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Amid fear, city needs to show it cares

He has lost part of his life to the prison system.

He has lost family members to gang violence.

And now he has lost a house to goons with matches.

That street pedigree should make Darnell Jackson the E.F. Hutton of Buffalo: When he talks about what it will take to reclaim crime-infested neighborhoods, city officials should listen.

Part of what it will take is cash to reward witnesses willing to come forward in cases such as this.

"Everything is about money," Jackson said Wednesday, standing in front of the burned-out vacant house on Barthel Street that he had hoped to renovate.

Even if this case gets solved without such an incentive, he and others argue persuasively that a well-publicized reward fund would help prime the informational pump in parts of the city where cooperation with police is not the norm and often is perceived as dangerous.

A fund covering these types of crimes could provide the nudge for those whose sense of civic responsibility -- which might be enough in an ideal world -- is equally balanced by a tangible fear of getting involved. Put some cash on the scale, and you alter that equation.

In one way or another, it's a good bet that last weekend's arson was retaliation for Jackson's efforts as a community leader trying to rid his East Side neighborhood of thugs. That effort would be easier if more people came forward and if they got more protection when they did.

Jackson and others already have their eyes on a pot of money for such a program: the city's more than $30 million "rainy day" fund.

"It's raining fire bombs," said Nate Boyd, a Longview Avenue resident and member of Jackson's East Side Redevelopment Task Force, which is working to rebuild a neighborhood trying to rebound.

Common Council President David A. Franczyk notes that the city already has a fund to reward people who turn in illegal dumpers.

"This is a little more serious," he said as he looked at the burned-out house in his Fillmore District.

He filed a resolution Wednesday asking the Council to explore setting up such a fund to target those bent on "intimidating or retaliating against block club organizers or organizations."

"I don't think there should be any reason not to," he said of such a fund, which would supplement any reward programs already operating. "There should be every reason to do it."

He's right. What's the point of saving for a rainy day while part of the city drowns in violence?

Boyd wouldn't stop at the reward fund. He'd also use some of the city surplus to train unemployed neighborhood people to work, funding facilities such as the center that the task force wants to establish in the old Wonder Bread plant on Fougeron Street.

"When kids don't have anything to do, what do they do? Mischief," he said, answering his own question. That goes for out-of-work adults, as well.

Jackson wants business, churches and individuals -- all of whom have a stake in the city -- to contribute to the reward fund. But most of all, he wants the city to spend some of its money to help the neighborhoods that need help the most.

Everyone from control board members to business leaders will likely object. But if the city can give away more than $10 million in tax breaks to waterfront condos, it can spare some pocket change to help a neighborhood such as this.

A community signals what it values by what it's willing to pay for. Buffalo needs to signal that it values the East Side and its people, especially those -- including Jackson -- who are trying to make a difference.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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