The outlook is not bright for Camden, N.J., these days. It’s been a week since the city laid off about 400 workers — nearly half of them police officers and firefighters. Residents worry about safety, while union leaders and city officials try to negotiate deals. Could a trio of 20-somethings be the best hope for the city’s future?
On a recent cold weekday morning, business was steady inside the Family Tire Center Joshua Lopez runs in East Camden. Lopez, 25, and his brother run the family business. He says he tries to keep affordable products for his customers. Lopez, who grew up in North Camden, moved with his family moved out of the city when he was a teenager. While going to Rutgers-Camden, he says he started to see the division between the developed waterfront and the poverty and crime in the poor neighborhoods.
“What we’ve been taught is, you get a good job and you get out. You get out, you go to the suburbs or something. But I really want to stay,” says Lopez. “I think a lot of people are thinking about leaving … I think we need to stay and not leave because of the crime, and actually be a part of helping the city.”
Lopez has been back in North Camden for a year and a half, determined to help the city. His friend Felix Moulier, also 25, tells a similar story. Moulier and his family moved out of Camden when he was a teen because of high crime and poor schools. He returned in 2006.
“There’s a lot of potential in this city and it’s in need of young, energetic educated leaders and I’m one of those type people. I consider myself a natural-born leader,” says Moulier. “I’m currently serving as the chairperson of the District Council Collaborative Board. It’s a collaborative of community members, businesses, nonprofits, and city agencies. It’s basically to improve the quality of life and public safety.”
Moulier’s ambitions don’t end there.
“I moved back in the city to get residency to run for office in the near future, but I haven’t decided when just yet … City Council will be my first step,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to be mayor one day.”
Moulier, who has been attending City Council sessions, says he’s learned how complicated it is to get things done. He gets frustrated, but he stays, hoping to lure others back.
“Of course, as Americans, you want a better life. There’s not many things here right now. But I feel, if I stay behind, I can probably make things better to bring those people back,” says Moulier. His mother still lives in Pennsauken, but she’s proud of him for returning.
Inside Shawn Burke’s real estate business it’s neat and tidy. The old tile work tastefully hints of the past.
“I helped design the layout and the flooring and everything. I wanted it to look like a nice space that you would find in Haddonfield, Collingswood, bring a little bit of color and class to Market Street,” Burke explains.
Burke, also 25, grew up in the suburbs. Past generations of his family lived and worked in Camden. Like many others, his family fled the city’s crime and race riots decades ago.
“I moved back in 2007. As a young person who doesn’t have his own family, I’m more brazen and I’m willing to take risks,” says Burke. “But I can put myself in their shoes and wonder if I had kids, if I had a wife or a husband — whatever the case may be — I would be terrified. I would want them to be safe. And I would put their safety above all.”
Burke says that in order to thrive, Camden needs to re-establish a middle class.
“I’ve see what happens in Fishtown, Northern Liberties, it’s like this yuppie mecca. I would like to see that organically grow,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of folks here in Camden who are trying to force it because they see how miraculous, truly miraculous, it is over in Philly…I think if you offer art gallery spaces, and you offer really cool trendy places to eat, I think naturally it will happen.”
Burke’s office near Second and Market streets is just a few blocks from the waterfront tourist attractions and City Hall. This could be a great hub for revitalization. But right now, with shuttered businesses lining the streets, a Camden renaissance seems distant.
Burke says his first step is breathing life back into the buildings around his office. He hopes restaurants and shops will attract more people.
“My heart is really here. I want to do whatever I can through my work, both for profit and nonprofit, to really bring that middle-class crowd back,” he says.
When he first moved to Camden a few years ago, he says his family thought he was crazy. But now, after a few safe years and visits, the city’ is growing on them.
He says the city’s recent layoffs, including police, may make it even more of a challenge to attract people to Camden. But he’s going to keep trying.