Everyone is doing a top XYZ of 2012, so here is my top 10 Camden stories of 2012. They are a combination of stories that graced our front pages or simply created a lot of buzz in the community.
No. 10- Pedro Hernandez
Camden is no stranger to national news, but this case brought some unexpected worldwide attention to little Camden. In May, authorities in New York said Pedro Hernandez, 51, who grew up in North Camden, had admitted to strangling 6-year-old Etan Patz and putting his body in the trash 33 years ago. Hernandez allegedly confessed to a prayer group at St. Anthony of Padua in the 1980s in Cramer Hill. His first wife, Daisy, still resides in Camden. Hernandez pleaded not guilty to one count of murder and is awaiting trial.
No. 9- Joseph D. Carruth
Joseph D. Carruth, whom the board terminated as principal of Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in 2006, returned to the district in August as principal on special assignment.
Carruth, 44, sued under the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, alleging that the district fired him for publicly reporting in 2005 that he was asked to tamper with students’ state test scores. He was awarded an $860,000 settlement last year. He is now working with the district’s safety and security department reviewing bullying and intimidation guidelines and security protocols at the schools.
No. 8- Metal thieves
First came the fight between the city and metal dealers over new regulations. Then metal thieves simply amped up their boldness by stealing any metal they could find day and night.
One theft left a city peace festival in jeopardy. Metal thefts also forced the city school district to spend $750,000 for new apparatus and protective cages to prevent further damage to district HVAC units.
No. 7- Supermarkets/Food desert
After nearly two years of flirting with various grocery chains, developers of the planned Haddon Avenue Transit Village project convinced The Fresh Grocer chain of Drexel Hill in September to sign a letter of intent to open a 50,000-square-foot store in the planned Camden site.
Despite the state approving $50 million in tax credits for the entire mixed-use project, the grocery store has yet to sign a lease. The waiting game continues for the long-delayed project and the city’s second full-size supermarket.
In the meantime, independent operators opened a 16,000-square-foot Fine Fare Supermarket on the corner of Federal Avenue and 21st Street in October. They are still in business, and when I visited the store in November, employees were enthusiastic about the store’s success with the Hispanic population.
No. 6- Businesses still thriving
Despite Camden’s being ranked the poorest city in the nation this year, I was able to find some businesses that were still thriving in the city. The Camden brothers behind Shoe Kings on Mount Ephraim Avenue and the Dominican Republic immigrants behind B&H Auto International showed that the American Dream can still be achieved through dedication and hard work.
No. 5- Bessie LeFra Young
After being absent for 221 days during her 4 1/2 year tenure, Camden Schools Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young called it quits in May.
During Young’s years as superintendent, students continued to perform poorly on state standardized tests, and 23 of the 26 schools have been put on the new priority list of the 70 worst-performing schools in the state. The state also launched an investigation into reports of inaccurate accounting of violent incidents in the district.
Her impromptu parting speech at her last school board meeting was probably one of the most entertaining moments for CCS-TV viewers.
UPDATE: The school board is launching a nationwide search for a new superintendent. In the meantime, Young’s second in command, Reuben Mills, is serving as interim superintendent.
No. 4- Cooper Medical School of Rowan University
With great expectations for education and Camden’s future, the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University opened in July on Broadway Avenue. But residents and urban planning experts questioned the effectiveness of a medical school as a long-term urban economic engine.
UPDATE: After I toured the new medical school in early December, dean Paul Katz said that hiring local residents for clerical jobs has proven more difficult than he anticipated due to state civil service rules.
No. 3- Renaissance Schools
Since Gov. Christie signed the Urban Hope Act into law in January, it has been a rollercoaster of news for the proposed Renaissance Schools. These lucrative school deals give way for nonprofit entities to construct a school, or lease privately owned land, and operate a school with 95 percent of costs coming from the public district’s per-pupil tax dollars. (Charter schools receive up to 90 percent of per-pupil expenses.) Renaissance schools may also hire private companies, without any public bidding.
The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy immediately set its eyes on the land reserved for a new Lanning Square School next to the new medical school, causing an uproar among some Lanning Square School activists and cheers from others.
Then the group behind a proposed North Camden charter school also put in a proposal for a Renaissance School. So did a group of Philadelphia school operators and the man behind the Camden Center for Youth Development.
In September, the board rejected all four Renaissance-school applications it had received, three of them on unanimous votes and KIPP by a 4-4 tie. Then in November, after a closed-door discussion, the board agreed to transfer the plot to KIPP.
KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is waiting for approval from state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf before beginning negotiations with the district and the state School Development Authority, which owns part of the land of the proposed site.
No. 2- Camden Metro Police plan
One of the most controversial stories of the year is the plan to disband the local police department and create a new County Police model.
The most recent update was last month when the city turned in its layoff plan to the state. However, a detailed budget or financial plan for the new force has not been released. The city, county and state have not signed any agreements dealing with the state’s contribution to the new department’s start-up costs.
No. 1- Homicide record
On Nov. 16, Camden broke its all-time homicide record of 58, sending floods of national media to the streets of one of the country’s most violent cities. As of Friday afternoon, 67 people had been killed in Camden.
Though most slayings were drug-related, there were victims as young as 2, who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. We told you the heart-breaking stories of Dominic Andujar, 6, who died saving his sister from a rapist, and Zahree Thomas, 2, whose mother decapitated him after smoking “wet.”
The city’s grim milestone brought various religious and community groups together. Some posted crosses in front of city hall to represent each victim. Another group has organized peace rallies. Check out two of my colleagues' stories on a peace vigil and what its like for homicide detectives on the front lines.