Despite rising tide of violence, they're standing by Camden
November 29, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
Camden broke its homicide record a month before the end of the year.
At Sacred Heart Church in South Camden, that meant reading the names of the dead one by one at the annual Murder Victims Mass took even longer than usual.
While some offer prayers, others offer the reasons that they stick by the city now best known for its deadly crime problem.
Feeling safe in the company of good people
Jean Kehner has a message for people who haven't been to her city. "Come to Camden." she says. "There's a lot of good people here, really. The ones who are causing problems are in the minority."
The 84-year-old stands in the doorway of her North Camden home, tucked in the middle of an intact block of two-story row houses. Kehner, who lives her by herself, has two locks on her front door. She also wedges a bar under the door handle.
During her childhood, little girls played jacks and jumped rope on Camden streets. Kehner says she feels safe now even though it's a very different city. She belongs to more community improvement groups than she can remember. Despite failing eyesight, she gets to meetings with the help of her walker.
"I have people today who feel as though I don't know where I'm going and what I'm doing. And they come running up to me and they want to know where I'm going, what am I doing at Fourth and Erie," she says.
"Well, I've got a meeting. They probably think, 'She's so damn old! What's she doing alone?'"
Kehner says she's not alone -- there are others in Camden who remain dedicated to this city.
"I'm involved with people who are interested in the city," she says. "They're interested in seeing improvements."
It's been years since crime has touched Kehner directly. Once, when her daughter was young, a burglar stole her family's Christmas presents. Another time, Kehner struggled to keep thieves from stealing her purse.
She says the bag held only an apple core and her glasses, but she didn't want to lose it to thieves.
"I'm not somebody who's going to give up anything," she declares.
That includes her home city.
Dependable hardware and neighborhood
A 10-minute drive away, longtime Camden resident David Garrison is at work at his hardware store in East Camden. He says the place is a bit of a fixture in this city,
"Carton Hardware, it's been at this location in Camden since 1913. So we will be 100 years old next year," Garrison said. "It's an old-time, inner city hardware store. A lot of parts and repair parts so you don't have to purchase a brand new faucet, you can purchase parts for an existing faucet."
Garrison grew up in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. He moved out of the city but still runs the business. When he bought the store in 1979, Garrison says he knew Camden was on a downward slide. But he anticipated being a part of the city's revitalization. Decades later, he's still here.
He has a close relationship with the police and says his business hasn't suffered the much from crime.
"I've been here my whole life, so it's the normal for me. But when you go outside the area and you tell someone you're from Camden they look at you like, 'Are you crazy? Why do you stay?'
"But we know the customers, we know the neighborhood and we don't have any problems." he says.
Garrison says being in this poor city has molded his business. In more affluent areas, homeowners might call a plumber or an electrician. His customers can't afford to. They walk in, explain their problems and look for guidance on making their own repairs.
'Truly blessed to still be here'
Nearby, another tough and dedicated Camden lover is standing her ground even as she heads into old age.
Constance "Connie" Williams says everybody calls her Miss Connie. She's lived in Camden her entire life. At 72 and on oxygen for her emphysema, she stays active -- going for walks and heading out to community meetings.
She says she feels safe here.
"Everybody knows who I am and I do a lot of things in the community and everybody knows who I am and I'm very friendly with the police," she says. "Not ashamed to say it!"
"If you mess with Miss Connie, then you have a whole lot of other people to mess with," she warns.
Through the East Side Civic Association, Williams helps organize community activities. That includes events in the park across the street.
Asked if she anticipated living in Camden for her entire life, Williams laughs.
"Yes, because I didn't have no money to go nowhere else! Yes! But I'm truly blessed to still be here," she says. "I've been to different states and different cities but, to me, there's no place like East Camden. East Camden. This is East Side. I know all the neighbors! Everybody knows Miss Connie."
While everybody knows Miss Connie, not everyone backs her efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe.
Her 52-year-old son Aaron Williams says some people pushed the family to leave.
"We've had situations where people try to scare us -- throw threats out to try to get us to move out on account of some of the things that we do around here," he says.
Williams steps outside into the chilly air and surveys the sprawling park across the street. He's proud of what he sees.
"We got the double basketball courts," he points out. "We got the tennis court but right now the net is down. We have a spray pool and then we have the pavilion."
The civic organization's name is painted on a building next to the park and Williams says the group's trying to raise money to set up a community learning center.
He moved out of the city for awhile but came back.
Camden is home, he says.