Hope and Despair in New Jersey’s Beleaguered City

Helen O’Neill, San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 2011

The crackle of gunfire shattered the lunchtime chatter at Frank’s Deli, as customers ducked and bullets flew across the street outside.

Three pierced the stained glass windows of the Sacred Heart church.

One plunged into Anjanea Williams’ abdomen.

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Two days after one of America’s poorest, most violent cities laid off half its police force, the chaos that is Camden had erupted once again.

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What good can rise from this bleak urban landscape of dilapidated row houses, where black-clad drug dealers sell brazenly on street corners, prostitutes just as brazenly sell themselves, and addicts rot in abandoned homes or stumble through a wasteland of vacant lots?

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There were many reasons for the city’s decline: the loss of manufacturing jobs when factories and shipbuilding moved; the race riots of 1971 followed by white flight to the suburbs; the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s; the blatant corruption and mismanagement of local leaders (three former mayors went to jail).

But, as Wiggins [The Rev. Hayward Wiggins] points out, these things happened in other cities. What was it about Camden that made its collapse so swift and so stark?

The answer, he believes, is an utter lack of vision by its leaders. Even the state’s much-heralded takeover of Camden in 2002 was a colossal failure in the eyes of many. Much of the $175 million allotted for improvements was funneled into tax-exempt institutions like Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital, rather than the struggling neighborhoods.

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The statistics are brutal: Camden has among the nation’s highest unemployment, school dropout and homeless rates. The latest census data finds 53.6 percent of the city’s residents in poverty, the highest in the nation.

Camden was the nation’s second-most dangerous city based on 2009 data, and it held the top spot the two previous years, according to CQ Press. The FBI reported 2,380 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2009–more than five times the national average.

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On the other side of town, in an old row house on State Street, Bryan Morton says the same thing. The house once belonged to his grandmother and it is where he grew up, in a warm, noisy home filled with people, smells from the kitchen mingling with those from his grandmother’s dining-room hair salon.

Morton, 40, and his wife Felisha, 21, want desperately to stay here, to raise their 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, and 7-year-old Nicholas, Morton’s son from a previous marriage. But inevitably they have talked about leaving, not just for safety reasons but because Camden has so little to offer its children.

“You are almost taught not to dream in this community,” he says.

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It’s a refrain heard over and over by people who refuse to abandon the city that shaped them, the city they can’t help but love.

Michael Hagan fled Camden after the 1971 riots–heartbroken, he says, after watching his city in flames.

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Cortes [Mary Cortes, who moved from Brooklyn 22 years ago because Camden was the one place she could afford to buy a house to raise her children] has always loved the community spirit of Cramer Hill, always felt safe there, always felt the city was on the verge of rebounding. But lately she has had her doubts.

In January, Mayor Dana Redd announced the layoffs of 167 police officers (this week she announced a plan to rehire 50 of them, at least through summer). The day of the layoffs, drug dealers were said to have paraded in a T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Now is Our Time.”

“That gave me a chill,” Cortes says.

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“My job,” he [Father Doyle] says, “is noticing and acknowledging miracles.”

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But for every miracle there are countless tales of despair.

After several daylight gunbattles outside her office, Helene Pierson, executive director of the Heart of Camden housing program, canceled a Saturday volunteer program, fearing for the safety of volunteers who rehabilitate abandoned buildings. For the first time, she also hired police to guard a concert at the church.

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