CAMDEN Roosevelt Plaza in the shadow of Camden City Hall looked like a park one day last week. Wreaths were wrapped around lampposts. A man on his way to a barbershop took in the peaceful scene as he walked past empty benches and the fresh snow covering the grass.
The vista was far different this time last year: As the city closed out its most violent year, the lawn was covered not with snow but with nearly 100 white crosses bearing the names and ages of victims from 2012 and earlier. An antiviolence group had hammered a knee-high cross into the ground in a mournful ceremony to mark each homicide.
The group, Stop Trauma on People, said it intended to shame city officials into action and to decry the trauma of living in a city beset by poverty and violence.
But the crosses also stirred discomfort. Camden needed to "remember the dead, but we don't need to do it in that capacity at City Hall," Councilman Brian Coleman said then. The makeshift graveyard inadvertently underscored the image of the violent city, possibly discouraging visitors and business, Coleman said. A local businessman then offered a grimmer analogy - he said it looked like the site of a plane crash.
The antiviolence group said those concerns had nothing to do with the absence of the crosses this year.
It had intended to keep the crosses up only through the end of 2012 to recognize the living and spur conversation about the trauma residents endure, said the Rev. Jeff Putthoff, a Jesuit priest who is a leader of the group and who heads the Hopeworks 'N Camden youth development nonprofit.
Instead, the group hopes for a permanent, dedicated public space in the same park, where people can gather to mourn and leave mementoes. The city appears to be committed to providing such a space, but officials haven't offered details.
This year, as the homicide tally has crept above 50, the group turned its focus to organizing a "trauma summit," which drew more than 200 people in May, and workshops in the summer, Putthoff said.
A second trauma summit is planned and the group is close to getting up to 10 nonprofits to commit to undergoing a three-year training program to understand the impact of the continual stress and trauma on the people they serve and help them heal, Putthoff said.
"The chronic exposure that people in Camden live with is analogous to a continuous Hurricane Sandy," Putthoff said.
He added: "We are a city that constantly focuses on symptoms, what's above the surface," he said. This year, we're trying to deal with what's below the surface."
Camden resident Ketsy Crespo, 39, a patient-service representative at Cooper University Hospital whose brother Edwin, 33, was killed in November 2012, attended the trauma summit at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
"It was sad, to be honest with you, to hear what people were going through with the loss of their loved ones," Crespo said.
She said although the summit was therapeutic for her, the crosses were eye-opening. She said they did not present a negative image but a realistic one.
"Before it happened to my brother, I wasn't aware it was so many people," Crespo said.
Mayor Dana L. Redd's spokesman, Robert Corrales, said the city had recently received a $1.3 million federal grant to implement a violence-reduction program. He also cited the work of a new county police force that replaced the nearly 184-year-old city force in April and that is expected to grow to 400 officers.
The new force's Metro Division patrols only Camden, which "has already seen some positive outcome," the Mayor's Office said.
This year under the force, which patrols citywide but which has flooded the Parkside and Fairview neighborhoods, there have been 52 homicides - 13 fewer than this time last year, when there were a record 67 homicides.
In a statement this year, the city said it was "committed to seeking a permanent display within the city that would celebrate the life and memories of our loved ones."
Corrales on Friday did not provide an update on the status of the project.
Putthoff said he was disappointed the city hadn't yet established the space.
"We're looking to create a space to be able to remember what's being done to people in the city," he said. "The only way to heal is to feel; that's why the memorial is important."
The antiviolence group began planting the crosses in October last year as the death toll rose. Putthoff asked religious institutions in the region, including Our Lady of Good Counsel in Moorestown, where he is a visiting priest, to speak out against violence in Camden.
Crosses then popped up at Our Lady of Good Counsel and at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in North Philadelphia in solidarity.
Those involved said they were driven by religious conviction. A physician who is also a deacon at Our Lady of Good Counsel said he was driven by the Hippocratic Oath.
The field of crosses was finally cleared at the end of the year, with each one offered to a family of the victims during an annual vigil.
In Camden last week, Livingston Benjamin, a consultant who works with small and medium-sized businesses, liked what he didn't see in Roosevelt Plaza.
He agreed with assertions that the crosses perpetuated an image of the city that scares away visitors and businesses.
"I'm glad they didn't put them up this year. The city already had an image problem," Benjamin, of Pennsauken, said last week as he cut across the park on the way to get a haircut. "They need to shed that image instead of encouraging it."