In Camden, a push to crack down on crime in Von Nieda Park

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Anna Perkins of Camden Churches Organized for People leads a song about peace at the dedication of the mural at Von Nieda Park in Cramer Hill.

The roar of nearby ATVs washed over two teams of Little Leaguers at Camden's Von Nieda Park.

Pete Perez looked over from the baseball field to see three young men on four-wheelers ripping through the grass and onto a street, where one executed a tight turn that threatened to send the vehicle rolling.

"There they are," Perez, a Camden firefighter and the president of the Cramer Hill Little League, said Thursday evening. "Before we put these fences up, they'd drive right across the [baseball] field."

For years, Von Nieda Park in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood has been both good news and bad news for residents: a place to gather for barbecues or exercise or a game of pickup basketball, but also a place for prostitution, and a spot for men to drink beer and for teenagers to gather around blaring car stereos.

On Monday, Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) staged a rally in the park as part of its effort to get increased police patrols.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson attended the rally and told the religious outreach group that the department had already seized five ATVs, and would be cracking down on illicit activity in Von Nieda and other city parks. ATVs have been banned within city limits and are the target of an ongoing police campaign.

"We do have to face the violent-crime issues here, but we can't ignore the quality-of-life issues that tend to affect our residents' lives even more," he said.

Thomson's pledge to bring a greater police presence to the park comes following this month's hiring of 50 additional officers, a 15 percent increase to the force.

But one issue for city officials is that the definition of unwanted activity varies among those who frequent the park.

One of CCOP's complaints, for example, concerns the abundance of illegally parked cars around a weekend soccer game that attracts hundreds from the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Greg Pressley, 53, is on doctor's orders to get in shape and now takes daily walks through Von Nieda Park. He finds the ATVs annoying but not anything to get up in arms about.

"They're really not causing trouble. They're just joyriding, having fun," he said.

Luzette Garcia, 20, runs in the park with her mother but says they won't go out there past noon because they worry "it's going to get dangerous."

Rosemary Shaw, 68, lives right on the park; at night she sits nervously in her living room when teenagers congregate outside her door.

"In the morning it's relatively nice, but then at night, the street becomes an open-air pharmacy," she said.

Both Garcia and Shaw work with the CCOP, which argues for greater police protection, saying people have shied away from visiting the park.

At the rally Monday, church organizers urged residents to use the park as much as possible and offered testimonials, read poetry, and even sang a song about what constitutes peace. "Peace means taking care of," the lyrics went.

But their efforts have met with disdain. A mural painted by neighborhood children on the park's new equipment shed and concession stand was tagged with graffiti over the weekend.

"It was disheartening, but also showed us the need to affirm our commitment to the park," said Anna Perkins, a volunteer with CCOP.

 


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.