ATLANTIC CITY — Philip Brooks was praying inside his Presbyterian Avenue home Sunday morning when he heard gun shots ring out, a sound he first thought was a loud fender bender.
Then, chaos broke loose on the small street, he said, where a close-knit neighborhood of about six or seven families lives in usual harmony.
Police flooded the street to respond to shots that killed youth football coach Demond Tally, a staple in the community.
“He was a good part of this neighborhood,” said Brooks, who grew up with Tally. “He was a dedicated father and a really, really decent guy.”
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office has not released the names or descriptions of any suspects and called the incident an active investigation. Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Donna Weaver declined to provide any additional details on the shooting.
Tally, 45, was leaving Council President Marty Small’s house and walking to his own home a few doors down when he was shot. The two were longtime friends.
“Only 20 steps away,” said Small outside his house on Monday. He declined to comment further. The yellow police tape and cop cars that lined the street the day before were gone.
Tally, an Atlantic City Dolphins coach, mentored hundreds of children since joining the peewee league in 2003. Less than three years ago, his family suffered the loss of Tally’s 21-year-old son Demond Cottman, who was shot and killed in a Hamilton Mall parking lot. No one was charged.
Atlantic City resident Nickkie Fischer said her young son was coached by Tally and looked up to him.
“(He) was always about the youth and helping anyone in need,” Fischer said.
Childhood friend Eric Ward, who now lives in Indiana, said he last caught up with Tally in July. He called Tally a “self-made celebrity” in Atlantic City who kept kids on the football team “focused and determined.”
“What he ... did for our youth football team, Atlantic City Dolphins, was nothing short of amazing,” Ward said.
Tally’s death marks Atlantic City’s fourth homicide in 2019, and was part of a violent weekend in the city. A mile from where Tally was shot and killed, a 32-year-old man stabbed his neighbor to death in the Inlet Towers.
In 2018, there were seven murders in the city, according to Uniform Crime Report data released by State Police, a drop from 13 the year before.
“He was a big brother to everyone. It’s a tragedy,” said Councilman Jeffree Fauntleroy, who was friends with Tally. “We need to be more vigilant and active. ... We have to stay on the people who patrol these communities and make sure they know what’s going on.”
Funeral services for Tally will be held Tuesday at the All Wars Memorial Building on Adriatic Avenue. The time has not been determined.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Jenn Hampton was walking past boarded up buildings on Asbury Park’s boardwalk when she had an idea.
The curator wanted to paint murals on the panels and bring vibrancy to the damaged walkway. So she went to the boardwalk’s redeveloper, Madison Marquette, and eventually secured $20,000 in annual funding for her “Wooden Walls” project.
Today, visitors snap photos of artwork that lines the 4-mile span and post their discoveries on social media, giving free, positive publicity to a city that depends on public opinion to draw visitors.
A New York Times article last year proclaimed that art and grit make Asbury Park the perfect day trip.
But such an undertaking might be more difficult in Atlantic City.
‘It’s a hard process all around...’
A larger mix of big developers along the Boardwalk and officials who feel burned by a failed, multi-million art installation make it difficult for small nonprofits to carve out space and funding for public art in Atlantic City.
“I realize how long it took me here, and I feel like the layers of bureaucracy seem a little more challenging there,” said Hampton, who has been considering moving to an old church in Atlantic City to start an artist residency.
At least one group is trying to tackle the beast: The Atlantic City Arts Foundation.
With only five volunteer staff members and $50,000 from private donations, the nonprofit has painted dozens of once-empty walls throughout Atlantic City since starting its mural program in 2017, called 48 Blocks.
Casinos, developers and Stockton University financially support the group.
It’s a heavy lift though.
Each year, a handful of volunteers approach local businesses one-by-one and seek permission to paint their walls. Rather than dealing with one developer to access a large canvas, the nonprofit has conversations with dozens of separate building owners.
“Identifying owners is a multi-step process,” said Joyce Hagen, executive director of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation. “Many buildings are rented, and renters are sometimes reluctant to share who the owners are. ... It’s a hard process all around.”
And the city and Casino Reinvestment Development Authority have not opened up their wallets to the program yet.
An unsuccessful, $3 million sculpture park built with CRDA money in 2012, called Wonder, may have made the state agency reluctant to back future artistic endeavors. The seven-acre park, designed by a New York City curator, was taken apart four years after being installed following intense criticism that the expensive project didn’t draw the number of tourists promised.
Now, Hagen says the Arts Foundation is rebuilding trust between the arts community and city.
“It left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths. Atlantic City likes big, flashy projects,” Hagen said. “And we’re not that. We’re trying to build trust with the casinos, the city and developers.”
A bigger canvas
Jitney stops, bus shelters, and public benches.
All belong to the CRDA or city, and can be beautified — if officials allowed it.
Last year, the state agency let the Arts Foundation paint six Boardwalk chairs to brighten up a public space. Similar agreements could be expanded across the city, said Evan Sanchez, co-founder of 48 Blocks.
“That’s the next step I think,” Sanchez said. “Working with larger property holders so we can get more blanket approval.”
There are funding mechanisms the city can utilize as well, such as a one percent for art ordinance.
Such ordinances require one percent of the construction cost of city-funded capital improvement projects to be used for public art. Philadelphia was the first city in the U.S. to adopt the rule in 1959. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority did the same for private development projects.
The CRDA could take advantage of similar, existing New Jersey legislation, called the Public Buildings Arts Inclusion Act. It allows up to 1.5 percent of state-financed construction projects to be set aside for public art.
The last time it was used in Atlantic City to fund an art project was in 2004, with a commissioned interior stained-glass globe that was installed in Boardwalk Hall after a renovation.
More recently, some Atlantic City officials have discussed passing similar, city-wide version in the resort.
Mayor Frank Gilliam said in a statement he has discussed the possibility of proposing such an ordinance to help support art projects with the city’s planning and development director.
Still, there could be push back from developers, said Julia Guerrero, director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Fine Arts program. In Atlantic City, only recently on an economic upswing, the ordinance could be perceived as unfriendly to investors.
“Developers often want to know ‘What does art add?’ through numbers ... but art is more about feeling and identity,” she said. “You have to encourage developers and get them excited about art.”
Exploring the city through art
The Art Park, with its faux pirate ship and illuminated displays, promised to draw scores of visitors and turn Atlantic City into a cultural destination. Instead, it was torn down and replaced with a parking lot.
Now, the Arts Foundation hopes to market its mural project as a tourist attraction.
By the summer, the group plans to launch a self-guided walking tour of its murals, with maps and directions posted on its website. The goal: have people walking around Atlantic City’s neighborhoods in search of art and stopping in shops along the way.
Studies show murals can increase someone’s sense of attachment to the community and reduce delinquency in youth. In places such as Asbury Park and Philadelphia, it’s also had an economic impact.
“We’re just at the beginning steps of being able to accomplish these things,” Hagen said. “I just want it to be yesterday, not tomorrow.”
ATLANTIC CITY — Tiny houses may provide a big answer to the problem of blight and homelessness in Atlantic City, according to one pastor who has built one tiny home and has plans for at least five more here.
Seeds of Hope Community Development Corp. has Planning Board approval to build five tiny homes on two vacant lots on C. Morris Cain Place, behind the Police Athletic League on North New York Avenue, said the Rev. Alexander Clarence Smith.
Smith, the pastor at Community Harvesters Church at 201 N. New York Ave., which started Seeds of Hope, said four homes could be built on a larger lot, and one on an undersized lot now owned by the group.
“We are getting rid of vacant lots, eliminating urban blight and putting properties back on the city tax rolls, while helping people in need,” said Smith on a recent tour of the lots.
According to city officials, there were more than 500 blighted or vacant properties in the city in 2016.
Tiny houses are generally described as a home that is 400 square feet or less. They have captivated the nation’s imagination on TV shows like FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.” Attempts to get other tiny home communities going in South Jersey have been unsuccessful so far, but continue. The campground of Egg Harbor River Resort in Egg Harbor Township is trying to start one there.
A bill that would allow municipalities to lease vacant municipal land for tiny homes appears promising for cities. A4822/S3408 would also direct the state Department of Community Affairs to give regulatory guidance on acceptable tiny home construction and use.
“This is the least expensive option for people who can’t afford housing,” said La Shonine Gandy-Smith, Smith’s wife. Gandy-Smith, who has a doctorate in education in organizational leadership, is also involved in the project.
Seeds of Hope wants to build the five units soon, but is still seeking funding, the pastor said, adding he hopes to keep costs down to a maximum of $30,000 per unit with the help of donated labor. Plans call for another 12 tiny homes to go up on other lots the group owns.
City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said the group is working with the Atlantic County Institute of Technology to provide some of the construction labor.
“They are going to hopefully get some funding from the DCA (state Department of Community Affairs) and we’re going to reach out to CRDA (the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) for some gap funding,” said Shabazz. “I hope putting all those different sources together they come up with the financing needed.”
ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther said the school is working with an architect who is designing the homes, and the school will help with construction.
“We’ve built many homes over the years with Habitat for Humanity,” Guenther said. But this will be the first time students help build tiny homes.
It’s a demonstration project, Shabazz said, and “once they get it up and people see it, I think people will fall in love with the concept. People have to see it.”
Back in 2016, the church built its first tiny home of 384 square feet, which it rents out. It replaced a Hurricane Sandy damaged home on a lot behind the church.
Seeds of Hope bought the damaged three-story home that was on the lot, and tore it down after it was hit by a vehicle and no longer salvageable. Then it got a $50,000 Sandy recovery grant to rebuild.
It was clear the group would need to be creative in rebuilding for so little, Smith said. So he got the help of Ted Gooding, then the CEO at Ocean Inc. Community Action Partnership.
“He did a tiny house in Ocean County,” said Smith, who grew up in the city and is also an Atlantic City fireman. “He said, ‘Yeah, we can build a tiny house for $50,000.’”
The home has a kitchen with eating area, bathroom, and two bedrooms, said Smith. First the group rented it for a year to a single man, and now a young married couple without children lives in it. They pay rent based on what they can afford, he said.
“I was in there when it first opened, and I was very, very impressed,” said Shabazz. “It’s not a large space but an adequate space for one or two people.”
He said he was impressed with the layout, the fact it met all city codes and could be comfortable.
“That’s why I became such an avid supporter, after I actually walked through one,” Shabazz said.
“The city auctions off undersized lots,” said Smith. “They said nothing can be done with them. I said, ‘I beg to differ.’”
It has, however, required hiring an attorney to help get variances, Smith said. He hopes that someday the city will change its zoning to allow for tiny homes on undersized lots without the need for variances.
Almost all the members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation have signed a letter demanding NJ Transit reopen the Atlantic City Rail Line quickly.
“NJ Transit’s lack of communication on fulfilling its promise to finish the rail system upgrades has caused extreme frustration for consumers,” said the letter, organized by U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd.
It also said the lack of a rail line is harming the regional economy.
Van Drew said NJ Transit’s “failure to meet its own deadlines and lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
“NJ Transit remains committed to reopening the Atlantic City Rail Line in the second quarter of 2019,” said spokeswoman Nancy Snyder in an email response to questions. “NJT continues to address the continuing shortage of locomotive engineers, as well as equipment availability, as PTC installations, maintenance inspections and testing continues. NJ Transit will communicate updates as new information becomes available,” she wrote.
“It’s embarrassing to have members of Congress calling out a state agency. You wouldn’t think they’d want that,” Van Drew said in an interview Monday.
But he said NJ Transit has been so unresponsive to him, it appears the agency doesn’t care.
“Even people not directly affected signed,” said Van Drew of the NJ Transit letter. “There is a certain level of responsibility required in public service. ... Your word should mean something.”
In addition to Van Drew, the letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., Albio Sires, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, Frank Pallone Jr., Donald Norcross, Donald M. Payne Jr., Tom Malinowski and Andy Kim.
The line shut down early last September for installation of federally mandated safety equipment called Positive Train Control. At the time, NJ Transit said its plan was to reopen the line in early 2019.
Then, on Jan. 25, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett announced the line would be closed until at least the second quarter of 2019.
Gov. Phil Murphy has blamed the Federal Railroad Administration, saying NJ Transit needs its “approval for a reboot” of service to lines that were shut down.
But an FRA spokesperson recently said federal approval is not needed to reopen the Atlantic City line.
Only U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th, is missing from the letter. That’s because it was put together quickly and Van Drew’s staff was not able to reach him in time, said Van Drew.
Smith has, however, signed on to a bill Van Drew has introduced with Florida U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, a Republican, to prohibit or stop seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The letter acknowledges that NJ Transit has been degraded and was grossly behind schedule in implementing Positive Train Control for safety.
But another five months or longer without train service is not acceptable, Van Drew said.
“New Jersey residents depend heavily on the agency’s rail lines to get to work,” the letter said, “and the lack of reliable service not only negative impacts their daily lives, but also hinders regional economic growth.”