When North Camden activists grew weary of negative billboards promoting everything from funerals to cheap divorces in the ravaged neighborhood, rather than fighting the messenger, they decided to commandeer the message.
Camden Lutheran Housing Inc. launched a "Change the Message" campaign a year ago as part of a plan to build pride and change the landscape in a blighted section that appears to be slowly coming back after years of neglect, violence, and drugs.
North Camden was considered one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. It was home to an unwanted state prison, open drug markets, and the regular sound of gunfire, which left residents afraid to sit on their porches or let their children play outside.
Camden Lutheran, a nonprofit, is leading the charge to transform the neighborhood, investing more than $32 million in housing over the last three decades. There are signs of a comeback amid the lingering decay and stepped-up police patrols: rehabilitated and new housing and school projects, and a beautifully restored park.
As part of its block-supporter initiative, the group employs nine residents who help their neighbors spruce up their blocks. They clean up vacant lots, install window boxes with flowers, and put up American flags on their porches.
"We help them make the neighborhood safer and more enjoyable, a place they can be proud to call home," said Betsy Clifford, executive director. Since 2015, more than 700 households have joined the program, and more than 40 blocks, roughly one-fourth of the neighborhood, have been cleaned, she said.
Last year, the group began the billboard message campaign, spending about $1,500 monthly to lease six junior or small billboards from Outfront Media scattered around the neighborhood, said Jessica Franzini, associate director of community initiatives. The 6-by-12-foot billboards target pedestrians and are placed mostly on storefront walls. Camden Lutheran donates the space to community groups to advertise their events for a month. A billboard currently on display shows youngsters in a college study program. "How cool is that?" she said.
Franzini said she wanted the funeral home message replaced because of what it symbolized — "how often violence was taking young people." Other messaging once included "drowning in debt" and "don't be a straw buyer" with a pair of brown hands in handcuffs.
The group is taking on another fight: opposition to a proposal by a Cherry Hill company to erect a 167-foot billboard at the base of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in North Camden on the waterfront. The plan, announced in April by Interstate Outdoor Advertising, has come under attack from residents and community groups, who say the billboard would drastically change the architectural landscape of the area. Cooper's Ferry Partnership, which is overseeing redevelopment in Camden, also has expressed misgivings.
The city zoning board is scheduled to consider a request for a variance for the digital billboard at its Sept. 10 meeting. The redevelopment plan for the parcel at Elm Street and Delaware Avenue prohibits billboards.
>> READ MORE: Billboard proposal gets pushback from Camden residents
In what is believed to be the first venture of its kind in the country, proceeds from advertising sales, about $200,000 annually, would be earmarked for nonprofits in the city. The billboard would be used to create a permanent funding source for charitable groups, according to Interstate CEO Drew Katz.
Katz has said he wants to honor the legacy of his father, Lewis, a Camden native and philanthropist who gave millions to his hometown. The elder Katz, a co-owner of Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, died in a plane crash in May 2014.
But groups such as Camden Lutheran and others oppose the proposal and have lobbied against it. They have gathered petition signatures and plan to pack the zoning board meeting. Katz did not respond to several messages seeking comment for this story.
"Whether it's a sewer treatment plant, trash burning plant, or a prison, I think residents in the city are tired of being told that these kind of things are good for us," said Luis Gaitan, president of Concerned Citizens of North Camden.
On a sunny morning last week, a seven-member Camden Lutheran crew mowed a vacant lot at the corner of Sixth and York Streets. Across the street, a resident, inspired by the group, began cleaning up his own yard. Several bags of trash were piled up in front of another rowhouse, a sign that not everyone has bought into the program.
"They're doing some really good for the community," said Jose Colon Jr., 64, the crew leader. "I'm very proud to be part of it."
The youngest crew member, Carlos Garcia, 10, a volunteer, helped his grandmother, Millie. The fifth grader said the neighborhood "no longer looks like North Camden."
"It used to look all messy," Carlos said during a break from raking. "It looks better."
Nearby, another crew worked at an abandoned property, putting up sturdy boards decorated with painted foliage. The effort is part of a partnership with the Neighborhood Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit, to give a face-lift to vacant properties and help stabilize communities. It is a temporary fix until the owners can rehabilitate the properties.