Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Untruth and Consequences: The news may be fake, but the costs are real.

Illustration by Rich Hauck

In the city, life is complicated.

Events happen, and, often, their interpretation has more to do with rumor, preconceived notions and faulty facts than with verifiable truths. And media, distant and distracted, often don’t do their job of helping people tie together the strands.

A perfect example occurred this past April 21.

On that day, a shooting occurred in Midtown Harrisburg, near a food truck festival that was part of the city’s monthly “3rd in the Burg” arts and culture event. That much we know for sure.

The emerging narrative went something like this:

  • The shooting was the result of the usual urban criminal activity around some downscale rowhouses on N. 3rd
  • The shooting led to such a drop in business for the food trucks that, three months later, they decamped for the safer suburbs.
  • The shooting and the loss of the food trucks mean that 3rd in the Burg is unsafe or in jeopardy or both.

But what if none of this is true? What if these commonly held beliefs are wrong?

Let’s start with the shooting itself.

At 5:11 p.m., two shots rang out on the 1600-block of N. 3rd Street. As reported by most media, the shooting was down the street from 3rd in the Burg’s food truck festival, which was setting up (it hadn’t actually begun).

At the time, information was sketchy. TV news reporters rushed in, using the food festival as a camera backdrop, as a prop, implying peril. Similarly, a print reporter repeatedly commingled the shooting and the festival. Later pictures showed a young black man, identified as 22-year-old Saivon Waller, sitting on the stoop of the house where the shooting occurred, behind yellow caution tape, being questioned, then arrested, by police.

The public takeaway: another shooting, another crime, a dangerous city. Three days later, Harrisburg police released their official version, unraveling the first string in that narrative. A young woman, they said, was shot in the leg because, as she rushed into Waller’s apartment quickly and unexpectedly, Waller, an Army reservist, said he thought she was an intruder. Waller’s defense claims it was a terrible accident—he and the woman knew each other well, but he did not immediately recognize her as she barged in. For its part, the prosecution does not buy the “all-an-accident” defense, contending that Waller, even if he didn’t mean to shoot this specific person, still intentionally aimed and shot the gun.

Regardless, there was no broader community concern: no drugs, no thugs and certainly no bullets flying around willy-nilly at the food truck fest. But who cared about the real story at that point? The initial, breathless reporting and stand-ups in front of food trucks already had a terrible impact, had been imprinted on people’s brains. From then on, they were likely only to retain the false memory that there was a shooting at 3rd in The Burg.

And, indeed, in July, the food truck festival announced that it was pulling out of 3rd in the Burg, blaming falling business on the April shooting.  So, they were taking their chicken sandwiches and beef burritos across the river, to the relative safety of a church parking lot in the suburbs, setting up a competing event outside Mechanicsburg.

But there was problem with that “news,” too. Back in 2013, when the food trucks first arrived, the lines were so long that it once took me an hour to get a taco. By last summer, long before the shooting, the lines were gone, and I could stroll right up to a truck to order. What had happened? It’s simple really. A few blocks south, the Broad Street Market had begun to open for 3rd in the Burg, and that’s where all the hungry people went.

The market had many advantages over food trucks huddled together in an out-of-the-way parking lot. In the warm weather, it offered music, pop-up vendors, outdoor seating and even free beer and spirits samples. In the cold weather, it had shelter and heat. It was also centrally located, a natural gathering spot with dozens of amazing food options.

But what was bad for the food truck festival was fantastic for 3rd in the Burg. The market’s participation gave the arts event something it had lacked—a central meeting point, a strong core, a heart, if you will. As a result, 3rd in the Burg became more popular (and more fun) than ever.

But, unless you were on the ground in Harrisburg, you didn’t know that. You missed this story and all its complexities. Instead, you probably followed the much simpler, yet untrue, story line: a young thug, a public danger, the loss of a beloved food festival.

Misperception, incomplete reporting, a failure to tie together the many strings of a story.

In the city, life is complicated.

Editor’s Note: In May, Saivon Waller had his bail reduced from $500,000 to $100,000. He was released on bond, and his next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 5. 

Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.


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