It's been years since Mary walked door-to-door distributing Stop Eminent Domain Abuse and Don't Tread on Us window stickers, but the pages of her large scrapbooks jog her memory. This born organizer fondly recalls the energy and cohesiveness of the Cramer Hill neighborhood as the residents came together to defend their homes, juxtaposed with the fear and frustration they felt from the threat of eminent domain. The stickers grew to be an important symbol—a visible message to both organizers and developers that the homeowners officially opposed the "Cherokee Plan" of 2003. Mary's sticker is still visible on her front window, though dulled and peeling after all these years.
Mary had lived in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico with her children before finding her way to Camden. With the low cost of real estate and a little help from HUD (Housing and Urban Development), home ownership was, for the first time, within her reach. "You find a lot of New Yorkers here in Camden for the same reasons," she explains. "[Some] said it was blighted, but I didn't see blight. I saw opportunity to buy a house for myself. So finally, I did find a house. This is one of my proudest right here—beautiful house."
"I didn't see blight.I saw the opportunity to buy a house."
That was in 1988. She married, had more children—all of whom graduated with honors and became professionals—and worked over the years as a teacher, secretary, house cleaner, bank teller, and as a bilingual intake worker and switchboard operator for Camden Regional Legal Services. She jokes, "I guess you can say everything you can think of!" Mary had always been willing to invest her time to better her community, including working with the Local Organizing Committee of Camden Churches Organized for People to replace stolen manhole covers, and initiating a neighborhood newsletter to help people feel connected and informed. When Camden officials began to think about blighted zones and redevelopment efforts, it was natural for them to turn to Mary for community input.
"Somebody called me," she explains. "I don't know why me"—she adds with a modest smile and shrug of her shoulders—"and a few others to a private meeting, and it was to say something is coming. Something is coming and you guys are going to have to get a neighborhood plan." There were meetings with the city, proposals and revisions. The seemingly collaborative approach led this small contingent to believe their input was being heard and valued, until, after soliciting comments on three different proposals, the city suddenly announced that it was going to approve the "Cherokee Plan," submitted by Cherokee Investment Partners, with no regard for the concerns that had been expressed. Since these private meetings had taken place with just a few community members, the rest of the Cramer Hill residents learned that the city was planning to take their home from the newspapers, when stories broke about Camden's big plans for the Cramer Hill neighborhood. This "Cherokee plan" required taking more than 1,100 occupied homes by eminent domain in order to build a golf course, condominiums, and a conference center.
Some neighbors were so shocked and traumatized by the news, particularly the elderly or those already battling health conditions, that they actually suffered physical harm. Mary recounts two that she considers casualties of the stressful environment—one who suffered a cardiac arrest; the other whose high blood pressure rose to a dangerously high level, both of whom were hospitalized and passed away while there. She also tells of children who worried throughout the school day that they might return to find they had lost their home. However, those who could fight fought hard. Camden found solid resistance in this neighborhood that was unusual for its high home-ownership rate in a predominately low-income urban area. Like Mary, many residents had been able to purchase sizable homes on spacious lots, and they were not about to walk away from them. Mary led the newly formed "Cramer Hill Residents Association" and people came together en masse, turning out in the hundreds for planning board meetings and protests on a regular basis. South Jersey Legal Services filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of residents challenging the blight designation and the redevelopment plan and advocates trained community members to present their arguments succinctly, in order to fit into the two-minute time limit set by the planning board and city council. Mary's newsletter became a critical source of information for the residents when communication from the city was short on details.
The city suffered a setback when a judge ruled in favor of opponents because none of the city planners or witnesses had been sworn in before giving testimony. At the same time, the developer, Cherokee Investment Partners, had run into difficulties with another redevelopment project in North Jersey. The delays and continued negative press about Camden ultimately led the city to abandon this massive redevelopment plan and to adopt a new plan that did not threaten residents with eminent domain.
"When we won in 2007, we cried."
"When we won in 2007, we cried," says Mary. She and her group felt so empowered by their success that they committed themselves to helping other Camden neighborhoods fight against eminent domain as well. She was heavily involved in creating a new group called Camden United, Inc., that brought together residents from across the city to share information and strategies and connected with communities in other cities facing similar problems. Camden United members galvanized large turnouts at planning board meetings across the city so that other neighborhoods would feel connected and supported. "Everywhere we could go, we were there," she says proudly. "Representatives of the developers and City Hall were angry. They were like, Who are you?" Her response? "We are the city."
Following the Cramer Hill case, Mary joined the South Jersey Legal Services Board of Trustees where she remains to this day. "Legal Services is our salvation," she says, whether the issue is related to a family dispute, a health issue, or a housing or tax dispute. "We have nobody else. … We need them. We need advocacy here." In fact, some residents still fear that the city will try to push them out of their homes by way of increased assessments and property taxes. Increases are especially hard on those with limited incomes, leaving them vulnerable to losing their home after fighting so hard to keep it. As for Mary, she has no intention of going anywhere. Her youngest child tells her, "This is our home. We fought for it. We went through a lot. … Why should we leave now?"