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Hope and despair in New Jersey's beleaguered city

By HELEN O'NEILL
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.

He is not alone. There are others who refuse to flee, who struggle against the odds, who believe that their city can be redeemed. They join Doyle and his parishioners in a daily Prayer for Camden:

"Come, Holy Savior, and heal all that is broken in our lives and in our streets," they pray. "Come, Holy Spirit, and inspire us with energy and willingness to rebuild Camden City to your honor and glory."

Yet even believers know Camden needs more than a prayer.

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Like poverty, it's hard to escape poetry in Camden, whether in Father Doyle's prayers, or the odes that people pen for those gunned down, or the inscriptions engraved in the towering stone facade of City Hall.

"In a dream I saw a city invincible," is the boldest, drawn from the writings of one of Camden's most renowned residents, Walt Whitman.

But there is another, more prophetic inscription drawn from the Bible: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

The Rev. Hayward Wiggins has seen his people perish. Like Sacred Heart, the Wiggins' church - Camden Bible Tabernacle - is a small oasis in a run-down neighborhood wracked by poverty, drugs and crime.

Wiggins, 54, is a tall, imposing man. He is both immensely proud of Camden - and immensely sad. On a frigid night he drives to his childhood home, a red-brick row house on Kenwood Avenue where his parents raised six children. A knot of young men in hooded black sweatshirts command a nearby corner. Half the houses on the street are boarded up. A dog barks menacingly. Nothing seems warm, or inviting or safe.

Wiggins' parents loved this street, loved the neighbors, didn't want to move. But after a bullet slammed into his mother's car 15 years ago, they felt they had no choice.

"It's heartbreaking," Wiggins says.

This is the Camden Wiggins remembers: a place of vitality and charm, a bustling city where jobs were plentiful at Campbell Soup Co., RCA Victor, Esterbrook pens and the shipyards. Downtown was alive with restaurants and theaters and stores. Kids rode their bikes to school and played in Whitman Park without worrying about tripping over needles or getting shot while buying lunch.

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 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.

For Wiggins, the result simply reinforced his belief that Camden has become "a tale of two cities."

He recently gave friends from New Orleans a tour, driving first to the waterfront beneath the magnificent Benjamin Franklin Bridge. They marveled at the aquarium and marina, the stunning views of Philadelphia, the amphitheater and stadium, and the acres of parking that allow suburbanites to swoop into this clean, safe bubble without ever having to witness, or think about, the blight.

Nearby is the neatly appointed Rutgers campus, the beautifully restored row houses of the Cooper Grant historic district, and the famed Nipper building that once housed RCA Victor and is now a luxury apartment complex, the Victor.

Camden is small, just nine square miles. The shock of leaving this waterfront haven and entering the other Camden can be immediate and jarring.

"You drove 24 hours to help us after Katrina!" one of Wiggins' friends exclaimed as he gazed at the desolate streets. "This is like your flood. We should be helping you."

Wiggins isn't sure what help is left for Camden. He is part of a respected group called Camden Churches Organized for People, which has pushed hard for basic services, including affordable housing. Other church and community groups are active, too, and modest housing developments have sprouted throughout the city. But they are like tiny pockets poking out of the wilderness. Everyone knows the city needs much more.

Wiggins is asked all the time if he sees any hope. It is a complicated question.

Hope, he says, goes in cycles in a place like Camden.

"We get a little bit and it gets dashed but then it picks back up. I have guarded hope for Camden. That is what keeps bringing me back."

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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.

Sean Brown came close to being one of Camden's fatalities. He still remembers the smell of burning flesh when a bullet tore into his leg as he walked near Whitman Park in 2006 - another random victim of a drug dealers' turf war. Six people were injured that night and one woman killed.

Brown's mother, who lives in the suburbs, begged him to leave. But the 28-year-old graduate student felt compelled to stay, to use his experience to force people to talk about "the quagmire of our city and the psychological mindset that allows us to accept it."

Brown is intense and articulate and ambitious. He sits on the school board, hopes one day to be mayor, and is the director of a dynamic group called Young Urban Leaders. At a recent meeting about 25 members gathered for an impassioned discussion about how to help Camden's youth and there was no doubt about the group's energy and determination.

But reality has a way of chipping away at passion. Brown's fiancee, Keishia Montgomery, is pregnant with their first child. Though she feels strongly about her city, and would like to stay, the couple are beginning "that conversation" - one many parents face in Camden. Is it fair to children to raise them in this city?

It's a dilemma that Laura and Jose Sanchez have wrestled with. The couple, both social workers, live with their 9-year-old daughter, Josie, in a comfortable old colonial in Fairview, a pretty neighborhood of mixed houses on tree-lined streets originally built for shipbuilders.

Though they were not born in Camden (she is from Pennsylvania, he is from Puerto Rico) they have lived in the city and been actively involved in community groups and the Lutheran church for decades. They love their work, their church, Josie's charter school, their garden, and the tight-knit sense of community where everyone looks out for everyone else.

But just before Thanksgiving, Jose was held up at gunpoint outside their house as he prepared to leave for work. The gunman took his wallet. A few weeks later, during a similar holdup, a man was shot on their street.

For the first time in her life, Laura felt scared. She found herself peering up and down the street before leaving the house, fretting about Jose until he came home. And she worries more than ever about her daughter.

Josie has far less freedom than Laura had as a child. She is not permitted to walk four blocks to the school bus on her own. She is forbidden to play on the street because of the drug-dealing in a nearby alley. Laura wonders: When Josie is older, will she feel stigmatized when she says she is from Camden? Will friends from outside town be allowed stay at her house for sleep-overs, or will their parents be too scared?

"There are so many great things about this city, especially the people ... ," Laura says, her voice faltering. They have friends who struggled to stay here, and burned out. And they don't know where Josie will go to school when she finishes fifth grade, though they are sure of one thing.

"My child will not go to public school in Camden," Laura says emphatically.

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.

Morton, lean and energetic, hopes to change that. He is trying to revive Concerned Citizens of North Camden, a once-thriving neighborhood group. One of his first projects was to plant a small garden last year, a pretty place down a nearby alley with a lawn for kids to play on and a vegetable patch for them to tend.

He organized a baseball program to get neighborhood kids play with the Camden Riversharks at Campbell's Field stadium. And he organized summer family movie nights, setting up an inflatable screen and antique popcorn machine in a local park.

Among those he invited were the dealers on the corners. He urged them to take a night off, leave their wares behind, and watch a movie.

"Those guys are frightened to death," Morton says. "They are cold and hungry and forgotten. They have nowhere to go and no one to love them and many feel they have no other choice."

Morton knows. He spent eight years on the corners, dropping out of school at 14 to sell and use drugs. He spent another eight years in prison. He doesn't like to talk about it, especially in front of his son. But he doesn't hide it, either.

Now Morton has a degree in urban studies, a job rehabilitating former prisoners, and a future - in Camden, he hopes.

Felisha gets angry at the constant drumbeat of negative headlines and statistics. Local papers report daily on the apparent spike in violent crime and the inability of a beleaguered police force to do much about it.

"Those statistics are shaping my city," she says. "People need to know they are not the only story."

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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.

But after 10 years in California, the musician and painter couldn't shake the tug of his hometown. He returned and bought a striking 110-year-old, blue-turreted Victorian house in Cramer Hill. He set about restoring it. And he threw himself into the city's history, past and present.

At 57, Hagan is a wiry, energetic, unabashed Camden enthusiast, who offers spontaneous tours of what he calls "classic Camden." He begins at the Christus Lutheran church, a soaring granite structure built in 1887, with stained glass windows and a rich wooden interior. Soaking in the beauty as he plays keyboard on Sundays, Hagan says he might be in any great city in the world.

Driving through the streets, he points to other treasures: the historical society; the house where Whitman lived, now a museum; the poet's grave tucked into a knoll in the lush, wooded Harleigh Cemetery; the Walt Whitman Arts Center, a majestic, neoclassical building that rises over an ornate park, with fountains and whimsical statues of Peter Pan and nursery rhyme characters.

Inside, artistic director Robert McFarland is giving a voice lesson to a young opera singer. Her clear soprano voice fills the theater.

In a nearby office, executive director Pattricia Patino excitedly discusses plans for a rap concert with a 17-year-old intern who dreams of a career representing rap artists.

"There is so much good in Camden," says Patino, originally from the Dominican Republic. "So much creativity. And yet the city is portrayed so negatively."

It is as if, she says, people see only the stain on a shirt "without seeing that the shirt is woven from the finest silk."

Back on his tour, Hagan meets up with his friend and neighbor 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.

"I didn't see the blight," she says. "Just the opportunities."

Cortes, 55, a former social worker, met Hagan in 2004 during a fierce and prolonged battle to save their neighborhood. For several years the city considered using eminent domain to take hundreds of homes and build a housing project complete with golf course on Cramer Hill. The project was eventually abandoned. The battle sealed their friendship as well as their commitment to their city. Cortes plans to run for city council next year.

Cortes 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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Father Doyle stubbornly clings to hope for Camden though he admits that if it wasn't for yearly retreats to Ireland he doesn't think he could have survived "this city of brokenness". But he is sure of his mission.

"My job," he says, "is noticing and acknowledging miracles."

These are some of Doyle's miracles: the child who writes a heartfelt note about how much she loves the Sacred Heart school, because it is the one place she feels safe; the Heart of Camden housing program which rehabilitates abandoned houses into housing for the poor (Doyle started the program by buying one house for $3,000 years ago); the fishing pier that he fought for so kids could have a sliver of access to the water; the newly opened theater a block away; the thrift shop and soup kitchen. And his proudest project yet - a massive gym and recreational center under construction just a short walk from the church. A wealthy benefactor donated the money. Doyle calls it "a temple of hope."

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.

Marianna Emanuele, a retired social worker who worked for years in the slums of Nairobi, recently found herself ducking in her living room when she heard gunfire, something that has never happened before. Reverend Wiggins canceled evening Bible study because congregation members were afraid to walk to church at night. And Girl Scout leader Allison Del Duke, who has cleaned out crack houses with her 15-year-old daughter as part of the volunteer program, told her family to avoid Camden for now. Reluctantly, she also made her daughter cancel plans to go to the new theater.

"It's sad," says Del Duke, who lives in a nearby town. "You don't want to give up and walk away, because then it feels like the drug lords have won."

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Every November, Sacred Heart church holds a special service for the victims of violence. One by one the names of those killed the previous year are read aloud, as a family member lights a candle and mourners pray and weep.

This year, the first candle will be for Anjanea Williams, the young woman gunned down outside Frank's deli on Jan. 20.

She was affectionally known as "Nay Nay" - this gentle young woman who loved rap music and poetry readings and walking by the waterfront, who had dreamed of one day opening her own day-care center.

She left behind a younger brother and sister and a heartbroken mother.

"I feel let down by my city," says Latonya Williams, her voice breaking. "I did everything right, raised my kids right, taught them the importance of going to school and having a job."

After the shootings family members urged Williams to leave, to join them in North Carolina or Georgia. And,in those first terrible days, all she wanted to do was flee.

And then she witnessed the enormous outpouring of love and support from her community, saw the hundreds of people who braved a monstrous snowstorm to attend the funeral, saw the cards and candles piled up on her stoop. In Anjanea's happy, smiling face - beaming from a collage of photographs collected by her family and included in her funeral program - she found all the inspiration she needed to stay.

"I see that face and the beaming life that was her and I think, that is what Camden can be," says the grieving mother. "And I think, that is why I want to stay here. I want to live to see the day when Camden can be safe, when people can smile about their city again."

© 2011 The Associated Press