They came to Camden decades ago for the American dream, and they refuse to leave.

They are the Whitman Park stalwarts - elderly Polish immigrants living in one of the most dangerous and dilapidated neighborhoods in the city.

But they remain Camden cheerleaders, held together by their church - St. Joseph's - and the spirit of the diverse residents who now populate a neighborhood once full of Polish bakeries, delicatessens, and other businesses that dominated the Mount Ephraim Avenue strip.

"People think, 'Oh, Camden, it's nothing but drugs and prostitutes,' and, yes, there's that, but there's also a lot of amazing people," said Barbara Olejnik, who lives next to her 100-year-old mother in Whitman Park, where she has resided since 1950.

Their street is one of the more stable ones. It's a neighborhood that despite decay, the old-timers say, has maintained a community feel, with the residents knowing and looking out for one another.

The New York shipyard, RCA Victor, and Campbell Soup attracted thousands to Camden in the first half of the 20th century.

Many immigrants found their own ethnic communities in the then-bustling city. They built homes. Opened businesses. Flocked to their neighborhood churches and synagogues. It was the story of not just Camden, but many cities in America.

Most of the Polish immigrants settled in Whitman Park. The Jews were in Fairview and East Camden; the Italians, in South Camden.

Fast-forward seven decades, and most of those neighborhoods have disappeared.

Census statistics show that in 1970, the Whitman Park neighborhood was almost entirely white (99.3 percent), and that most residents were of Polish background. In 2010, whites made up 1.6 percent of the neighborhood.

Members of the Polish community in Whitman Park are the "last hanging in there," said Phil Cohen, a former Camden resident who keeps a website on Camden's history.

What has kept them there?

"The church," Cohen says, speaking of St. Joseph's, at 10th and Liberty Streets. "They are very attached to the church."

Residents interviewed did not want their streets identified, fearing they might be targeted for a crime. They are aware of the realities of the city.

Defiant

Julia Dabek, now in her 80s, who survived dire conditions at a German labor camp during World War II before moving to Camden in the late 1940s, has been fighting with the city to demolish some of the boarded-up properties on her street.

She remains defiant and enjoys urban life. But she also does not want people to "think I am rich" and break into her house, or, worse, burn it.

Sophie Thompson, a Whitman Park resident since the 1950s, said she has had her home broken into 18 times in the last 15 years. Once, a thief from the neighborhood stood over her with a crowbar. She escaped unharmed.

After more than 50 years of living in Whitman Park and seeing its dramatic change, the Polish immigrants believe that their involvement will help turn the neighborhood around.

"Within five years, it will be much better, because they are tearing down a lot of the abandoned properties," Thompson said as she used an old broom to clean the sidewalk of dead leaves, food wrappers, and empty plastic and glass bottles.

'A cancer'

Though not as powerful as it once was, St. Joseph's is also still trying to play a role in the neighborhood.

"If a church thrives, a neighborhood can survive," said St. Joseph's resident priest, the Rev. Pawel Kryskiewicz, who has been in Camden for about five years.

He said he had ambitious ideas for turning the neighborhood around by making his church more inviting. He has replaced the fencing to make the church seem not as closed off. And he is considering switching from Polish to English hymns.

Boarded-up houses and drug dealers are scattered throughout the neighborhood. The city has identified 172 abandoned properties in Whitman Park, which is about one square mile, city spokesman Robert Corrales said. There are probably more.

"It's a cancer. People don't want to live next to abandoned properties," Olejnik said. "The vacant properties become [drug] holding houses or drop-off points. . . . If they can just knock those freaking things down, it would make such a difference."

Kryskiewicz, who lived in communist Poland, said he did not understand how a city in a first-rate country could go into such deep deterioration.

"This city should live as a European city that thrives on culture," Kryskiewicz said. Instead, he said, "it's a culture of less values, who can get ahead of who."

There's a bullet hole in one of the church's stained-glass windows, from shots fired this year.

"That tells me there's no sacredness. Nothing is sacred," he said.

Despite the violence in the neighborhood, St. Joseph's still attracts more than 700 parishioners - most former Camden residents - to English and Polish Masses.

The church, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last year, has been the cornerstone of the neighborhood since it was built.

Dabek arrived in Whitman Park in 1943 after spending two years in the labor camp during World War II. Her husband was also Polish.

"It was so beautiful when I moved here," Dabek said. "We had a school here, church here, stores here. We had a chocolate factory, a handbag factory, Campbell Soup."

Kazimiera Olejnik, who just turned 100, also survived Nazi labor camps. She was reunited with her husband in South Jersey in 1946. The couple moved to Camden in 1950.

The Olejniks settled on a far end of Whitman Park that used to be farm fields.

"They were the first house on the street," her daughter said.

Sophie Thompson was born in Germany to Polish parents who had been sold for cheap labor. They arrived in Camden in the early 1950s.

Thompson went to school in Camden, married, had a child, and divorced.

In 1969, just after divorcing, she bought her large corner house in the neighborhood, where she operated a beauty salon on the first floor. Her business lasted 25 years.

As she sweeps the sidewalk today, neighbors pass and say hello.

"That's my neighbor Teresa. We have really good neighbors here," she said.

Then a teenage boy came up to her, asking for money. She shook her head, unfazed. Urban life.

"You just have to have faith," she said.

But after years of watching a steep decline, it's tough.

Prodding the city

Dabek saw a set of rowhouses across her street burn to the ground in the early 1990s. Those were eventually demolished. But now she is dealing with a few houses on her side of the street that have been vacant and boarded-up for a few years.

After she nagged the city's Code Enforcement Department about those properties for a while, the city sent a crew to clean up. The next day, a mattress had already been dumped on the side alley.

She shakes her head as she tells the story, walking by the mattress and pointing to other new litter.

"What's the matter with people?" she said.

Chicken, not kielbasa

Dabek, who has a thick Polish accent, was struck by a motorcycle a few years ago while walking from the now-closed Pathmark grocery on Mount Ephraim. She still walks to shop and visit friends in the neighborhood.

"If Hitler didn't kill me, nobody kill me," she said.

Walk down "the Avenue," as Mount Ephraim was once called, and the latest sneakers, hair-braiding salons, and fried chicken can be found, not fresh kielbasa.

But to the Polish old-timers, that's all right. They enjoy the diversity.

The Olejniks and their neighbors hold a big block party every summer. There is Polish and Dominican food, and a Jamaican neighbor makes rum punch.

Those signs are encouraging, Councilman Brian Coleman said of his district.

The remaining Polish residents, he said, "have contributed significantly in keeping [the neighborhood] stable. They want to see it come back the way it used to be."

cvargas@phillynews.com