Hardship challenges us to care

Feb 2009 - Charity Vogel

I’d like to think it couldn’t happen here. Staring at the picture that stunned Detroit, and thinking about this city we live in, the one I love, that’s the thought that creeps into my mind.

It could never happen here. Not in Buffalo.

Could it? Here are the facts. In Detroit, a homeless man was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft a week and a half ago, in one of the city’s abandoned warehouses.

He was lying in a pool of water that had frozen into a block of ice. The upper part of the man’s body was invisible, but his feet weren’t. They, along with his jeans-clad legs, projected out of the ice like limbs of a carelessly discarded toy soldier.

That’s not the worst part. The worst part is what happened next.

Several people saw Johnnie Redding — that was the man’s name — lying there, over a period of roughly a month. And not one of them called police. In fact, it took three calls by the newspaper — and two days — before the man was pulled from his icy grave, a time frame that Detroit’s mayor later admitted was “too long.”

Now, people in Detroit are decrying the tragedy as the end of the city’s humanity.

Here in Buffalo, I’m wondering more about this: How do we stack up?

No, we haven’t had anything quite like Redding’s death happen here. (Photos of the dead man’s protruding legs ran in Detroit newspapers. Think about digesting that with your morning oatmeal.) And though Detroit shares some of the urban grittiness we in Buffalo lay proud claim to — a Rust Belt backbone — the bigger city is sharply different from us in other ways. Its murder rate, for instance, is about double ours.

But think for a moment about the kind of sad, desolate deaths we have seen here in the past few years.

Two homeless men have been found dead inside vacant houses in the city since late 2007, by demolition crews.

More recently, people have died in Buffalo in frightful ways and then suffered the final indignity of going for days or weeks — like Redding — undiscovered and frozen.

Amanda Wienckowski, 20, of Lewiston, went missing Dec. 5 but was found Jan. 9, naked and stuffed into a garbage tote on the East Side like so much bagged trash.

Last week, the body of Clarence Jackson, 32, turned up inside an abandoned house on Koons Avenue. He had gone missing a couple of weeks ago.

“Until we get involved with what’s going on on our streets,” said Darnell Jackson, Clarence’s uncle and the head of Buffalo for Change, “we’re still going to have dead bodies turning up inside vacant buildings.”

There are some positive spots in this picture. Buffalo’s homicide tally declined sharply last year, and some killings were solved because decent people stepped forward.

Still, when people die in these desolate ways, what does it say about us as a community? And how much should we care?

Redding’s chances expired, not just in an elevator shaft, but in a place of fear, pain and solitude. So did Amanda’s. So did Clarence’s.

We are a community that cares. But the fact is, sorrow and struggle can wear a caring nature away. Day in, day out, Buffalo is a place of hardship for many people, and that can numb even the best intentions.

We need to curb that grim grindstone; we need to make sure our humanity never changes. We need to go on caring, no matter what. No matter who.

The alternative is as humble as a pair of ice-crusted blue jeans. And as terrible to contemplate.

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