Amid crushing poverty and crime, Camden fights on

Charles Shambry with nephew and niece Ryan and Raniya. A former drug dealer, he now struggles to make a living. His children, 15-year-old twins, are in school and have mentors, and he wants both to go to college. "Jail ain't where it at no more," he tells his son.
Charles Shambry with nephew and niece Ryan and Raniya. A former drug dealer, he now struggles to make a living. His children, 15-year-old twins, are in school and have mentors, and he wants both to go to college. "Jail ain't where it at no more," he tells his son. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: February 11, 2013

The view outside the Woodland Avenue Presbyterian Church is much nicer than when the Rev. Floyd White arrived in Camden 25 years ago. A new school has replaced the parking lot across the street, and a quaint housing project was built a few blocks down, with suburban-style sidewalks and streetlights.

But the neighborhood improvements can't mask the city's continuing economic downturn. Camden is poorer now than ever before, and long-timers, including White, are skeptical the city has reached rock bottom.

The latest census ranks Camden as the poorest city in the nation, with an estimated 42 percent of its population living in poverty, compared with 36 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate was 18.6 percent in 2012, compared with 8.1 percent nationally.

White's Morgan Village neighborhood has "less money now, less resources," he said. "Just less people working. It's a great challenge."

The recession pushed Camden deeper into poverty. But Camden has been on a downward spiral since the 1969 race riots, when thousands of residents fled to the suburbs.

The Inquirer spoke to national poverty experts, and more than a dozen residents, entrepreneurs, clergy, employees, and volunteers in the city to assess the decline of a city in Philadelphia's shadow.

"I don't think there's an example in American history that has the poverty level that Camden has," said Alan Berube, deputy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. "It's a question of whether Camden can function again."

What some experts call the city's vicious cycle is kept spinning by high unemployment, failing schools, a depleted tax base, and violence so bad even some longtime advocates are beginning to despair.

Camden closed out 2012 with a record 67 homicides - a per capita rate four times higher than Philadelphia's. In January, Camden's 2011 crime rate landed the city at the top of the CQ Press' annual "most dangerous" city ranking.

Yet amid the poverty and gunfire, 77,000 people still call the city home: single parents struggling to make ends meet; teachers and firefighters who have found affordable housing; and idealistic young professionals, whose presence and investment could turn the city around.

All share the concern of raising a family in a troubled city.

"Safety and education. To the extent those are missing, it will make it very hard to get investments" in Camden, said Paul A. Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers University's Camden campus. "People who end up staying are people who can't afford to leave."

Despite Camden's bleak statistics, investors such as Philadelphia developer Carl Dranoff and KIPP charter school have plans to revitalize Camden. Anchor institutions Rutgers-Camden, which has about 6,500 students, and Cooper University Hospital are expanding their footprints and their missions to try to lure back the middle class.

"If Camden had another 30,000 residents, all of its problems would be solved," Dranoff said.

So far, however, progress is slow.

Dealing to pay the rent

Charles Shambry, who earns less than $17,916 a year - the national poverty threshold for a household of three - babysitting and cleaning houses, is one of the thousands of Camden residents whose prison record makes finding a job difficult.

He has applied unsuccessfully to fast-food restaurants and gas stations.

Growing up in Camden with 16 brothers and sisters, Shambry has been dependent on food stamps for much of his life. His father owned an auto-repair shop but struggled to make enough to pay rent for the business and home and provide for 19 people.

At 13, Charley Shambry was impressed by his girlfriend's brother's drug-dealing lifestyle and joined him in North Camden. It was quicker cash than working at his father's repair shop.

After throwing a Molotov cocktail at a Burlington County house as part of a friend's revenge plot, Shambry, then 16, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Once he returned home, he detailed cars, but when that got slow, he sold marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. "I had to sell to pay rent," he said.

Decades later and having pledged not to sell drugs again, Shambry, 45, is again unemployed, still unskilled, and trying to raise his 15-year-old twins, Charley Jr. and Estelle. Shambry splits his rent with his brother in Bergen Square, one of the roughest sections of the city, and babysits part time.

"Jail ain't where it at no more," he tells his son.

Charley Jr. goes to Camden County Technical Schools and Estelle to Camden High. Both have mentors and are involved in after-school activities. Shambry wants them to go to college and not end up as he did.

On a recent rainy morning, while the twins were in school, Shambry had the oven open and set at 350 degrees. His heat was turned off after he couldn't pay his bill.

"It was getting a little cold in here," he said as he watched over his 2-year-old niece and nephew sleeping on the couch.

"Wild, wild west'

Sometimes in Camden, even a job does not guarantee shelter and food.

Tangela Edwards, who heads one of Camden's 5,800 single-mother households, is raising her 11-year-old son, Da'Ron Moss, in public housing.

Because of a lack of jobs in Camden, she drives to Mount Laurel to work as a contract administrator at a BMW dealership, where she earns $28,000.

"What I make doesn't really cover it," said Edwards, 36, who does not qualify for food stamps and turns to pantries when money runs short.

Having a car is extremely expensive in Camden, where theft rates drive insurance up. She pays $263 a month to insure her 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt.

Edwards grew up in Camden's Parkside neighborhood, where drug dealers frequented the corners. But the current violence, she said, is worse than it had ever been. People are desperate and fend for themselves.

"It's like the wild, wild West out here," she said, adding that she keeps her son indoors. "With everything going on outside, I don't want him to get caught up with that stuff."

After school, Da'Ron attends White's Woodland Community Development Corp. Literacy Program, where he gets a snack and does his homework. He recently received a scholarship to Settlement Music School, where he takes clarinet lessons. He also is involved with youth football and basketball.

The city has hundreds of outreach and education programs through churches and nonprofit groups. Edwards and Shambry head families among the few that have the discipline to keep their children involved, organizers say.

Survival mode

Camden's statistics are stark: Nearly one resident in five is unemployed. Camden's high school graduation rate dropped from 56 percent in 2011 to 49 percent last year. Some experts say that if it took the city 50 years to get this way, recovering could take decades.

Camden firefighter Andy Delgado, 32, was born and raised in the city. Though many of his friends have moved to the suburbs, he decided to buy a house in East Camden.

"I live like a king," he said, thanks to the low cost of living in Camden. He paid about $48,000 for his three-bedroom house, which had been part of a rehab project by St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, an East Camden nonprofit redevelopment group.

His 6-year-old daughter goes to Davis Elementary School and is doing well, thanks, in part, to her stay-at-home mother, who helps with homework.

"I plan to stay in the city but maybe not too much longer," Delgado said, citing frustration with city leadership.

He wishes city grant money would go toward adult education and job programs to help employ Camden residents so they could similarly provide for their children.

"A lot of city grant money goes to the hospitals and waterfront. . . . None of it benefits citizens," Delgado said.

The money that does trickle down to the city's nonprofit agencies doesn't go very far, those involved say.

"We have tons of programs, but people are asking for jobs and housing," said Judyann McCarthy, senior program director of adolescent counseling at the Center for Family Services in Camden. She worked to match the Shambry twins with mentors and after-school sports leagues. "Right now, it's really tough. Basic needs need to be met."

Keith Benson sees the effects of poverty in his classroom at Camden High, where he runs a career readiness program. Many of his students' parents are unemployed; some are homeless.

"It's hard to get kids to focus when they are in survival mode," said Benson, 32, who advocates for more social services in the schools and more jobs in the city.

Benson, one of the few Camden High teachers who live in the city, grew up in Cherry Hill and graduated from Moorestown Friends School. After earning a bachelor's degree at Rutgers-Camden in 2003, he decided to stay in the city.

His 9-year-old daughter lives with her mother in the city's fairly stable Parkside neighborhood. She attends Cooper's Poynt School in North Camden and loves it. So far, she is excelling.

Once she gets to middle or high school, though, Benson might rethink living in Camden, he said.

He would not be alone.

"Camden was produced, in a sense, by people leaving," said Rutgers' Jargowsky. "It's a vicious cycle. The worse it gets, the more people leave."

Developers' vision

For years, developers have worked to restore Camden's appeal to the middle class, but success has been elusive.

Philadelphia's Dranoff made his initial investment on the Camden waterfront in 2002 with the idea that he would transform various parcels into a "village" of housing and retail.

A decade later, only the Victor Lofts apartment building on Market Street is completed. Radio Lofts next door remains a shell undergoing environmental cleanup before its promised transformation into luxury condominiums.

Dranoff says he remains confident that the waterfront's attributes, including a direct view of the Philadelphia skyline, will attract people and businesses.

"People want to make investments," he said. "They are hoping for a Camden turnaround."

The hope is that employees or students at the "Meds and Eds" such as Rutgers-Camden, Cooper University Hospital, and the recently opened Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, will live nearby and "spread over time" into adjacent neighborhoods, Jargowsky said.

A big impediment to restoring Camden's middle class is the city's struggling schools, said Maria E. Yglesias, cofounder of the Newark-based development company M&M, which is building housing near Cooper University Hospital.

Families have told Yglesias that if there were a guarantee of getting their kids in a charter school, "they wouldn't think twice about moving to Camden," she said.

KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy renaissance school hopes to open in the area near Cooper Hospital in 2014. Camden has nine charter schools now, with at least three in the pipeline to open in 2013.

A new condo building opened in 2011 on New Street with hopes of attracting hospital employees to the one- and two-bedrooms units, ranging from $117,000 to $143,000. Eight of the 14 one-bedroom condos await buyers.

Most buyers interested in M&M projects have been families with roots in the city or who work in Camden.

"Bringing in the middle class is the best thing that can happen to Camden," Yglesias said. ". . . They are more demanding because they are more educated and will demand more from the city."

Now, according to figures provided by the employers, only about 10 percent of Cooper Health System's 4,500 employees and of Rutgers-Camden's 1,100 employees live in the city. Just more than 1 percent of Campbell Soup's 1,300 employees live in Camden.

Rutgers-Camden graduate students and Cooper Medical School students favor the Victor building, where one-bedroom apartments start at $1,025, about $400 less than a one-bedroom rental in Center City Philadelphia. The building is at least 90 percent occupied, Dranoff said.

The exodus of residents over the last two decades has left the city with too little revenue to deliver basic services. It now relies each year on 70 percent of its budget from state aid.

Dranoff attributes Camden's "temporary" troubles and slow growth to instable government over the last decade when Camden went from a corrupt mayor to state takeover and back to local control.

"The city has done a great job despite the negativity," he said.

Real estate investor and landlord Joseph Caruso, who has sunk $20 million into the city, among 270 units including three housing complexes, does not share Dranoff's optimism: "You need a hole in your head to invest in the city," he said.

Caruso, who also has property in Florida, Tennessee, and other states, bought his first Camden property in 1992 when he was right out of Rutgers-Camden Law School and thought Camden had hit bottom. Nothing comes close to Camden's dysfunction, he said on a recent tour of his holdings in his white Range Rover.

"The city's issue is a jiggly doorknob on my property but not the illegal junk yard across the street," he said, pointing to an overgrown lot strewn with metal objects and trash.

When Caruso started investing in Camden, 10 percent of his housing stock was Section 8 low-income rental assistance; now his housing stock is 95 percent Section 8.

"The problem is if anyone can actually pay rent, they don't want to live in Camden," Caruso said.

Young professionals

For some idealistic young professionals, however, Camden has a certain small-town charm. Plus, houses are affordable.

When Sonia Rivera-Perez was ready to purchase her first home in 2008, she found Philadelphia's prices out of reach. Familiar with Camden from her days as a Rutgers student, she found a great deal: $214,000 for a new rowhouse in the Cooper Grant neighborhood.

"Coming from Philly to living in my neighborhood, it's like living in the suburbs," said Rivera-Perez, 30.

During the week, Rivera-Perez commutes to her job in Trenton as a budget analyst for the state. On the weekends, she and her live-in boyfriend go out in Philadelphia.

Harvard University graduate Kathryn Ribay, 28, "fell in love with the city" in 2006 while working for Teach for America, where she also met her husband, Randy, 29..

"For me, it has a lot of that small-town feel without . . . cows around," she said.

Just before getting married in 2008, the couple purchased a home in the city's Fairview section for $95,000. A few months later, the couple went to Harvard University, where each attained a master's degree in education.

When they returned to Camden, they could not find teaching jobs in the city. Kathryn ended up at nearby Collingswood High and Randy at Boys' Latin Charter School in Philadelphia.

Kathryn was appointed to the Camden Board of Education in 2011. The couple are involved with a community garden, and they try to support local businesses, even one of the few artists who has stuck around Camden.

Sometimes, though, their nights at home are interrupted by random popping noises. "This is a game we play: firecracker or gunshot?" Randy Ribay said.

For now, the Ribays feel at home in Camden, but they "do have those conversations" of what might happen when they have children.

"I'd like to say, 'Yes, of course, we'll stay,' but . . . I don't know if that will change when I have kids," Kathryn said.

Rivera-Perez expressed the same concern: Education "would definitely be a factor" in remaining in Camden.

Based on student academic-achievement scores, 23 of the district's 26 schools ranked last year among the 75 worst-performing in New Jersey.

One of Camden's biggest cheerleaders, Msgr. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church, says he doesn't blame people who leave to raise their children elsewhere.

"Camden isn't worthy of having children grow up in," said Doyle, 78. "It's a huge injustice to children, and you only get one childhood."

Doyle's increasingly bleak outlook arises out of three decades of witnessing the effects of government and social policies that concentrate poor in urban areas. The last 20 years have been especially "ferocious," with the prevalence of drugs and crime that follow, he said.

"I would have more hope if you would take drugs out," Doyle said. "It's a national tragedy."

Hope drew Shawn Burke to Camden six years ago; lack of progress drove him out to Collingswood in 2011.

"There was a sense of community and a sense of Camden going somewhere," Burke, 27, said.

Burke bought a new rowhouse in 2006 not far from Rutgers-Camden while he was an undergraduate at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

In 2009, he opened a real estate firm on the 200 block of Market Street, which had been vacant for many years, and worked to develop the block. He served on various boards and call-to-action groups.

"As Camden does, it sucks you in," Burke said.

Five years later, discouraged by an unsuccessful run for City Council in which he encountered what he called poor government choices and hopeless residents, Burke gave up.

"The city is literally falling apart, and they are worried about bringing in Bobby Flay and office space. . . . It's like, am I on Punk'd?" Burke said. "Camden is the only place that will attract yuppies and other artists and in two years drive them out."

Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917, cvargas@, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at

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