Child photographers find good in the Badlands

Elani Rodriquez, 5, is too quick for Centro Nueva Creación classmate Siani Rodriquez, 6, to snap her picture. Children at the after-school and summer camp program look for good in the often-derided neighborhood. (Tom Gralish / Staff)

Cameras at the ready, fingers poised near the button, 11 children set out on Palethorp Street in North Philadelphia, looking for the good in a neighborhood too long called "the Badlands."

Their route takes them by drab rowhouses and down cracked sidewalks sprouting weeds. They squeeze past automobiles straddling the curb. But it isn't long before, one by one, they spot what they're after.

Anthony Mulero, 10, sees the reflection of the sky in the hood of a red car, and studies it for just the right angle. "I take pictures of the importance of the world," he says of his aesthetic. "Water, leaves, the trees, and the streets."

Iman Jefferson, also 10, focuses on families, but only those that "look happy."

"It makes me feel good," said the girl, whose parents are divorced.

Anthony and Iman are among 40 children at Centro Nueva Creación summer day camp who are learning not only how to take pictures, but how to see joy, good will, beauty - virtues that for decades have been all but masked by their neighborhood's seemingly unshakable image.

The area "does have a bad reputation . . . for drug trafficking and violence, and that's where the Badlands came from," said Grace Obando, who teaches the photography class. "But there's so much good in this neighborhood, and the kids are a great example of that. They are the generation that's going to change the view."

What better name, then, to have given them than "the Goodlands Photographers?"

Since mid-June, between bomba dancing and drumming, poetry and mural arts classes, the children have ventured out on photo expeditions, one age group a day from kindergarten to fifth grade. With 10 digital cameras to go around, they get a bonus lesson in sharing.

Starting from Centro, at Tioga and Palethorp Streets, their one-hour treks take them only a few blocks. But even in the urban monotony, they never fail to find interesting images, whether a feisty Chihuahua, foliage behind chain link, or a fresh puddle.

The portfolios they've amassed are on display through Aug. 20 at the Nexus Foundation for Today's Art, in the Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American St. Photos in the exhibit - titled Nuestras Raíces, or "Our Roots" - are $75 each, with proceeds going into the Centro's general budget.

An after-school program for most of the year, Centro was founded in 1994 by New Creation Lutheran Church. But it has been on its own since 2005, supported by the City of Philadelphia and foundations including the Seybert Institution, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts.

"The Goodlands" emerged 10 years ago as the theme for all of the nonprofit's programs. It was a response to the environs - racked by violence, poisoned by drugs, and overtaken by urban decay.

An amorphous territory generally thought of as stretching across West Kensington and Fairhill, the Badlands encompassed a police district - the 25th - with the highest violent crime rate in the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"The district had 60 homicides, if not more, a year," said the 25th's Capt. Christine Coulter, who was a cop in the district from 1988 to 1994.

Last year, she said, there were 33 murders in the district. So far this year, there have been 14 - the most recent occurring just before midnight Tuesday with the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy.

"There's too much killing," said Goodlands photographer William Jackson, 9, of his West Kensington neighborhood. "It's still bad."

Angela Jubinville, Centro's executive director, acknowledges as much. But, she said, "changes happen on a systemic level."

"We're just one part of that, a small part, but we hope that a small part of that eventually makes a big change," she said. "These are our future leaders. . . . I just hope that when they're 15 sitting in a high school class . . . they remember some of those tenets that we've instilled in them."

At the least, they'll remember the attention they generated on the streets. Other children circle on bikes, drawing nearer and nearer the knot of photographers in hope of getting their pictures taken. Some business owners open their doors so the group can explore. On Palethorp, an auto detailer poses by a car.

When entering businesses, the children must ask permission to take photos. But one afternoon last week, a boy found his inner paparazzo. He ran into a shop, clicked the shutter, and ran out, thrilled he had sneaked a picture - even if it was just of a woman at a sewing machine.

That day, on their way back to Centro - the "Goodlands haven," as they call it - the children passed by graffiti, litter, and teenagers smoking without raising their cameras.

But they stopped for a big white dog and four giggling girls on a stoop.

As Richard Hernandez, 9, explained, "They're part of God's creation."

Contact staff writer Vanessa Martinez at 215-854-2917 or