CAMDEN, N.J. | While sitting on the stairs outside her two-story row house, Kathy Soto puts her friend's baby in her lap as if the baby were her own.
Friends look out for friends. Families cook for strangers. Neighbors hang out and party together.
"It's like one big family," said Soto, 25, who lives in North Camden. "If one person doesn't have something, others will pitch in."
But she admits life in “CMD” can be rough. Soto has two sons, ages 5 and 7, and works two jobs to rear them.
She said she's not willing to risk letting them play outside for extended periods of time. Stray bullets. Open-air drug dealing. There are plenty of pitfalls they could face, but as a single mother it's hard to find a way out.
"I don't wanna raise my kids here," Soto said. "The economy is so messed up. It is hard to up and leave and start somewhere fresh."
Soto lives about two miles away from a new $139 million, six-story medical school building. One mile away is a waterfront walking pavilion and concert venue that brings in residents from around south Jersey and Philadelphia. But here, prostitutes and addicts occupy streets at all hours of the day and night.
Similar to Gary, Camden residents and those who care about its health say education, employment and crime are among the city's largest challenges. However, institutions such as Campbell Soup Co., Cooper University Hospital and Rutgers University Camden are making multimillion-dollar investments in real estate and community development projects.
"We have these anchors that are helping us to redefine Camden's image," said Mayor Dana Redd, 44.
Some residents say a facelift for Camden is long overdue and want investments in the city to create tangible economic opportunities for them and their neighborhoods.
Creating those opportunities has been difficult, since the city's population has fallen by one-third since the end of World War II to 77,344 in 2010. The eroding tax base, among other reasons, prompted the state of New Jersey to provide nearly $175 million to spur economic development in 2002.
But that money came with a condition, and it would be more than seven years before a state-appointed board handed administrative control of the city's affairs back to local officials. Also, the police department and public school district have operated under some form of state supervision in the last decade.
These issues didn't deter freelance journalist Tara Nurin from moving to the city in 2006. She wanted to move to a neighborhood that was close to Philadelphia, had nice amenities and was relatively inexpensive compared to those across the Delaware River.
"I really, really want it to turn into a place that's thriving," said Nurin, who said newcomers often want to make a positive contribution to the city.
Brenda Barnes has spent her 66 years living in Camden and said she sees the city coming back to life. She remembers the city having a vibrant central business district and other amenities. But today, the city continues to struggle with crime. Barnes experienced it first-hand when her car was stolen in November.
To return some of Camden's luster, she said the city must find ways to build wealth in the community and deal with the trend of "babies having babies," or teenagers and young adults having children without having the adequate financial or social base to care for them.
Camden's median age is nearly 28 years old, which is nine years younger than the national level, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Guidance, support urged for youth
Jacob Rodriguez, a 30-year-old Camden native, said city youth often start at a disadvantage because of the glut of abandoned housing, the lack of financial opportunities, poor street conditions and higher rates of crime compared to more affluent suburbs.
"You just know there's something different about where you're growing up in, and you realize that at an early age," said Rodriguez, director of the Street Leader program for the Christian-based nonprofit organization Urban Promise. "And a lot of times, most of us have to grow up fast. We really don't have a childhood. A lot of kids don't have a childhood because they sometimes have to be the mother of the house at an early age, or the father."
Natasha Santiago, a 17-year-old from East Camden, said programs such as those from Urban Promise can help keep youth engaged and out of trouble. Santiago will be a freshman at The College of New Jersey, near the state capital Trenton, and said she was thankful for the opportunity to mentor younger children through the organization while being involved in after-school programs.
In providing assistance to youth, a larger focus also has to be placed on education, said Roy Dawson, former superintendent of the Camden City School District. Of Camden residents age 25 and older, about 7 percent have bachelor's degrees and 62 percent are high school graduates. The state average for both are about 35 percent and 87 percent, respectively.
"While there is some progress, there is so much more that could be done to invest in our youth who are our future," said Dawson, 73. "There's so much that can be done if we increase some of the opportunities for our youth in the city."
Making community changes
Northgate Park on the city's north side has a reputation for being a home to drug use, assaults and large clusters of homeless people loitering. But one day in late June, the park was the host site of a sports-themed festival for children.
Thirty minutes after the event closed at 8 p.m., several kids still tried to line up to take a crack at conquering the 30-foot climbing post. After shutting down the all-day affair, Camden resident Bryan Morton said "if you didn't have fun by now, you're not trying."
"We're all about giving kids the chance to be kids," Morton said.
Morton, the 41-year-old president of the Concerned Citizens of North Camden, said the community group he helped resurrect organized the event and now has 25 volunteers.
He said the festival is one of many things that can be done to improve the community without having lots of money. Two years ago, Morton said he wanted to launch a youth baseball league as a response to the threatened cuts in police officers. The league has 225 children involved this summer from ages 5 to 17 and the group has been able to secure funds to reclaim parks for activities.
One thing Morton also sees in children from the city is that they lack connections to larger world outside of their neighborhoods.
Creating connections between neighborhoods can help attract investment and boost economic opportunities for residents, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
Kneebone said these opportunities are critical since 36 percent of Camden residents are in families earning less than federal poverty guidelines and in several Camden neighborhoods, more than 40 percent of people live at or below the poverty line.
Governments struggle to deal with areas of "concentrated poverty" because they often have higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities, according to a research paper she co-wrote last year.
Safe at home?
To convince Soto, of North Camden, to stay in the city long-term, public safety has to improve and better jobs have to come to the city. She said she's glad to have her actual family and "block family" near her, but the efforts police have made to make the city safer haven't worked.
"What we need out here is more cops," Soto said. "I mean, to feel safe, that's what it would have to be. Now, a lot of residents don't feel safe living out here for the simple fact that there's so many guns on the street. You can buy them from anywhere. More jobs would help (too)."