Turn Down The Volume So We See

ImageNew Visions Homeless Day Shelter- Downtown

By Alex Meier

The other week, as the result of a chance encounter and bit of serendipity, I saw how easily people tend to trust their eyes blindly. Bright and early on a Tuesday morning, a group of us from DeSales Service Works visited New Visions, a homeless shelter with a name so coincidently appropriate for TheCamden5 that it sounds like I made it up.

After we helped serve breakfast, the organizers encouraged us to talk with the patrons in the common room. I scanned the tables scattered with men and women, blacks and whites—some staring blankly at the TV, some staring blankly into nothing.

Perhaps my early morning grogginess casted a pessimistic shadow over my head, because at that moment, New Visions Homeless Day Shelter was the last place I wanted to be. The sight of torn clothes, scabbed skin, and calloused hands seemed utterly unwelcoming and alien.

I didn’t believe I had the energy to attempt to relate to these people. But afraid of looking ridiculously uncomfortable, I joined two other volunteers who were listening attentively to a man flailing his arms.

The man, sporting a cloud-white beard that contrasted his dark skin, introduced himself and asked each of us for our names.

“Meg,” said the girl on the right.

“Kelly,” said the girl in the center.

“And mine?” he requested, looking directly at Kelly.

She paused. Uh-oh.

“I’m really bad with names. It happens all the time. Please, don’t take it personally.”

He tsk’ed and shook his head. “No, no, no! Never, ever, say you’re bad with names. That’s giving yourself an excuse.” He frowned. “It’s Clifton, by the way.”

Kelly blushed.

“No one’s actually bad with names,” Clifton explained. “The problem is—people just forget how to use their five senses properly.”

(At that moment, my ears perked up).

“For example, when you hear the word ‘tree’, what does your brain do?” he asked. “It doesn’t spell out the word ‘tree’, the letters that indicate the way ‘tree’ exists as a sound. No. You see big, tall, green, brown. You see bark, leaves, maybe some apples or pears. You see ‘tree.’”

We gleamed, perhaps out of surprise. (I learned about the same concept in linguistic anthropology last semester. How did he know that?)

“Look,” he instructed, as he drew a stick figure standing on the end of a cliff. “I give this to people when they ask me for their number. Then they never forget my name.”

Cliff-ton. Clever.

“Think about it,” he continued. “Let’s say you’re driving your car, blasting music. You’re going to a party at a house you’ve never visited before. When it’s time to look for the house number, without thinking about it, you turn down the volume on the radio! Now why’s that?”

He grinned at us impishly, knowing we didn’t have the answer.

“Your brain wants to shift its activity from the region of your brain that processes sound to the one that processes sight,” he pointed out. “The same goes for when you lean in to kiss someone. Your eyes instinctively close so you can focus on feeling the other person’s lips. You know, each of the five senses give us a unique method for interpreting our surroundings, but sometimes, we forget how to use them.”

Clifton’s insight reaffirmed my purpose for creating TheCamden5. Too often we believe we understand our world by looking at its surface. But life is multifaceted, calling for our eyes, ears, tongues, fingers, and nose to peel open each sticky layer.

If we turn down the volume of the rumors, we can see the faces of the homeless, the poor, the marginalized. If we cover our eyes from the gaps in their teeth, dirt on their faces, and holes in their arms, we can focus on feeling their struggles, their pain, their stories.

Just as Clifton began segueing into another lesson about the inner-workings of the brain, a lady from across the room called him over.

“Excuse me for just one moment,” he pardoned himself.

When Clifton walked away, a man from the adjacent table leaned toward us and motioned for us to come closer.

“Don’t tell him I told you this, but Clifton, he’s smart—used to be a brain surgeon,” he whispered. “Goes to show what Camden can do to a man.”


How to Make Potluck Meals

Bryan Morton: North Camden

By Alex Meier


Start with a full house of kids. Add two cup of laughter and one cup of screams. Stir in some neighbors. Combine a dash of music, a pinch of bingo, and a teaspoon of hospitality. 

Bryan Morton’s childhood tasted like a big bowl of his grandmother’s gumbo. His house in North Camden, filled to the brim with six siblings, was always sprinkled with the spicy sounds of music and the distinct accents of his Spanish, white, and Asian neighbors.

Just like each bite of the Cajun dish, every day had a new flavor for Bryan. One minute he and the neighborhood kids would play football in the schoolyard, the next they’d race go-karts in the streets. The fun continued into the evening. As the young’ins freeze tagged, parents crowded the porches of State Street.

The Morton door was opened wide to visitors and at anytime, a part of his extensively extended family could drop by. Despite being poor, Bryan’s grandmother would never let  a guest leave her house without a satisfied stomach. Therefore, mastering the art of cooking potluck meals was essential for maintaining affordable hospitality.

Perhaps his grandmother’s Southern roots gave her the spell that charmed her kitchen. She’d grab two onions from the ‘fridge, snatch a potato from a cabinet, and presto! a deliciously pieced-together meal would appear from what seemed like nowhere.

After enjoying one of grandma’s many from-scratch specialties, the family would settle in the living room and play Po-Ke-No, Monopoly, checkers, chess, bingo, whatever! The game didn’t matter, as long as it was the spoon that blended the family together at the end of the night.

Place the city in a colander to drain out the jobs. Cut back the spices. 

Take out one ingredient, and your stew could turn sour. As jobs were drained from the city in the ‘80s, they grabbed on to parents’ ankles and dragged them along. Bryan’s mother, along with many other adults in the neighborhood, exchanged their seats on their porches for a late night’s work in Philadelphia. Others found themselves tangled into the drug web in order to put food on the table.

Home, for the kids left behind, was no longer protected by the safety of a community pieced together by parents. Entering his teenaged years, Bryan listened to Camden’s volume turning down.

“The unity, the fun, the laughter—the beautiful sounds were now replaced with silence or siren wails. Gunshots. You could stand in a park for hours, and you wouldn’t hear kids laughing,” Bryan recalled. “When I walk through the park and I don’t hear kids’ laughter, it strikes me as wrong immediately.”

Bland, colorless, stripped of its flavor, the city tasted like rice cakes.

Unless you had drugs to spice it up.

The corner dealers’ bright clothes, flashy jewelry and shiny rims on their cars looked as delectable as a big chunk of rainbow-sprinkled birthday cake. And 13-year-old Bryan, the poor boy with beat-up sneakers, craved a bite.

“Kids are like monkeys. You put a shiny object in front of them, and they lose their mind,” Bryan said. “That’s what the drug trade culture is. We put in front of you a bunch of objects. We overwhelm you visually. And then we come and we talk to you when know other adults aren’t around.”

Initially, the fast high and the even faster money tickled his tastebuds with euphoria, empowerment and release from his rice-caked home. He saw no need for hard work, community—the pieces of a potluck life. He had his blue-icing cool.

When arrested at age 16, he thought he could maintain this attitude. He stood tough and proud as he called home from jail. Yet when he heard his grandmother’s voice pick up on the other line, he broke down, crying like a baby.

You’ll never feel fully nourished living off birthday cake.

Still, the yearning for home could not unstick Bryan from a hot and heavy drug addiction.

Everyday, he woke up with an instinctual urge to chase his high, chase his escape. He followed it down the darkest alleys of Camden, into loneliness, coldness, and eventually homelessness.

By age 18, he became a father. By age 20, he was incarcerated for 10 years for dealing.

Freeze for 10 years. 

His new life of handcuffs, plexiglass, and sally ports encased Bryan’s heated spirit and froze it to the bone.

“When you’re surrounded by concrete, glass, steal—everything is cold,” he revealed. “We begin to reflect that inside of our persona. You can’t survive in a place made of ice when you’re walking around with sunshine. You begin to kill your own spark. The light in your eyes is replaced by the glint of steel.”

No longer was he called Son, contributor to a family, Daddy, caretaker of his daughter, or Bryan, manager of responsibilities. Morton 08100999, as the prison guards called him, was a number, unaccountable for the other steel faces of his peers.

The warmth of home—the soft beds, hot meals, hugs, and kisses— felt alien to Bryan. Home was no longer safe: he found comfort in the coldness.

But through it all, ankle chains never shackled the memories of his past.

Strip off the pride, then thaw.

Before his decade in prison, Bryan experienced a moment before his sentencing that marked the beginning of his gradual transformation.

He stood in front of a judge with only a public defender by his side. Awaiting his inevitable fate, Bryan scanned the court and made eye contact with a familiar face. She was rather insignificant, a family friend, but what she mouthed to him from across the room would hold weight on the rest of Bryan’s future.

“Where is your family?”

Where was Bryan’s family? He didn’t know. Family was a piece that did not fit into Mr. Big Shot’s birthday-caked, rainbow-sprinkled drug game. Twenty-year-old Bryan was no longer on speaking terms with his mother or grandmother. Throughout his teenaged years, he’d set their relationships in the far corner of the cabinet, leaving them to rot.

The realization that he was alone killed the person Bryan had become.

”I was finally awakened to the fact that all the potential that I have was meaningless,” he remembered. “Every plan that I had was gone. The people that loved me didn’t care right now.”

So despite the handcuffs, plexiglass, and sally ports, a cold and desensitized Bryan took hold of any opportunity that could lead to self-improvement. He pieced together a new self with simple ingredients: phone calls to home, bits of advice, self-evaluations.

Most importantly, the memory of his gumbo-flavored childhood was the oven that kept Bryan cooking. This was the foundation that turned Bryan Morton into the highly motivated, college-educated community activist and leader that he is today.

Add three cups of laughter, two tablespoons of teamwork and the crack of a baseball bat. Stir in some friendship. Mix well and enjoy.


After returning to North Camden from serving hard time, Bryan looked around the neighborhood and noticed a change. No longer could kids play in the school yards, read at the libraries, work summer jobs, or play for a local baseball team.

Their only spaces were trash-drizzled, weed-filled, needle-infested community parks.

And from his desire to prevent others from creating a recipe for disaster similar to his own, Bryan took initiative. He organized and now coaches for North Camden Little League, an opportunity for the girls and boys of the neighborhood to come together and play ball at Pyne Poynt Park.

“We’re here. We’re on the field. It’s baseball, let’s play,” he said. “Let’s laugh. Let’s pick each other up when we fail. Let’s not laugh at each other’s fallings or misgivings. Let’s wrap our arms around one another.”

Bryan hopes his constant presence as a strong adult figure shows his teams that drug dealers aren’t the only role models, and that hard work his OK. Through their struggles, he hopes that the kids realize the community will always have their backs, always turning down the easy way out.

“Standing for something is what should be expected from each and every one of us. Being supportive of one another, being supportive of the struggles, is a part of life. It’s when we run from these challenges that we become lesser people,” he said.

Just like his grandmother pieced together items from the kitchen to cook a meal, just like she pieced together odd jobs to afford a home,  Bryan used baseball to piece together a renewed community for the residents of North Camden.

“That’s the biggest gift my grandmother gave me: how to make potluck meals,” he said. “It’s showing everybody that we all have something we can put in, so the end product is much greater than the sum of our parts.”

What Do They Fear?

Kids from Holy Name School

By Alex Meier


Remember those nights after mommy kissed you goodnight and turned off the lights? Tucked in tightly under the sheets, you could have pinky-promised that you heard hissing under the bed or saw a reddish glow in your closet. Some nights fear would churn inside your belly and tingle between your toes. It only settled once realized those monsters existed inside your head.

But for kids living in Camden, where real monsters preyed on 67 victims last year, does that fear go away? Does it follow them to school, hide inside their lunch boxes, and wait in their bookbags on their walks home? What do they fear?

“Clowns!,” according to Brianna, a fifth grader who lives downtown. “And spiders! I have a dream that clowns are gonna take over the world. There ain’t gonna be no zombie apocalypse, there’s gonna be a clown apocalypse.”

“I was scared of Dracula,” said Ernid, a third grader from North Camden. “Now I know that he’s not real.”

”I’m afraid of the dark because I see scary shadows,” said Aniya, a fourth grader from the Fairview neighborhood. “Eh, it’s okay. I got over it because I have a night light in my room.”


For many Camden children, their feelings of fear are just as silly, imaginative, and conquerable as the fears of any other kid in America. Children perceive their world through a clean lens, not yet dirtied by insecurities, pride, or supposed political-correctness of adulthood. Therefore, I visited the kids at Holy Name School in North Camden to see how they interpret the city they call home.

I noticed that their little ears are not clogged by the sounds of hate, their noses are not overwhelmed the smells of poverty. Their taste buds, instead, reflect their raíces latina, as many of their mouths watered when talking about chef mommy’s dinner specialties. Savory chicken, rice, and beans are a proud staple of their diet. Brianna and her friend Hadyee gasped when I told them I’ve never eaten patalios or patelles.

The rhythms of machata and salsa that pulsate throughout many of their homes also reflect their unique Latino-American culture. But no one can deny that Boy Band Fever plagues little Camdenitas—not a day goes by in aftercare without a girl singing One Direction’s “Kiss You”.

The sense of community in Aniya’s neighborhood is so strong she can smell it—literally. She said every weekend in the summer, the aroma of barbecues emanates from cookouts camped in the front yards along her street.


But undeniably, these kids cannot avoid noticing the ugliness that creeps into their peripheral vision.

“A lot of people are killing each other,” Hadyee remarked hesitantly. “There’s a lot of deaths.”

Even as a young second grader, Jonayrs knows drug dealers occupy her corner. “Cops, cops, cops, cops, cops everywhere,” she complained.

Many hear stories about kids selling coke, messing with guns, and losing their innocence. But Camden will not stop from Brianna doing gymnastics, Ernid from riding his bike or fifth grader Xavier from playing football—it will not stop the Holy Name kids from being kids. I felt confident in claiming this after asking the kids: “What makes you feel happy?”

“My school,” said some.

“My family,” said others.

Listening to Camden with an Ear on the Door

Dante Spain: Downtown, North Camden

By Alex Meier


Photograph courtesy of Molly Easton


It’s time to play “Guess That Sound”.

On a warm summer day, the sound is reminiscent of miniature firecrackers Dante bought from the corner bodegas as a young kid.

But daylight doesn’t always outshine Camden’s darkness.

The pop from a gunshot has become all too familiar to Dante. Judging by loudness and number of rounds let off, he and his friends began competing with one another in guessing the make of the gun.

“You’ve been around something for a good frame of time, you get immune to it,” he said. “You make a mockery of it.”

Dante knows deadly pops are merely spurts of thunder caused by the storm of the drug culture—the heavy, iron-colored cloud casting its shadow over the city streets. He heard its fury when living in New York and Atlanta, but he believes nothing can compare to its impact on Camden.

The rumble of the drug world does not deafen Dante as it has for some of the city’s black, 20-something men. Rather, he listens with an ear pressed against the door, with one foot resting on its threshold and the other forced outside.

Dante’s involvement with nonprofits causes this state of liminality. Shortly after moving here, he joined Hopeworks N’ Camden, an organization that helps pave futures for at-risk youth through education, technology, and entrepreneurship. I met him when he lived in its residential community, the C.R.I.B., but since he’s moved across the street to where I intern, DeSales Service Works.

From the windows of DeSales we share relatively similar perceptions. The dog-like whimpers of addiction melodically coordinate with Fr. Mike’s welcomes to street dwellers. We hear hope in the prayers of community members backdropped by gritos  leaking from the city streets.

But unlike me, Dante has black skin, a broken family, and an urban background—an unwelcome invitation to trouble.

Whether a request for a dime bag or glare from a passerby, racist profiling blends Dante in with the black market. His frustrations further swell when watching money pour onto smiling drug kings while money from his honest work barely drips into his pockets. Where does society dump him if he doesn’t want to work the streets?

Dante answered this question by pushing himself into the world of hip hop.

Wanting to feel motivated, wanting to find a place for themselves, he and his friend D.J. created P.U.S.H. An acronym for Put Up Some Heart, the initiative aims to bring artists together who believe in the mission of working hard for their dreams.

“We felt like we were being pushed around by society,” he said. “We wanted to show the world that we can take these skills that we’ve acquired and put it toward a vision that we want, that no one says you have to be like.”

Although Dante’s starting off small, music is his passion and will continue to be a part of his life, whether or not he will make it in the industry. He believes the music has helped him survive and keeps his head high.

He knows hip hop is the heartbeat to the song of the city. When pop! the media plays guess that sound, they only listen to words that make the headlines and filter out the rest. For the people of Camden, hip hop may be the only mirror of their stories, the only mainstream acknowledgement of the worries and fears that feed the drug culture’s storm.

“It gave the minority an identity. What comes with identity is self esteem, pride. It’s a way of expression.” he said. “Camden without hip hop—Camden would be like a Third World country. You would never hear the things that go on. A lot of people out here couldn’t speak for themselves. ”