This is a guest post by Felisha Reyes Morton who is a Camden Councilwoman (and first Latina to represent the 4th Ward since redistricting), co-founding member of the North Camden Little League, and former Camden School District Advisory Board Vice President.
Years ago, the small city that I was born in, grew up in and went to school in was left for dead. Growing up in Camden’s Parkside neighborhood, I got to watch Diane Sawyer come to my town in 2007 to show the “worst” examples of urban decay in America, chronicling the lives of several of our children. In 2004, The New York Times chronicled how our streets went from “mean to meanest,” while the chief of the now defunct Camden Police Department, told the reporter, “I feel like I’m in Falluja.” During my freshman year of high school, right before New Year’s Eve, he compared my city to a war zone where the U.S. Marines were fighting to the nation.
Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author, Buzz Bissinger, noted in his book, A Prayer for a City, that while Philadelphia had its problems in the early 1990s, across the river, Camden City was a place facing perpetual doom. And who could ever forget the Rolling Stone Magazine headline, Apocalypse New Jersey, used to describe Camden in 2013
Based on these stories you’d believe the city I was raised in was the land that God forgot, of course that narrative never registered with me, my sister or brother. And even as Camden hits its apex in violent crime in 2011, and again in 2012, and someone was being shot here every 32 hours, we persevered. We continued to move forward. Eventually I met my husband and we decided to stay in Camden City to make it a better place in his mother’s rowhouse and raise a family.
There’s been a lot of content crafted and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer that chronicles disagreements about the Economic Opportunity Act and as a lifelong resident I can tell you firsthand from my house on State Street, in the North Camden neighborhood, that the city is going through a real renaissance. The transformation is not complete, and the mission is not accomplished, furthermore, we still have a long way to go to be a place that I envision for my three daughters to grow up in.
Nevertheless, for my family, Camden has made significant strides, strides that I believe are being overlooked at best and ignored at worse. Strides that have nothing to do with outsiders touting progressive change or some saint coming down from North Jersey who has our supposed best interest in mind by touting revolutionary changes. Instead, the things that resonate with my neighbors are jobs, new opportunities and a solid education. Camden residents want the police to come when they are called, the trash to be picked up every week and good schools to send our children, too.
Many of these core functions of city government have seen vast improvements over the last seven years. In addition, the city has seen wholesale changes in workforce investment, $2.5 billion in private/public investment into our institutions and infrastructure, and expanded access to healthcare and job opportunities. Overall, crime being committed in Camden is at a 50-year low and last year we had our lowest homicide total since 1985. Based on the tragic death of my father and losses my husband’s family has had over the years I intimately know the heavy toll violent crime has on a family and a community.
When I graduated high school in 2007, about 7% of Camden’s total population had a college degree and just four short academic years later only three public school students were college ready. Also, 23 out of 26 Camden schools were in the bottom 5% of failing schools in the state. Contrast that to today, almost 70% of high school students are taking the SAT creating an excellent indicator for future college graduates in the city. We’ve seen the dropout rate cut in half in Camden Schools since I graduated, and the graduation rate now exceeds 70%. In fact, the school district has seen five straight years of academic progress since the state has taken over their operations.
Today, Camden has more than 4,600 new jobs in the city since 2016 and 1,260 of them are Camden residents working in the facilities that have received tax credits. We have companies like Subaru of America, America Water, MD Anderson and Campbell’s Soup calling our city home.
When the city was in freefall, my husband and I developed a little league to provide children with an escape from the violent crime and narcotics crippling our community. When Camden seemed to be at it worst, and anyone that had the means to leave was getting out, we doubled down and worked harder for our city. We devoted ourselves to making our community a better place in direct contrast with our critics who continue to try to tear down the progress of the last seven years.
I believe in the transformation that is taking place in the city of my birth. I believe the progress is indisputable and tangible and should be highlighted in the local and national media. I hope the work being done today will be a model for tomorrow to provide our girls a place they are proud to call home.