Online home videos show Camden's happier times
November 26, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
Video by Charlie Kaier
Home videos about Camden, N.J., now being posted online show a very different kind of city. Instead of depicting poverty and violence, they show idyllic scenes in the "Yorkship Village," part of the Fairview neighborhood from the 1950s and '60s.
Michael Ruiz fondly remembers his childhood there and is posting the home videos his dad shot to give former residents and others a chance to see his old neighborhood.
"I was born in 1950, lived in Camden from 1950 to 1972. And during those years my dad was into taking movies using those old projectors," said Ruiz. "You wind them up, they're not constant in the speed, no sound. But still, they do caputre the spirit of the old days."
Many of Ruiz's memories are charming. "You had this town where you could get on a bicycle and you could explore the streets and the alleyways — it's just an ideal town for kids to grow-up. You could get everything you wanted right there in the square: two doctors, a dentist, a pharmacy, the grocery store, the deli, the hardware store."
Ruiz says he's still in love with the neighborhood he grew up in and is trying to share as many videos as possible online.
There's no talking in the home movies but there is a classical music score — giving the sometimes jumpy, grainy footage of ordinary family life, an artistic touch. The films show parades, children trick-or-treating on Halloween, an 18th birthday party and a high school graduation.
One is titled "Camden at night." "I remember that day we got in the car and my dad's like shooting through the car window. And then right after that we went to Kiddie Land — which I'm going to put up soon. Because Kiddie Land used to be right near one of the circles in Camden," said Ruiz. "Kind of like an amusement park — a small one — not as big as Clementon Park."
One home movie Ruiz posted, from Halloween 1957, shows a parade of masked kids in homemade costumes. Ruiz says people wouldn't think twice about opening the door and letting in a whole crowd of kids.
"My brother Den and Kenny — there's three of us in that Halloween video. Unfortunately my brother passed away at 50 so there's only two of us left now in the family. You can see the brother you loved in the movies and it helps bring him back to life for me."
The videos are personal for Ruiz, but posting them has also helped him connect with others who care about his old New Jersey neighborhood.
"I'm glad that my Dad left these. To have classmates I haven't seen in 40, 50 years to write me - that's awesome. And for example the Miss Fairview from 1958 or so I was talking to her niece," said Ruiz. "We connected over the Internet and she finally got to see the video of her when she was 17."
The Miss Fairview video shows motorcycles clearing the way for flag bearing marchers, a youth marching band, spectators in the apparel of the day, heavily decorated floats, a stream of children with bicycles and then, there she is: the dark-haired Miss Fairview holding a bouquet and wearing a red cape over a dramatic white dress with a big bell of a skirt. The women holding up her red cape look excited. The young boys standing next to her — not so much.
For Ruiz, the footage brings back a sense of community, "I really had that when I lived in that small little village there with all its charming alleys and roads and things and then when we left, it kind of feels like you don't have a hometown anymore." He added, "it's nice to have the first hometown again and the neighbors and the interaction again."
Ruiz knows Camden has fallen on hard times since he lived there. He remembers before his mother died, he asked her to move out, to someplace safer. She declined. She loved her life in Camden and refused to leave.
"I remember a few years ago it being number one for crime and I remember telling my mom. She always felt comfortable there. She knew her neighbors and she always felt that was her home." Ruiz says his mothers always felt her home was in Camden. "She was born on Atlantic Road in Camden, then since 1948 she lived in Fairview when she got married on her wedding day my dad carries her over the threshold and she stays there until she's 90." Ruiz says even after all those years, she loved her life in the Fairview section of Camden and wouldn't leave.
With just a few videos online so far, Ruiz says his work's far from over.
"They're a remarkable snapshot of the past and I'm trying to get as many up there as possible. Even - we got the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City [in 1964]." Ruiz said his Dad was there, on the boardwalk as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party made Civil Rights history, insisting on being seated at the convention. Ruiz said his father asked, "What's goin on here?" and started shooting footage.
Ruiz is also working on collecting and posting old maps and interviews with former residents including his own mother. He isn't the only former Yorkship Village residents interested in reconnecting with old neighbors. An online message board for past and present residents of Yorkship Village to post their memories offers a little slice of the community's past. Ruiz posts his home movies there when an online community has grown to nearly 700 members who sometimes include their old home addresses and the years they lived there. They share stories of childhood pranks: like lighting a bag full of gun powder and filling a baseball dugout with smoke. There are also sweet stories: like getting a surprise first kiss from a cute six year old named Maryanne. You can also find tales of aging and loss including a spouses death, remarriage, and suffering after a heart attack and stroke.