When state Sen. Nilsa Cruz Perez, D-Barrington, talks about Camden’s revitalization, she’s not coming at it from the perspective of some starry-eyed idealist who never set foot in the city.
Cruz Perez lived in Camden from 1995 to 2006, and knows full well how dangerous and crime-ridden it was for much of its modern history.
She saw a man die there once from gunshot wounds, about 20 years ago. She was walking around the neighborhoods, as she routinely did, and heard the shots. She saw a man running toward her, clutching at his bleeding neck. He collapsed to the ground. She felt for a pulse as she waited for the ambulance to arrive and knew that it was already too late.
That wasn’t an isolated incident, either. She’d see the yellow police tape set up around the sites of recent shootings. She’d see the dealers on the corners. She’d talk to the residents who were afraid to let their children out of the house to play — to be children — because they were afraid of stray bullets.
But even when things were at their worst, she saw potential in Camden. Many of the trouble-makers, she said, were from out-of-town. Crews of young men sent in from other cities to carve out territory for drug-dealing, by force if necessary. She said the vast majority of the city’s population was made up of decent people trying to get by, earn a living and raise their children in very difficult circumstances.
Cruz Perez described Camden as the kind of place where you could knock on a door if your car broke down, and be pretty well assured that the person who answered it would help you. “There are some fantastic, hard-working people,” she said.
Now, for the first time, she sees the commitment and capability to help Camden at all levels of government — city, county, state and federal. She wants to be a big part of that in the state Senate.
She said that she wants to do right by her entire district, and the entire state. But in a sense, she sees revitalizing Camden as helping to accomplish that broader goal. In recent years, Camden had become nationally notorious. The archetype of murderous urban blight. If people at the different levels of government can successfully turn Camden around, she hopes that might serve as a model for urban revitalization throughout the state. Maybe even throughout the country.
Sister Helen Cole agrees with her assessment that things are changing for the better in Camden, and sees Cruz Perez as a big part of that.
Cole founded Guadalupe Family Services in Camden, which helps local families in need. She said a community policing initiative, which includes increased numbers of officers and attempts to actively reach out to city residents, is producing observable results. That community policing recently got national attention when Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson testified before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in America.Cole compares the past situation in Camden to a car where at least one tire was always flat. Maybe it was a corrupt mayor or police chief, or an administration in Trenton or Washington that just didn’t care.
For the first time since she came to Camden in 1991, she said, all the tires are inflated and the car is ready to roll. In that equation, Cole said, Cruz Perez a good person to have representing the district as a state senator. “She knows the struggles of families in the community,” Cole said. “She is understanding and she is passionate.”
Other recent developments in Camden include the arrival of several corporate operations in exchange for tax breaks, including Subaru of America, Holtec International and Lockheed Martin.
Maria Yglesias is one of the principal founders of M&M Development, which is building townhouses in the city’s Cooper Plaza. She sees cities such as Camden and Newark as New Jersey’s economic future. They have the infrastructure and the location. They even have past histories of economic success. “If Camden can revitalize, every city can,” she said.
Cruz Perez said that when she was living there, she could still see the vestiges of the Camden that was once a commercial powerhouse for New Jersey. The home of RCA Victor and Campbell Soup. The thriving urban center of residential neighborhoods and cultural venues. “I believe the city can come back, and be the city it was in the past,” she said.
Cruz Perez was selected by Camden and Gloucester county Democrats in December to fill the remaining term of Donald Norcross. Norcross was elected to Congress in November. She represented Camden for 14 years as 5th District Assemblywoman from 1995 to 2010.
Her Senate committeesEconomic Growth, Vice-ChairJoint Committee on the Public SchoolsMilitary and Veterans’ AffairsTransportation
NJ’s 5th legislative district includes parts of Camden and Gloucester counties.
Towns: Audubon, Audubon Park, Barrington, Bellmawr,Brooklawn, Camden, Deptford, Gloucester City, Haddon Heights, Harrison (Gloucester),Lawnside, Magnolia, Mantua, Mount Ephraim, Runnemede, Wenonah, Westville,Woodbury, Woodlynne
This post is part of our South Jersey Politics Blog