Hope and despair in New Jersey's beleaguered city

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:02 AM

CAMDEN, N.J. -- 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.

Father Michael Doyle raced to the 20-year-old woman's side as she crumpled in the snow on Ferry Street. The gunman fled down a trash-strewn alley as a small child, watching from a nearby car, wailed hysterically.

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.

A week later, Doyle would assist at Williams' funeral, moving mourners to tears as he described an innocent "lamb" slaughtered as she waited for a sandwich - another grim statistic in the "killing wars of Camden."

"Good will come of her death," cried the white-haired priest. "Good will come!"

But many in the weeping throng heard only a cry in the dark. What good, people say, can ever come out of this broken city of 80,000 that sits on banks of the Delaware River across from the gleaming skyline of Philadelphia?

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?

Doyle's church looms above the poorest of these streets, near the massive sewage treatment plant that fouls the air; the concrete crushing plant that, some insist, contributes to the high rate of childhood asthma; the jagged mountains of scrap metal being crushed for export.

"Via Dolorosa" - street of sorrows - is how Doyle describes his neighborhood, after the road that Jesus walked, carrying the cross to his crucifixion.

And yet after four decades toiling in these streets, this 76-year-old Irishman continues to find hope.

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