"They were trying to destroy a community," he said of Bryant and those who supported a controversial $1.2 billion redevelopment plan.
"They just wanted our land," added Mary Cortes, 56, a former City Council candidate who has been in the neighborhood since 1988 and who remains leery of any redevelopment plan proposed by "outsiders."
Bryant, 64, a Democrat whose district included Camden, faces charges that he accepted $192,000 in legal fees from an attorney for Cherokee Investment Partners, which proposed the Cramer Hill plan in 2004.
In exchange, the indictment alleges, Bryant used his influence in the Legislature to look out for the interests of the developer - which had two other billion-dollar projects in the works in New Jersey - rather than those he was elected to serve.
Authorities say neither Bryant nor his law firm did any legal work for Cherokee, which had hoped to turn part of Cramer Hill into a riverfront community of high-priced houses, fancy marinas, and a plush golf course.
Along the way, according to the plan, nearly 1,200 families would have lost their homes via eminent domain.
"It was a backroom, dirty deal," said Mike Hagan, 58, another lifelong resident and member of the Cramer Hill Residents Association.
Faced with strong community opposition and snagged on legal technicalities, the project eventually fell apart.
Bryant and a North Jersey lawyer working for the North Carolina developer were indicted in 2010. The charges confirmed what those on the street had suspected: The proposal was not designed to help the community, but to exploit it.
Hagan, Cortes, and Santiago say the community is more hopeful today than it was six years ago. But they worry that redevelopment, particularly along the Delaware River, is still a political football.
"The greed that he choked on?" Hagan said of Bryant. "There was plenty of that to go around."
He and the others say Bryant's alleged actions were part of a larger betrayal by city, county, and state officials who backed Cherokee. As a result, the community remains cautious and distrustful.
"People are looking for who is hiding behind the curtain," said Manny Delgado, director of the Cramer Hill Community Development Corp. The nonprofit has endorsed Cramer Hill Now, a proposal approved by city planners two years ago to rebuild, not re-create, the neighborhood.
Recognizing the community's concerns, Delgado said his organization was moving slowly.
In 2011, it built 14 infill houses - constructed on vacant lots in existing neighborhoods. Twenty will be built this year, and 20 properties are to be rehabbed.
A million-dollar reclamation and expansion project is planned for oft-flooded Von Neida Park in the center of the community.
Unlike the Cherokee proposal, there is no plan to use eminent domain to level blocks of houses. The landfill site that was to be Cherokee's golf course is earmarked for ball fields, parkland, and a possible boardwalk to provide public access to the waterfront.
The Salvation Army, with a multimillion-dollar grant from the charitable Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, named for the founders of McDonald's, already is clearing 24 acres of the landfill for a recreation and community center and park.
"That's beautiful," Santiago said. "It was going to be a golf course, part of a gated community. Now it will be for the community."
The idea is to rebuild the neighborhood "block by block" and earn the confidence of the residents, Delgado said. "There's a lot of trepidation."
He recognizes that Bryant's pending trial, with expected testimony from some of the major political players of the day, will create new buzz in the neighborhood and maybe reopen old wounds.
Melvin "Randy" Primas, Joseph Salema, and Susan Bass Levin were among the politicos who testified before a grand jury and who could be called at trial.
Primas, a former Camden mayor, was the city's state-appointed chief operating officer from 2002 until he resigned in 2006. He was the point man for New Jersey's Economic Recovery Act, which advocates said would revitalize the city and which opponents described as a state takeover.
Bass Levin, a former Cherry Hill mayor, was the state Community Affairs commissioner during the period.
Salema, a longtime political operative and strategist with ties to Camden County's powerful Democratic organization, worked as a consultant for Cherokee.
Bryant is in jail, serving a four-year sentence after his conviction in 2008 for funneling more than $10 million in state aid to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for a low-show job that required little work and padded his public benefits.
Prosecutors have described him as a legislator who put his own interests ahead of those of his constituents.
"I saw him at one meeting" where citizens confronted those behind the Cherokee project, Cortes said of Bryant. "Just, 'Hello, goodbye.' He waved us off."
Santiago said he, Cortes, and Hagan often were turned away from community meetings at which those advocating the plan were speaking. "They didn't want to hear what I had to say," Santiago said.
Hagan, whose home at the end of 32d Street, near the river, dates to the turn of the last century, said he was prepared to fight the bulldozers. He is still amazed that the residents prevailed.
"First we said, 'No,' " he said. "Then we said, 'Hell no.' "
Camden is not perfect, he is the first to acknowledge.
"Look around," he said with a trace of sarcasm in his voice. "It's clear to anyone that what this city needs is a golf course. . . . That would solve all our problems."
Hagan, a former musician who is a housepainter, said his city was not New York.
"It's not the Big Apple," he said, smiling. "It's 'the Big Onion.' There are layers upon layers" of hopes and promises, fears and problems. "It will make you cry. But it's my home. I love it."
The Cramer Hill Community Development Corp. has been more receptive to the residents' concerns, he and the others say.
But Cortes said she was not entirely sold on Cramer Hill Now. She worries the development plan might be "Cherokee by another name."
Bryant betrayed the community, she said, and justice will be served if he is convicted.
As important, she said, his trial could provide a look into how politics, development, and government interact.
Her concern, she said, is that though the players have changed, the way the game is played hasn't.
Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.