South Korean journalists focus their cameras on Camden

Posted: February 25, 2012

Cruising the city in their silver Honda Odyssey van, a trio of South Korean journalists looked around Camden in awe.

The poverty. The abandonment. The open-air drug markets.

"In Seoul, because it's the capital, we have some crime. But we do not have this kind of serious crime," said Yurie Kim, Washington-based coordinator for the Korean Broadcasting System, the largest South Korean television network.

The group was in Camden this week to tape a 50-minute documentary on the effect of the economic downturn in the United States.

Camden, 7,000 miles from their homeland, came to the group's attention a year ago when the impoverished city of 77,000 cut its budget so deeply that its library system was eliminated. Then came massive layoffs of municipal workers - 168 police officers, 67 firefighters, and 113 other employees.

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd acquired state and federal funding to rehire more than 100 public safety personnel. The city has joined the Camden County library system, and though its large downtown library remains closed, the Ferry Avenue branch reopened as part of the county system. A branch on the Rutgers-Camden campus is expected to open this spring.

Camden is doing "a little better," like the economy, Kim pointed out.

"We researched a lot of news reports" from the United States, she said.

The South Korean economy is heavily influenced by the United States, and most people there keep a close eye on U.S. politics and financial and social issues, said Sungsoo Kim, an accounting professor at Rutgers-Camden School of Business and no relation to Yurie Kim.

"The U.S. is still one of the most important trading partners for South Korea," Kim said. A documentary about how Camden is recovering from one of the "worst economic situations" could give South Koreans a positive impression of the country's ability to bounce back, he said.

"The South Korean economic boom was possible in part due to the high quality of education and manpower" of Koreans "trained in the U.S. for the last half-century," Sungsoo Kim said.

The video crew, which included producer Taeho Yun and camera technician Kevin Nha, met with Camden leaders, residents, and business owners during a four-day visit that concluded Friday.

The group started with Frank Fulbrook, a longtime activist and former city library board member, who took them to the closed downtown library at 418 Federal St. And they saw the bedraggled Carnegie Library on Broadway, which has a tree growing through it and has no roof.

As they drove, they saw the bounty of boarded-up and abandoned properties.

"It's like a whole city abandoned its residents," Yurie Kim said later.

Fulbrook also took them to Little Slice New York Pizza downtown to speak to the owner about running a business in Camden.

From residents, the journalists said, they got a sense of what helps Camden residents persevere: music and prayer.

When Yun walked into the Cramer Hill home of civic activist Mary Cortes on Wednesday, she handed him a CD of Puerto Rican boleros.

"Here's some music for you," Cortes said, explaining that boleros are popular with the city's Latino population.

Then she showed Yun printouts of property assessments and taxes to illustrate the burden on residents since last year's 10 percent increase in the municipal levy.

"Look at this," Cortes said as Nha's cameras zoomed in on the numbers.

The following day, the journalists went to North Camden, notorious for its violent crime and open-air drug markets.

They stopped to speak with the Rev. Heyward Wiggins III, pastor of Camden Baptist Tabernacle Church, a small congregation at Eighth and Elm Streets, across from open drug-dealing.

After Nha set up the camera and Wiggins was positioned before the altar, Yun asked: "What's the reason Camden is second-most-dangerous city" in the country?

Poverty and lack of jobs, said Wiggins, who grew up in Camden and has been pastor of his church for 15 years. When he spoke of the city residents' low incomes, Kim scrunched her face and let out an "oh."

According to the census, the median income for workers in the city was $21,349 in 2010, and unemployment was almost 22 percent. In South Korea last year, unemployment was less than 3.5 percent.

"Industry is gone, jobs are gone," Wiggins says. "People have to find a way to make a living, so crime escalates."

After hearing stories of mothers losing their sons to street violence, Yun asked the pastor what he prays for and the message he tries to send his flock.

"Hope, faith," Wiggins said. "Keep that hope alive."

The journalists' last stop was the mayor's office Friday. They will edit their footage in Washington and send it back to South Korea.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or @InqCVargas on Twitter. Read her blog: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/camden_flow/

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