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Kevin Riordan: Mayor Redd, tear down these walls

In Camden, where derelict buildings are all over the map, there's no comprehensive - much less current - list of vacant properties.

In Camden, where derelict buildings are all over the map, there's no comprehensive - much less current - list of vacant properties.

"Everyone finds that hard to believe," says Stephen Singer, executive director of CamConnect, a nonprofit data-collection and analysis group. "Even in City Hall there are people who find it hard to believe."

At least 22 electronic or paper lists generated by public and private entities do catalog at least some Camden lots and buildings by certain criteria. CamConnect hopes to combine them into a master list, verified and updated by in-person surveys into a state-of-the-art tool for tackling one of the city's most visible problems.

Camden Churches Organized for People looks forward to presenting such a list to Mayor Dana Redd, whom CCOP is lobbying to make vacant properties a priority.

Potentially hazardous to the public, derelict buildings also depress property values; CCOP's previous campaign against them had some success in the 1990s. Last summer, the group sponsored an "ugliest house" contest to raise awareness of abandoned buildings.

"We're not trying to bash the city," says CCOP member Mandi Aviles, youth director at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cramer Hill. "We want to sit down with Mayor Redd and say, 'Who can we bring to the table to make this better?' "

I catch up with Redd as she launches her ambitious Camden Clean Campaign in Northgate Park. It's precisely the sort of big-picture, public-private effort that CCOP wants the mayor to lead against blighted buildings.

"We're moving in that direction, and I've met with CCOP on a number of occasions," Redd says. "CCOP has to keep in mind that I've been in office five months, and I have a lot to address from the past nine years of the city being under state control. It's a capacity-building process so we can do what residents, including CCOP, want."

Fair enough.

But meanwhile, "Casualties of a Broken System," as a recent CCOP publication is titled, include folks like Emily Edwards.

A 58-year-old Camden native and mother of two, Edwards lived at 857 N. 28th St. in Cramer Hill for 30 years - until the vacant house attached to hers was torched last June.

"The fireman let me run back in for my pocketbook," Edwards says, apologizing for her tears. The presence of the vacant house made fire insurance unaffordable, and "I lost everything," she adds. "Every last thing."

Now Edwards lives with her daughter in Ablett Village, and debris from her paid-off home is mixed with the remains of the former house at 859 N. 28th. The latter had been empty since a 2003 fire, and Edwards had tried repeatedly to have it torn down.

"I went down to the city, and they sent me up to one floor and another," she recalls. "So many runarounds."

Just looking at the Kafkaesque "flow chart" that CCOP put together based on Edwards' attempted navigation of the municipal bureaucracy gives me a headache.

"And this is just for board-ups and demolitions," CCOP's Joshua Chisholm observes.

Nevertheless, simply blaming bureaucrats "is too easy," Singer says. "There are good people in City Hall who are working hard."

True. But even if Camden had all the money it needed for demolitions and board-ups, City Hall's turf issues and communication breakdowns could well bring the next Emily Edwards to tears.

There's also the fact that many vacant structures, particularly houses, can be rehabilitated - say by members of the Camden Community Development Association.

"A new list is important," says Liza Nolan, director of CCDA, which is composed of 15 nonprofit housing developers. "What's done with the information moving ahead is also important."

That's where leadership - particularly from a new mayor - comes in.

Camden mayors are traditionally wary of CCOP, particularly because of its independence and media savvy.

That has been the pattern for more than 20 years. It's time for Redd to break that mold.