CAMDEN, NJ — Children sat side by side on a stripe-painted short wall along S 4th Street and Clinton and Berkley streets, waiting patiently for the ceremonial ribbon to be cut.
The day was about them, Camden officials said, and the smiles that would soon be brought to their faces from the newly-reopened park.
The $1.4 million renovation of 4th and Washington Park resulted from efforts between city and county personnel, philanthropic leaders, and members of the Lanning Square neighborhood, in which the new playground and spray pool, refinished sports courts, benches, and other facilities are nestled.
“I look at this as what can happen when the private sector and public sector works alongside the community,” said Dr. Susan Stukes, president of the Lanning Square West Residents Association, at the park opening Friday. “With that combination, all things are possible.”
Camden Mayor Frank Moran, gesturing to the children, said a zip code shouldn’t determine the amenities that a person is afforded.
With the city not having all the resources for the project, Moran said he was honored to be able to “call a bunch of friends.”
“This is a continuation of partnerships, and it’s the only way that we continue to make our city the vibrant city that it’s becoming,” Moran said.
Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, the private redevelopment group in Camden, oversaw the months of rehabilitation needed at the park grounds, which stretch over three blocks between Clinton and Washington streets. Officials broke ground on the site last October.
The project is part of a larger $5 million investment effort from the Camden County Freeholder Board to upgrade four parks in the city. Nearly a year ago, Alberta Woods Park in East Camden was the first to be reopened.
But the work at 4th and Washington, specifically, had some unique support from advocates of childhood health and fitness — Liz and Ron Jaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. His organization, Jaws Youth Playbook, contributed $100,000 to building the new playground.
Ron Jaworski said the theme he heard from every speaker at the event was teamwork. He reflected on how that defined his professional football career.
“Any success I may have had was directly attributable to my teammates, people working together for a common goal,” said Jaworski, standing in front of a playground slide painted in a throwback Eagles-style light green. “We’re going to make Camden a championship city and it starts with all the people right here.”
Choked up a bit as he first came to the podium, Jaworski said it was his wife that taught him the importance of getting young people active in the community.
He called the park an “absolute miracle” after passing by the property just a few months ago.
“Take a picture of these kids, because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s what’s important: how they feel what you’re doing for them.”
The new 4th and Washington kept elements from the park that came before it, including seating areas with chess boards. It can be attributed to the Lanning Square neighborhood spearheading the design and plan. That fact makes the park “super special” for County Freeholder Jeff Nash, among recent projects.
“That’s how you build a park: you ask the community what they would like to see in their neighborhood and build around that,” Nash said, who thanked the Lanning Square community.
Camden Councilmember-At-Large Sheila Davis, herself a resident of the neighborhood, got particular with her shows of appreciation.
There was Pino Rodriguez, whose “unselfishness” shows through his actions of mowing and cleaning local vacant land. Or Sheila Roberts, a mentor and the second half of “Sheila and Sheila, the S and S.” And there was also Larry Gaines, who hosts a Stop the Violence basketball tournament.
“Lanning Square residents: please, I ask you, let’s keep this park clean and continue to work together,” Davis said.
Drawn over from Project H.O.P.E., a nonprofit that is headquartered behind the park, Yolanda Baker said that seeing children active in the space will “do something for us at work.”
“It’s a good feeling to see kids playing on the playground,” said Baker, who is a behavioral health case manager. “It brightens up the neighborhood, and it just makes your work that much more meaningful.”
‘A Symbol of What Could Be’
Members of the Lanning Square West Residents Association — which covers the area from S 3rd Street to Broadway (north and south) and MLK Boulevard to Pine Street (east and west) — say they are embracing the opportunity of leading the charge to keep the park in its beautified state.
A new sense of hope has emerged thanks to conversations and coordination among city officials about maintaining the investment, some residents noted.
“This first step is a positive one,” one member said after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
That feeling wasn’t something they had as recently as a couple months ago.
Prior to productive dialogue over recent weeks, residents -- who wished to remain nameless -- feared their park would be lost to drug dealers before it even had a chance at reopening.
Construction on the park began last summer. Starting in January, residents noted at the site an issue of drug drops, meetups, and usage shuffled over from nearby streets.
An intermittent schedule of work at the playground area meant open territory at times.
Over those months, hundreds of calls must have been made to the Camden County Police, some said. Often, the residents felt that although there were responses given about addressing the concerns, they were still being ignored.
Then little by little since the start of July, one resident said, there seemed to be more police vehicles driving up and down the tiny Lanning Square blocks than previously during times of frustration. It was around that time that one resident was able to have a face-to-face talk with command personnel assigned to the area.
Officers certainly showed out at the opening ceremony Friday, too. Members of the neighborhood association see the recent changes as a good start.
“I look at this as a symbol of what could be,” one resident said.
And furthermore, the residents want to be more self-sufficient going forward.
The group has coordinated with the city and Cooper’s Ferry to allow for community-managed opening and closing walkthroughs of the park each day.
To that end, the patrolling residents will have bright vests courtesy of the county sheriff’s office to identify themselves.
It’s not going to be a policing effort, a resident noted, “but just to show a presence because that’s what was missing I think.”