Reminiscing at 582 Auburn Street

I was born in Parkside in 1933, and lived there until 1944. I was 11 years old, when our rented house at 1039 Princess Ave., and hundreds of others citywide, were sold to accommodate the workers who poured into Camden for war-related jobs at the N.Y. Ship Yard, RCA, and other defense-connected companies. My parents told me I mustn’t cry, because our house was going to help America win the war. But I sobbed my heart out, as our black 1936 Chevy followed the moving van as though it behind a hearse. My mother’s face was turned resolutely toward the window and my father blew his nose repeatedly, as we moved out. Out of the place where I was born, went to school and church, and played in the back lots. Out from the place where they called my dad “Spike,” because he played a brilliant shortstop on Parkside’s sandlot team. Away from the place where every kid had a dozen mothers, and every mother was home after school. The place where the cop on the corner, the grocer, the huckster, the air raid warden — EVERYONE — knew my name.

For nearly 40 years, my heart grieved for Camden. But, I always knew that, some day, I would go “home” again. And in 1979, I joined a thin, but hardy stream of naive pioneers who bought and rehabbed abandoned houses in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood — most with their own hands. Divorced, with grown children, I was confident that, between the established residents and the as-yet undiscouraged upwardly-mobile new home owners, our community would be just the beginning of Camden’s inevitable renaissance. I spent my last dime, and mortgaged what was left of my future, on a wreck of a row house at 582 Auburn St. When it was finished, it was a the pride of my life and featured in the New York Times and other publications.

I was elected president of the Cooper Plaza Neighborhood Association, whose members relentlessly hounded politicians, police, and public works in organized campaign to force them to do their jobs better. And we pitched right in with them. We formed a Neighborhood Watch to intimidate hookers and hustlers, with our walkie-talkies, cameras, flashlights and dogs for those of us who owned them or loaned them. We initiated Neighborhood Pride Days and awarded prizes for the cleanest, most improved blocks. On Pride Days, public works trucks hauled away hundreds of tons of trash, weeds, junk, beer cans, broken bottles, condoms and dead dogs, all handpicked on blistering hot Saturdays by the hardworking ladies, gentlemen and teens of Cooper Plaza.

Who says Camden people “don’t care?” We gave cash awards to students who exemplified community service in their lives. We gave banquets for public servants and volunteers who went above and beyond their duty to serve the community. We had a newsletter and a crisis telephone tree, so that, in seconds, every call to police became 10 calls — 20 — until eventually they tired of it and came, lights flashing, at the first call. It was the hardest job I ever loved! I was never more exhausted in my life — and never happier or prouder.

But this sudden infusion of optimistic, “can-do” carpetbaggers “stirred things up,” according to city hall power brokers, and made them very nervous. They liked taxpayer malaise just fine, thank you, and they didn’t appreciate us trying to change Camden, even it it were only one house and one block at a time. We [began] hearing from by building inspectors, health and social workers, tax assessors, code enforcement officials — and other city hall drones who hadn’t raised a dozing head off their desks for 20 years. And they were damned cranky about it.

I gutted my house down to the bare brick walls. An award-winning architect redesigned it and licensed contractors rebuilt after obtaining the proper city permits. Every inch of the house was new — built with top-of-the-line building materials, plumbing and lighting, strictly according to code and historic guidelines. When I asked one inspector whether he expected me to pay him money, he signaled his answer with a complacent stare. I told him where he could put his list and, by the time, I won the battle I had lost the war. Interests rates went up 6% in three months.

It wasn’t enough that hard-working, public-spirited tax payers couldn’t get any of those low-interest homesteading loans city officials talked so much about. Or that we got stony silence to hundred — maybe thousands of letters, phone calls, faxes and visits. We demonstrated, rallied, circulated petitions — even held press conferences in front of abandoned houses owned by well-connected politicians (and “overlooked” by code enforcers). We were persistent burrs under the political saddle. And they retaliated by treating us like pariahs, rather than embracing us as new blood.

One-by-one the once enthusiastic pioneers began to walk away broken-hearted from their grand experiments. And Auburn Street? Oh, all 26 homes, many owner occupied, were taken by eminent domain and bulldozed into oblivion last year [2001] — part of Camden’s ongoing policy of “urban removal” that forces independent home owners out and keeps the poor and powerless in.

After 15 years of trying, most of the “pioneers” were gone and beaten, I followed like our old ’36 Chevy. Burned out and brokenhearted, I kissed the threshold of my little dream house, locked the door and, sobbing, I walked away from Camden. Again.

Lois McCall (Teer) Seeligsohn, September 2002


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