturi’s comments about the “richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art” and a process where he says, “I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties . . . I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,” compromising rather than ‘clean,’ . . . accommodating rather than excluding … I am for messy vitality over obvious unity . . . I prefer ‘both-and’ difficult unity of including rather than the easy unity of exclusion.’”
Creating is a messy process and one that deals with choices, actions, and reactions. And while the creation of a single work of art usually has one individual making a variety of choices, the ongoing creation of a city or culture has many people making many choices.
One of the biggest public choices made recently in Trenton was the election of Mayor Reed Gusciora, who starts his term this month.
The choosing process started when one-term Mayor Eric Jackson decided to step out of the race despite the reality that Trenton voters have historically re-elected the incumbent.
That set the stage for the messy May primary election where seven candidates ran but only two were selected for the June 12 runoff.
Yet those two reflected an interesting choice for a city where the majority of the population of African ancestry. One candidate was a veteran turned businessman, Paul Perez, whose Latino heritage represents Trenton’s second largest demographic. The other was New Jersey Assemblyman Gusciora, whose Italian ancestry and openly gay status make him a minority within the city of approximately 85,000.
That the voters chose Gusciora indicated they were willing to look beyond racial or cultural identity. And despite the election being a close one, the choice reflected a spirit of independence.
Yet there is a contradiction. Only 8,645 — or 20 percent — of the city’s registered voters chose to vote. The reason for the non-voter is uncertain, but for Trenton residents not to participate in a direct decision that affects their future is a messy reality, a self-created “unity of exclusion” that needs to be “embraced” by the new administration and elected officials in general.
Another messy and contradictory situation was at Art All Night.
For the last 12 years Trenton artists have banded together to create a community-building project based on unity and accommodation. Its popularity has grown to attract more than a thousand participating artists and more than 30,000 attendees — many who had never been to the city before and had a positive experience.
That a few individuals chose to use the occasion to escalate an alleged gang rivalry into an early morning gunfight is not a contradiction of the intent of Art All Night but an incident that fits into a pattern of American men choosing to create public violence. That includes shootings in suburban schools, movie theaters, and casinos. Even Panera in downtown Princeton became the scene of a police shooting.
Then there is the proliferation of violent outbursts that do not involve guns: individuals driving into parades and protestors, people leaving bombs at marathons, and, on the same night that the Trenton shooting happened, Seaside Heights reported numerous fights as fun seekers followed the social media postings for a non-existent party. It is a problem that includes Trenton residents but is certainly larger than one city.
But for many the choice to sensationalize the contradiction of a gun fight at an arts festival will be easy. And at the time of this writing there have been instances of messy reporting that reinforces a conclusion that this is mainly an urban or Trenton problem.
There also may be easy choices made by some that reinforce prejudices or negative perceptions. That includes suburban residents who fear cities and even people in Trenton who have adopted a defeatist and negative attitude — and do not vote.
Yet for others there will be a decision to look at the choices and a desire to embrace our complex, contradictory, and messy times and take actions that will continue efforts to build communities.
After all, it is they who have created a new day in the capital city and will continue to build the city’s future — like a new structure or art. Our lives depend on it.