Shirley Johnson and Carolyn Grace chose to live — and choose to stay, thank you — in Brittany Woods, a Gloucester Township neighborhood they say is coming back after a long decline.
Built nearly 40 years ago on a pretty hillside in the Sicklerville section, the community some locals refer to as "Little Camden" made headlines Jan. 10 when a heavily armed man barricaded himself in a Hampshire Road home, fired 15 rounds at police, and took his own life.
To the founders and, currently, sole active members of the Brittany Woods Community Action Group, as well as their allies in town hall and the police department, that tragic event doesn't represent this tucked-away part of this sprawling Camden County suburb.
Johnson and Grace see Brittany Woods as worthy of improvement, not as a blight to be bulldozed away, as some on social media have suggested.
Brittany Woods is their home.
"When they say, 'Little Camden,' I don't agree with that," says Grace, 50, who grew up in the city.
"I don't see it," says Johnson, 69, showing me the handsome playground the township built last year, at her suggestion, on what had been a vacant lot on a Yorkshire Road cul-de-sac.
She was there to cut the ribbon in October when the Brittany Woods Children's Park, which the township built for about $100,000, opened.
"I'm all about the kids," says Johnson, who raised a daughter in Brittany Woods and moved there in part because of the quality of the township's schools.
"When I asked them what they wanted for the neighborhood, they said, 'What about a playground?' I said, 'Let me see what I can do.' "
During my recent visits to Brittany Woods, where about 350 compact townhouses stand in rows along sloping, curving streets named to evoke the British countryside, I see a diverse, mostly working-class community with a mix of well-kept homes and others that could stand sprucing up.
Yes, there's litter, a sagging fence or two, missing shutters, and some tired siding. But it also looks like a place with good bones, a good location and a good chance to turn around. And Brittany Woods certainly has two formidable champions in Grace and Johnson.
"The ladies are great. The challenge is that many of the units in Brittany Woods are owned [and rented out] by people who may not even live in the state, let alone in Gloucester Township," says Mayor David Mayer.
The number of rental vs. owner-occupied units at Brittany Woods was not immediately available. The neighborhood, like others in the 23-square-mile town of nearly 65,000 people, saw the value of many properties drop in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.
Mayer says home sales in Gloucester Township jumped from 921 in 2013 to 2,010 last year. He's encouraged by the jump in sales of Brittany Woods homes as well, from a half-dozen annually in 2011 and 2012 to 34 in 2016 and 31 last year.
The township also estimates that 27 Brittany Woods units are vacant, although Johnson and Grace — who seem to know every square inch of the neighborhood — say only a handful of empty units remain.
Brittany Woods was built in 1979 as a moderately priced community of modest-sized townhomes priced for appeal to first-time buyers.
"I wanted to raise my kids where there were good schools. Brittany Woods was a young, family-oriented place where kids played hopscotch," says Grace, who first moved there in 1989.
"I raised three daughters here, and they're all college-educated. They got a good foundation from the Gloucester Township school system. The kids here need to realize they're living in a good community, and that there are opportunities for them," she adds.
"It was my first home," says Johnson, who still lives in the townhouse she bought in 1981. The daughter she raised there went off to college and then grad school.
"Brittany Woods was fabulous," Johnson, a retired employee of the Haddon Township tax assessor's office, says.
"Everybody knew you. If they saw you shoveling snow, they offered to help. It was very family-friendly for a very long time. What happened? Drugs."
Like Mayer, township Police Chief W. Harry Earle supports what Johnson and Grace are trying to accomplish in their neighborhood. The chief and the mayor say programs of community policing, code enforcement, neighborhood enhancement, and providing a drug and alcohol addiction counselor to the municipal court are yielding results townshipwide.
"Drug addiction causes crime," says Earle, who commands a force of 131 full-time officers. "We're trying to address the social disorder causing the crime. Not just the symptoms."
Between 2009 and 2017, the annual number of violent crimes in the township fell from 268 to 87, with property crimes dropping from 1,487 to 1,036.
That's still too many. And it's still too early to declare victory in Brittany Woods, as Johnson and Grace — the sort of dynamos every neighborhood ought to have — acknowledge.
They say that while the township and local businesses have been supportive, and young people turn out for events such as neighborhood cleanups — the next is set for April 4 — getting more people involved is a challenge. Two younger women who were active recently are now away at college.