Kevin Riordan: Ambivalence in Camden over the latest round of bad news

Posted: October 03, 2012

There was a song in 1994 called "A View of Camden" about a Philadelphia woman whose apartment overlooked the Delaware River and a New Jersey city she could hardly see.

People living in Camden in 2012 say they, too, can barely recognize the city - particularly in recent headlines about horrifying crimes, floundering schools, and pervasive poverty. There's also that counter-intuitive plan to replace the city police department with a new county force.

Posts on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere bemoan the media's focusing on the city's potentially record-breaking homicide toll (48 so far this year) while ignoring the positive side of Camden.

Reaction to the growing notoriety is quieter than local indignation was after the 60 Minutes installment of 1983, the Time magazine cover of 1992, or the 20/20 series of 2007, which laid on the melodrama about many of the same topics.

As grassroots groups held antiviolence vigils Monday as part of a Stop Trauma on People (STOP) campaign designed, in part, to draw public attention, some citizens remained ambivalent about the spotlight's glare.

"It's important to talk about the unacceptability of what's going on, the violence and dysfunction," says Angel M. Osorio, a facilitator for the city's District Council Advisory Board, which deals with public safety.

"But just painting Camden as a horrible place serves no purpose, because it doesn't move the city forward."

The media "continues the message that the city is pretty much out of control, and that there's not a whole lot of hope that things can be different," adds Osorio, who helped organize the STOP campaign.

"The positive stories need to be at the forefront. Without them, you can't generate the kind of enthusiasm you need to create change."

Visuals of vacant skyscrapers and other post-apocalyptic structures make Detroit the arguable champion of "ruin porn," what some have called the media's prurient depiction of urban misery. But images of Camden's beleaguered rowhouses make frequent appearances, too.

YouTube videos about the city of 77,000 tend toward titles such as "One of America's Most Notorious Ghettos" - not the raw material for an image-building campaign.

"Some people in the city think it's worse than the way the media portrays it. A lot of times I feel that way," says East Camden resident Dwayne Davis, who ran for mayor in the 1990s.

"A lot of stuff that's real sad doesn't get reported, and a lot of the positive things that happen [in Camden] are more like cosmetic," he says. "They can have a wonderful ballpark and a nice game and fireworks, but it's not helping the city really. There's a nice-looking park in front of City Hall. So what?"

Now, I happen to love that park. It replaced the awful (and empty) Parkade Building and offers a photogenic locale for public events - such as STOP's vigil for murder victims.

But it's fair to ask what difference a bit of downtown greenery can make in the face of recent Census statistics showing that median income in Camden now is the lowest of any city in America.

"Reality is reality . . . facts are facts, and we have to wrestle with them," says Barbara Coscarello, speaking as a longtime resident, not as the school board member she is. "Until we can get our arms around this crime problem, Camden is never going to change.

"We're not drilling deep enough to address the needs of our children and families," she adds. "What do you do? You start bottom-up."

I suggest that one place to start is for people to accept responsibility for their behavior, their lives, themselves.

"I agree with that 100 percent, and I understand why other taxpayers are very upset with having money taken out of their pocket for failed and failing programs in communities like Camden," Coscarello says. "Of course you need to make people accountable, and hold them to high standards. But you also have to give people training, and support."

Davis worries less about news reports and more that his teenage daughter and later generations won't know how different things used to be.

But unlike older folks with memories of a bustling Broadway and churning industries, Davis, 50, is nostalgic for Camden in the '80s. "Back when things were nowhere near as bad as they are."

Now, there's a sad story.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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