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A boy's world, like Camden's, is looking up

Crime is down, businesses are coming back, and one 6-year-old's life has gotten a little better because of a stranger's kindness.

ON A BITTER November afternoon, a bit of good news parked outside a Camden rowhouse, and the word spread up the stairs, along a front porch full of people and into a living room where DaCorey Rex was wedged between grownups.

"A woman's outside asking about you," they told the boy, "and she has a present. A big present."

Those words coaxed DaCorey out into the waning daylight in nothing but shorts and a T-shirt, and he seemed a bit bewildered by the crowd outside and the stranger on the street.

Mostly, though, DaCorey just looked skeptical, as if it were some trick, and the 6-year-old checked his smile, ready to shrug it off and go back inside to sleep off the rest of his Sunday.

But the good news in Camden on this day for this kid didn't come with a hitch, and some joy burst out of him when he realized it.

"Thank you so much!" he yelped.

Then the kid hugged the big box that towered over him and got on his toes to hug the woman who had brought it to him.

This little moment on Haddon Avenue grew into a bigger one for both of them in the weeks that followed, and as Camden's 2014 comes to a close, it's been a year of better news for a city that so often makes headlines for bullets and dead bodies.

Some say that the news is undeniably good, that history will mark 2014 as the year Camden fought back, lowering crime with a new police force, which in turn lured big businesses and some marquee names.

"There has been a vast, vast improvement. The momentum is in place," said George Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Health Care and a former co-owner of the Daily News.

Corporate-tax breaks

In addition to the promise of a safer Camden, the businesses that decided to relocate or move some operations there - including Subaru, the energy firm Holtec International, Lockheed Martin and Cooper - also received huge gifts: hundreds of millions in tax breaks.

Cooper got a $40 million break to move offices to Camden and will create 19 more jobs. Holtec was granted $260 million in credits and will create about 235 new jobs. Subaru got $118 million in tax credits to move about four miles from Cherry Hill.

Norcross, recently described by the Newark Star-Ledger as the "second-most powerful man in New Jersey," said that the tax breaks are key and are common practice in cities across the country.

"In order for some to take a chance, to take a risk, there has to be some enticement," he said. "This is not unique to Camden."

The tax credit that created the most buzz in Camden this year was announced in June, when the Philadelphia 76ers said that a new team headquarters and 120,000-square-foot practice center would be built on a parking lot near the Susquehanna Bank Center, in exchange for $82 million in tax credits.

Kelly Francis, a Camden resident for 65 years and Camden County chapter president of the NAACP, was there for the announcement because he attends nearly every meeting in the city. He was not smiling.

"It was all hype," Francis said when asked about it this week.

To keep the credits, the Sixers are required to maintain 250 jobs, and 200 already are filled. When Francis asked team CEO Scott O'Neil whether there would be entry-level jobs for Camden residents, O'Neil replied, jokingly: "We need a shooting guard."

Francis didn't laugh.

Hoops with a plastic bag

The first time Leona Iverson saw DaCorey Rex, he was trying to play basketball on his front porch in October and it wasn't going well.

DaCorey had fashioned a net out of a plastic bag, and Iverson, who was parked outside, filmed him and wondered how his future would turn out.

"This is how we go wrong," Iverson said, as she watched him. "But he's trying to have fun."

Iverson, 36, is a single mother of five who works two jobs and doesn't have a day off. She grew up in Camden and had her first child, a son, when she was just 15.

"I was in eighth grade, walking in graduation, pregnant," she said during a recent interview.

Life is hectic and free time is rare, but Iverson said that she's just hard-wired to help people, even if it means a little less for her family and a little something for a boy she didn't know.

"I'll help anybody," she said.

Iverson started the Good Girls Club, for Camden girls ages 5 to 16 who have free time and need to fill it. The club has sleepovers at Iverson's home. They order pizzas and paint each other's nails and take trips to theaters and museums.

The Good Girls Club has a vow that Iverson's daughters, Musique, 11, and Lyrique, 8, can recite on the spot.

"Our motto is: 'When you see a sister fall, we are right there to lift them,' " the girls say, in unison.

Iverson's mother, Annie Harris, is more skeptical. She paused for a moment and got choked up, trying to explain her daughter's open heart and how she feared that it made her daughter vulnerable.

"She's just always been like this," Harris said. "I'm afraid people will take advantage of her."

Iverson does often dig into her own pockets to pay for all this, and they're not deep, so she networks on Facebook.

A few weeks after posting a video of DaCorey playing ball with the bag, Iverson cobbled together enough donations from friends and fellow Camden residents to buy an adjustable basketball set and deliver it to his house.

That's when they hugged, and they've been close ever since. DaCorey, a first-grader at Forest Hill Elementary School, calls Iverson "Miss Leona" and he calls her on the phone a lot.

Iverson takes her "little man" out for trips with her own kids, to skating rinks and train rides and holiday events.

"He's a really good dancer," she said. "He loves to dance."

Iverson went to an early birthday party for DaCorey, now 7, at Chuck E. Cheese's this month and bought him a remote-control Spider-Man figure. Weeks later, he still hadn't used it because he had no batteries.

The goal for Iverson's Good Girls Club, and for her intervention into DaCorey's life, she said, is to show children that better choices bring more options, that helping others is a noble path no matter how difficult it is. "I don't want it to be the same cycle," she said.

Comparisons to Iraq

Camden's cycle of violence and poverty has been spinning for decades, steadily working up steam as jobs and the middle class left town and options shrank for those who remained.

For more than a decade, Camden's been known as one of the nation's most dangerous and poorest cities, attracting worldwide media attention. Reports have compared Camden to Iraq and various other war zones, and its acres of abandoned houses have posed on their last legs for many cameras.

The reality, officials have said countless times, is that most violence stays inside the city's drug trade. Still, if you've lived there long enough, it's common to know someone who's been shot.

Iverson can recall about 20 friends or relatives who've been shot in Camden. One of them was her son, Tayron Brown.

On Sept. 11, Brown was walking with his girlfriend near Hornet and Congress roads, in the city's Fairview section, when a masked gunman opened fire. Brown, 19, was shot four times and survived.

Iverson, despite the shooting, said that she's never felt safer in Camden.

According to the most recent statistics, Tayron Brown was one of 99 people who survived after being shot in Camden in 2014. As of Dec. 17, the city had experienced 27 fatal shootings, and 32 homicide victims in all.

A stunning turnaround

In 2012 and 2013, the homicide rate reached record highs as Camden was in a controversial transition from its depleted city-run police department to the new Camden County Metro Police Department.

This year, as the new Metro staff continues to grow, homicides are down more than 50 percent compared with 2012, and violent crimes in total are down 22 percent over the last two years.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson credits the turnaround to a focus on community policing, becoming "guardians instead of warriors," walking beats and engaging the public face-to-face.

"This is a completely different police department," Thomson said during a recent interview. "I think 2014 set the stage. I think we showed that there's hope."

When viewed from the perspective of 25 years, however, Camden's sharp drop in homicides this year resembles a valley in a mountain chain that surrounds the city. Few can see the city hidden behind its murder numbers.

In 1989, for example, there were just 25 homicides in a Camden that had a higher population. The number rose to 58 in 1995 and fell to 28 the following year because of an influx of New Jersey State Police. Numbers continued to rise and fall with lows of 24 in 1999 and 2000, and a record of 67 in 2012.

Sgt. Bob Chew, a 17-year veteran of both departments, investigated many of those slayings, and as he drove through the city in a Metro SUV on a weekday just before Christmas, he could recall them like ghosts from his past.

At one scene, in Cramer Hill, a sign "In Memory of Gambino" staked into the grass near a strip of stores was for Gabriel Crespo, who was shot dead there on May 21, 2013.

Chew stopped to talk to every young, new officer and trainee he spotted along the route. He said he believes that the new department has prevented slayings and has enabled law-abiding citizens to believe in a better life beyond the gunshots.

"There's good people here, people who take care of their houses and live good lives," said Chew, 47. "I've found that mostly what they want to do is live a normal life, just like anybody else in any other town."

Eight days after DaCorey got his basketball set, a man was shot and killed on his Haddon Avenue block, about 100 yards from the front porch where he plays.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, DaCorey was asleep behind his mother, Khadijah Rex, on a couch in their living room.

Other adults were there, too, along with toddlers and teenagers and one young boy who sprang from a couch to sweep candy wrappers from the floor.

Everyone was watching YouTube wedding videos on a large television. The basketball set sat next to it.

Khadijah Rex, 32, a quiet mother of four, said she doesn't work. She was born and raised in Camden and prefers to "stay inside" and spend time with her family.

Life in Camden has gotten worse, Rex said. But when asked about her son, she simply said: "He happy."

Christmas parade

On the night of Camden's fourth annual Christmas Parade, DaCorey kept popping his head out the door, peering up and down the street, waiting for Iverson to take him downtown.

Later, as the parade made its way down Market Street, DaCorey raced Iverson's daughters, climbed a staircase and broke out his dance moves. He talked about school and his favorite subject - math.

"You know, one plus one and two plus two," he said. "That kind of stuff."

DaCorey hadn't been to the parade before, but was hoping that Santa would be there. He wanted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and WWE wrestling action figures, but wasn't sure how it worked because he didn't have a Christmas tree.

"Wrestling guys do this," he said, bouncing off a chain as if it were the ropes around a ring.

Iverson stood on the sidewalk, shivering. She had to go to her job working security at a transportation terminal later that night.

"He's a sweet boy," Iverson said, as she stood in the cold. "I think he's seen a lot."

Santa was there, and the crowd followed him to the Camden Children's Garden near the aquarium for hot chocolate, snacks and a chance to meet the big man in person. DaCorey had never been to the aquarium or the garden, and wasn't sure he'd ever been on a carousel, but his eyes lit up when he spotted its rabbit, rooster, hummingbird and shark spinning around in the distance.

"I want to ride the shark," he proclaimed, and Iverson hoisted him atop it minutes later.

Inside the garden's steamy butterfly house, DaCorey walked slowly along a pathway, reaching out for any little wings that fluttered past him. A monarch butterfly landed on his wrist and when asked if he'd held one before, he just stared at its little black-and-orange wings.

DaCorey peered into a glass tank containing a row of butterfly chrysalises. They all used to be wriggling caterpillars, DaCorey learned, and someday soon they'd hatch open and spread their wings right there in Camden.

"Oh, my gosh," he said, his nose pressed against the tank.