Crosses honoring Camden's homicide victims stir controversy

In front of Camden City Hall, crosses are planted in tribute to the city's homicide victims, who totaled 57 on Thursday.
In front of Camden City Hall, crosses are planted in tribute to the city's homicide victims, who totaled 57 on Thursday. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 11, 2012

For weeks, a field of makeshift white crosses has grown in front of Camden City Hall in tribute to the city's homicide victims. The spot has taken on the solemnity of a cemetery. Some visitors leave flowers. Some talk to the names roughly painted on the crosses. Some shed tears.

Since the first crosses were planted Oct. 1 - an act of both mourning and protest by an antiviolence group - a new cross has gone up with each death. The killing Thursday of a 33-year-old man marked the 57th homicide this year, one shy of the record set in 1995.

The cross planting is intended in part to shame authorities into action. But now the crosses in the grass in Roosevelt Plaza are stirring discomfort of a different kind.

One city councilman says they are inadvertently underscoring the image of the city as a dangerous place, potentially discouraging visitors and business people.

"I don't want people to have the perception coming into our city, this is what we represent," Councilman Brian Coleman said in an interview Friday. "I want people to know that we are a thriving city that has some good opportunities, and that we're open for business."

Coleman said Council President Frank Moran had indicated to him that the crosses would be removed in time for a dedication ceremony in the plaza Tuesday at which City Hall is to be named for the late Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., the city's first African American mayor.

Moran did not return a phone call Friday. A spokesman for the city did not respond to an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment.

"We need to remember the dead, but we don't need to do it in that capacity at City Hall," Coleman said.

Ronald Ford Jr., who owns a tax-preparation service and a DNA paternity testing service across from City Hall, said he was not personally opposed to the field of crosses, saying it serves as a daily reminder to officials of the carnage in the city.

But he said customers have asked him about the crosses, and he said he could see how they could heighten fears among those already nervous about being in the city.

"If I was a first-time visitor to the city and I saw those crosses, I would think this is where a plane crashed," said Ford.

Stop Trauma on People, a community group, began planting the crosses to draw attention to the city's homicides - the number at the time stood at 48 - and to decry the daily trauma inflicted on residents by poverty and violence.

Organizers of the cross-planting campaign also scheduled a variety of events, including a peace walk and a dinner for family members of homicide victims.

The remembrance activities are to culminate in a year-end vigil led by Sister Helen Cole, a social worker with Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden, who started the observance in 1995.

The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, a member of STOP, said he understands that the crosses are making people uncomfortable. That's the point, he said.

"It's uncomfortable because people in Camden are being hurt, because people are being killed," said Putthoff, founder and director of Hopeworks, a North Camden nonprofit focused on youth development.

The crosses aren't the problem, he said, the suffering is.

The crosses hit home with Gary Peze, a real estate agent in Merchantville who stumbled upon them Friday as he walked from the county courthouse.

"You read about the numbers in the paper. This kind of puts faces on it for me," Peze said.

Peze, 64, said he felt "a sadness and an awareness of this . . . big problem" [Camden] has.

Coleman said he started to think about the image of the city that the crosses evoke after a visiting councilman from another city asked him if there was a graveyard in front of City Hall.

Kim Moody, a Camden County College student, said the cross-filled vista casts the city in a negative light to the throngs of people who pass the park and stream out of the nearby train station.

"It's depressing. I know it depresses me," she said.

But Diane Graulau, 52, whose son, Antonio Streater, 29, was fatally shot as he sat in a car in April in North Camden, said the park was the perfect place for the memorial.

"I think it's beautiful," she said while at the memorial Friday.

The argument is likely to be settled soon even if the city doesn't uproot the crosses. Angel Osorio, a member of STOP, said the plan is to clear out the field of crosses at the end of the year and present them to the families.


For an interactive map of Camden homicides, go to: www.philly.com/camdenhomicides


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or at dsimon@phillynews.com.

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