CAMDEN, NJ— Lifelong Lanning Square resident and Camden City Councilwoman Sheila Davis remembers the park at 4th and Washington streets as a space once used by the neighborhood residents to gather, play chess and barbecue.
Over the years, as the opioid epidemic took hold of the city and its neighborhoods, the park began to attract drug dealers and users. Residents didn’t want their children near the park, Davis said, adding that it only took one day after a community clean up for the park to be filled with trash and debris once again.
About four months ago, the park was closed completely after it was discovered the fountain in the park was being used as a means of bathing by the homeless, said Davis.
“The residents lost hope,” Davis said. “It was like, why are we going to keep on doing this if it doesn’t have a long-term effect.”
On Wednesday, county and city officials broke ground on $1.4 million renovation project they expect to be that long-term solution to returning the park to the residents of Lanning Square.
It is the second city park, out of four, that is part of Camden County’s $5 million revitalization effort to upgrade and improve parks in Camden. Last month, Alberta Woods Park in East Camden was reopened.
“There are many reasons to revitalize a city, there are many ingredients in revitalizing a struggling community … But if you want to really break it down to the lowest common denominator, what is most important are those children,” county Freeholder Jeff Nash said, pointing to the students from KIPP Cooper Norcross Lanning Square Academy who attended the groundbreaking ceremony. “Those children and seeing them smile, making them feel safe and happy in the community is what revitalization is all about.”
The revitalization is being completed through a partnership between the Camden County Freeholder Board, City of Camden and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.
“We recognize that there was an element that wasn’t pleasing to this community that still exists, and we’re working through that,” Mayor Frank Moran said. “But we believe that the importance of rebuilding communities starts with parks and recreation, and buy-in from the residents.”
In planning the park, officials held public meetings with the Lanning Square Neighborhood Association to receive input from the residents, something they plan continuing once the park is open.
Improvements to the park include a new and expanded playground and sprayground, fitness equipment, reconstructed basketball and handball courts with sports lighting, a graded lawn for sports practices and active recreation, a walking loop, new fencing around the entire park, a new pavilion with seating, lighting, picnic tables, benches, and landscaping.
“It was their plan,” Moran said. “We’ll come back sometime in April or June next year and we’ll cut a ribbon to a wonderful park that will be full of programming, cookouts for residents to enjoy, movie nights — whatever it is they want to have, it's going to be wonderful.”
Funding for the project also received a $100,000 boost from Jaws Youth Playbook, the foundation of former Eagles quarterback and current Ron Jaworski, for the renovation of the playground.
“The Vince Lombardi trophy weighs seven pounds, but it takes a whole team to lift it,” Jaworski said. “That’s what this is all about, it's about everybody lifting and going in the same direction.”
Jaworski said he and the Jaws Youth Playbook to continue giving back to Camden and its neighborhoods.
“We will be back,” Jaworski said.
Marigza Cordero has lived on 4th Street just down the block from the park for over 30 years. On Wednesday, she said she was excited about the improvements being made.
“I’m just grateful they are doing something about it, especially for our youth, our kids,” Cordero said.
Over her time living in Lanning Square, Cordero said she has seen some improvements made to the neighborhood, but “we just need more.”
With Cooper Hospital, the coming Rowan University Rutgers Camden Board of Governors Joint Health Sciences Center, the four-year-old KIPP Cooper Norcross Lanning Square Academy and the Camden waterfront nearby, the Lanning Square neighborhood is a community that’s probably seeing the biggest increase in property values, Moran said. The mayor added that it's also one that has been underserved for many years,.
“We are finally getting into this community and complimenting everything that's happening within the threads of the community,” said Moran. “We still have a lot of work to done, we still need additional buy in from the residents, but I think we’re on our way.”
Benigno “Pino” Rodriguez is one of the residents who hasn’t bought in. The founder of the Community Block Supporter Initiative, an effort to clean up neighborhoods one block at a time by installing flower boxes and empowering residents to keep the fronts of their homes clear of trash and debris, Rodriguez called the park renovation Wednesday “smoke and mirrors.”
While acknowledging the neighborhood does need a park and playground for its children, Rodriguez said the city needs to do more to help clean up the neighborhood of both debris and rampant drug use.
“While this park gets done, the neighborhood suffers, because nothing is getting done in the neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “When you have a community that listens to you, and when you say stand up, do your part, take back your community — and they’ve done that and more — and you just ignore them, that’s not the way to do things.”
Hired in 2015 by the Camden Lutheran Housing Inc to bring his block supporter initiative to North Camden, Rodriguez has recently taken a leave of absence to return his focus back to Lanning Square, where the program began. Using some of the $50,000 he was awarded earlier this year after winning the Russ Berrie Making a Difference award, Rodriguez has purchased tools and equipment to cleanup Lanning Square’s streets.
“I decided to come back because if we continue to let this neighborhood deteriorate, then the threat of eminent domain can come back, and that’s what they want,” Rodriguez said. “I’d like to see them support us, that’s all. We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re not asking for nothing.”
Councilwoman Davis said she understands the frustration of residents like Rodriguez, adding that improving the neighborhood is a work in progress.
“We try to stabilize this community one block at a time because we realize that we can’t tackle everything at one time. There are a lot of issues in Lanning Square, but we’re making an impact, we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Davis said.