The entrepreneur charges through the dark, dank historic building at the entrance to Camden, speaking excitedly of its potential and bemoaning the vandals who he says tried to get to him by destroying it.
He is a large man with a wide gait, a gleaming bald head, and a thick Israeli accent that belies the more than 25 years he has lived in Cherry Hill – now in a home built with imported Jerusalem stone.
With broken glass crunching under his feet, he looks around his 1927 Classical Revival structure – known as the Sears building – and asserts that he won’t be pushed aside by political insiders who run a Fortune 500 firm with $8 billion in annual revenue.
“I was never afraid of taking on challenges,” says the man, Ilan Zaken.
So far, Zaken has put up a remarkable challenge to his formidable foe, the Campbell Soup Co., whose political connections and civic goodwill date to its founding in the city in 1869.
Campbell wants to buy the 110,000- square-foot historic landmark on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, via eminent domain if necessary, and knock it down for an office complex it is developing next to its growing world headquarters. It has won financial support from state officials, approvals from city boards, and challenges in court.
Yet somehow, with help from two savvy attorneys and a litigious city activist, Zaken has delayed these plans, thumbed his nose at the government, and become more than just a fly in Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.
The massive two-story structure, whose yellowed bricks and columns have been a popular target of graffiti artists, sits alone just past the Benjamin Franklin Bridge – beautiful in a classical sense, but dilapidated in its current state.
For passengers in the 79,000 vehicles that travel the boulevard each weekday between Philadelphia and South Jersey, it provides a glimpse of what Camden once was, and it tells the story of this town.
The Sears, Roebuck & Co. location opened in 1927, when department stores were showplaces and shoppers did their buying in cities. The bridge had opened a year earlier, and Philadelphians were attracted by the store’s 600-space lot.
The store closed in 1971, when the wheels had begun to fall off the once-thriving city. Sears followed the money east and opened in the Moorestown Mall.
Camden was left with a buzz word – redevelopment – and a debate over what that meant. That debate has framed the story of the shell Sears left behind.