In North Camden, board-up crew gives vacant buildings face-lifts

Chris Toepfer is part of a group giving back to 5 neighborhoods with The Neighborhood Foundation by boarding up and polishing 55 abandonded and run-down houses in the span of 4 weeks and with a budget of 25,000 dollars. (VIVIANA PERNOT/Staff Photographer)

In North Camden, five men made their way down State Street on Wednesday morning, taking the city's problem of abandoned properties into their own hands, one building at a time.

Broken windows and doors were replaced with sturdy boards decorated with painted foliage. Red flowers were planted along the sidewalk. Those in the group, all but one of whom live within a few blocks of where they were working, had jobs to keep them occupied and help pay the bills.

"I feel like I'm cleaning up the city, giving it a better name," said Jose Porrata Jr., who lives around the corner. "When I go other places, they think of Camden as dirty, dangerous. . . . To be cleaning it up makes me feel good."

The abandoned homes are being boarded up and given a face-lift to keep people out, clean up the neighborhood's image, and give the impression that someone is taking care of the property.

"People, especially in Camden, have grown so accustomed to seeing vacant properties that they think it's normal," said Betsy Clifford of Camden Lutheran Housing, which secured $5,000 for the board-ups in North Camden.

It's part of a pilot program led by the Neighborhood Foundation, a nonprofit out of Chicago run by Chris Toepfer. He has traveled around the country helping communities - like North Camden and four other city neighborhoods this summer - with their abandoned buildings. Also targeted are East Camden, Cramer Hill, Parkside, and Waterfront South.

"The main thing is that it is an alternative to demolition," Toepfer said. "If you can secure the property quickly, then you should do it."

Demolitions are expensive and time-consuming, and can pose problems in the long run. A single demolition can take months, and the total cost, with permits, averages $15,000, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the Camden Community Development Association.

Rebuilding on the empty lot left behind sometimes presents problems of zoning for new construction.

The number of abandoned properties in Camden is down to about 2,000 from 4,000, said city spokesman Robert Corrales. The city is pursuing an $8 million bond issue that would finance demolition of 500 abandoned buildings through a 7 percent surcharge on Camden parking facilities.

Board-ups cost about $500 per house, and include the possibility of eventual rehabilitation.

"It's very rewarding to see that, rather than knocking down" a building, said Felix Moulier, another member of the crew, "you can beautify it and eventually rehab it."

Sealing up houses with decorative boards tends to better discourage criminal activity such as prostitution and drug "shooting galleries," Clifford said. Neighboring houses start to see property values rise and have an easier time getting home insurance.

"The essence of the program is that it helps revitalize the neighborhood," Macysyn said. And since the board-ups are done by members of the community, they're less likely to be torn apart.

The City of Camden commends the work being done by the nonprofit groups, but urges them to follow proper protocol and stay safe, Corrales said, especially when approaching privately owned properties.

The North Camden crew had sent out letters to property owners notifying them of their plans. In other neighborhoods, the buildings they are boarding up are city-owned.

The work has been empowering for the workers.

"We're the heroes of the city," Porrata said. "We don't need no masks, and we don't need no badges."