A large group of elected officials and community activists stood in the cold yesterday morning, cheering as a backhoe slowly smashed into one of Camden's most despised buildings.
In speech after speech, those officials called the demolition of Riverfront State Prison a new beginning for the people of North Camden whose views of the Philadelphia skyline and the Delaware River have been marred by razor wire and watchtowers for 24 years.
"I'm proud that one of the last actions that will take place under my governorship will be to take this prison down," Gov. Jon S. Corzine told the crowd.
The 16-acre parcel, called the most valuable property in the Delaware Valley by one official, is expected to be transformed into a combination of retail and office space, along with parks and residential buildings.
A few blocks away from the celebration, two North Camden men watched a white bed sheet with "R. I. P Boo Boo" sprayed on it as it flapped against the brick facade of a convenience store. "Boo Boo" was Rashan Brown, a 24-year-old city resident who was shot and killed near the store at 5th and Elm on Sunday morning.
"Obviously there's problems here," said a man by the memorial who identified himself as John W. "But I don't think the prison itself had anything to do with what's wrong with North Camden."
Community activists believe Riverfront destroyed the self-worth of North Camden residents for years while scaring away potential investors. Mayor-elect Dana Redd said there was strong community opposition to the prison when it was first built in 1985, but city fathers capitulated at the time when the state agreed to give them $3 million and create new jobs.
"Obviously, it should have never been here in the first place," she said, to a large cheer.
Unions for the corrections officers employed at Riverfront and some elected state officials opposed the closing of the medium-security facility when it was announced in January, baffled that New Jersey would close the second-newest of its 14 prisons.
At 5th and Elm, resident Wes Hill, 40, laughed when asked if he thought knocking down the prison would help the community. "Man, they're doing it because someone's going to make a lot of money," he said. "It's actually a hardship because a lot of folks around here had people in there and now they have no way to go see them."
The Department of Corrections transferred most of Riverfront's employees, along with its inmates, to other facilities throughout the state.