Camden, a City of Angels

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Jan. 26, 2011

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Seeing red: Guardian Angels (from left) Life, Third Rail and Hightower patrol the streets of Camden after massive police layoffs.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

It’s the day after 168 police and 67 firemen turned in their boots and badges due to budget cuts in Camden, N.J., a small city with a violent crime rate five times the national average. That leaves about 200 cops to patrol 80,000 residents, half of whom live in poverty.

It’s around noon, and I’m hanging with the Guardian Angels in “Drug Alley,” the strip in front of the Walter Rand Transportation Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard where Angels are focusing their efforts.

Since arriving four days ago, the Angels have spent 12 hours a day—noon to midnight—patrolling streets in the bitter cold and handing out fliers, desperately hunting for recruits to set up a Camden chapter. During the 90-day recruitment campaign, Angels leaders from far-flung cities will rotate leadership here.

Finding a few good men or women—three of the seven out here today are female—hasn’t been easy. Recruits so far: Zero.

A prospect walks up. “Do you get paid to be an Angel?” he asks. No. He keeps walking. Another guy stops and studies a flier. “Sorry,” he shrugs. “I’d rather be home on my couch.”

“We get a lot of fake phone numbers,” says Life, a 44-year-old Philadelphian.

Only one Angel lives in Camden: Yvette, aka “Teddy Bear,” is a 43-year-old mom of three and professional nurse’s aid. Both “Life” and “T-Rex” are Philly women who signed up in December after meeting Angels on Kensington Avenue while hunting for the Strangler. T-Rex is a long-time activist. In 2005, Life made the local news for single-handedly chasing down a bank robber.

Originally from the Czech Republic, Life is proud to be a new Angel. “I’m sick and tired of this stuff,” she says, referring to violence. “I live in America 21 years. My cousin got killed in 2005.” She yanks up her sleeve and reveals his name tattooed into her skin.

Angel brass often get a bad rep as publicity seekers, but from the street-level view the vast majority of passers-by shout words of appreciation.

“Oooh, you’re Angels!” cries one woman as the Guardians prepare for their 12-hour shift. “I’ve seen you on TV! Thank you!” she says, shaking their hands.

Amber Zoll, 41, says Camden and Drug Alley in particular needs more cops, not fewer. She says she should know.

“I used to be a crackhead. I used to be out here, buying drugs, selling drugs, doing all kinds of crazy shit,” she says. Zoll points to the bus stop shelters across the street in front of a CVS, where both residents and Angels say most of the men hanging out are waiting for customers, not buses.

“A couple of years ago, there was a girl out here … getting raped, right in the middle of everybody, and there were no cops. And now you’re going to lay off cops?”

A woman with glassy eyes staggers up. She says she’s 28 years old but she looks much older. Her name’s Jen. She’s trying to talk but her mouth twists into sobs, choking her sentences. She claims she’s being followed. She’s terrified.

The Angels escort her through the building to where the buses pull in, locate her bus and form a human shield around her. A man tries to come near Jen. “No!” shouts Hightower, a tall black Angel from Chicago with serious swagger.

“Zeek,” a commander on loan from the South Bronx, makes sure Jen has a ticket. “I have no one,” Jen cries. “No one in the whole world.”

They wait with her until the bus lurches into gear. Then Jen’s eyes go wild. “I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to kill myself,” she says, hanging on to Life’s arm. “But I don’t want to live, either. Does that make sense?”

Life scribbles down her number and hands it to her, then puts Jen on the bus.

Mission accomplished, we head back out front to the Boulevard. I split off with the women, who want a smoke break. A fight erupts nearby before the third cigarette’s lit. A short guy with a long black Santa beard in a dirty, yellow jacket screams at another man. “Let’s go ’round the corner, then,” he says. “No, no, I don’t want to get locked up,” pleads the other guy, stumbling backward.

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2011 at 12:20PM

“I am not very name is sean, 26.....and you interviewed me in front of the transportation center, I live outside the city, and you told me that I would be in the article. So what is the reason my thoughts and I are not in the article? Were my thoughts and opinions not good enough for you to put into it? If you had an excess of people and comments, then you should not have taken my interview.....I am really offended that you took my statement/opinion/thoughts and didnt even give me one cheap line in a free newspaper. Funny thing is this whole time you really had me thinking about joining the Angels. Since I was interested because of you, I no longer am considering it,the city of Camden and the Angels have two less recruits, myself and my wife. I guess the Angels have you to thank. For future articles, you should never tell a person that they would be in the news article when you aren't sure if they will be. That is just mean, and so are you.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2011 at 02:56PM

“to the previous commenter: well, that is unfortunate that you would give up helping your city because a reporter didn't quote you.”

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3. SEL793 said... on Jan 27, 2011 at 01:11AM

“Waaa waaa waaa. Maybe your comments sucked.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jan 27, 2011 at 11:09AM

“Hey, I can understand your frustration of being told you would be in the article and then you are not. It definitely should've been worded differently.
On the other hand, if you are going to let words of one person sway the way you make your decisions in life, like not to become an Guardian Angel because of that person, then I don't know that I would feel safe around you whether an Angel or not. So many people say so much, call others names, fear the unknown, complain, but yet don't step up to the plate and fight for safer neighborhoods for all citizens. Maybe the Angels are better off without you since they get called names all of the time, people say they will join and then never show. Then you have the ones such as Life, Third Rail and High Tower who are living the value of safety in neighborhoods and are willing to help out no matter what.”

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5. Where'd they go? said... on Feb 10, 2011 at 10:05PM

“Ironic how I saw the Guardian Angels in Camden everyday the first 2 weeks of their 3 month commitment, (usually with a news crew or camera), but since this story was published, I have yet to see them anywhere! Think you can do another cover story on them to get them back out there? No cameras= no Angels. Camden is being lied to.”

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6. jesus said... on Mar 26, 2011 at 12:58PM

So the face book updates every week are fake.”


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