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On the Ground: An arts oasis blooms in Waterfront South

Cassie Macdonald and Chris Haw at the Firehouse - Camden



The Firehouse, under renovation

detail of old stair post that Haw is revitalizing

Haw is reusing alot of original lumber for the project


Down the street from the firehouse, the future site of a peotry house

Renovations to Houses closeby


More renovation across the street from the Firehouse

The Star Theatre

Heart of Camden

Inside the Star Theatre

Writers's Alley

Writer's Alley

Compared to Waterfront South, most neighborhoods in Camden have got it good. In one of the poorest, most violent cities in the United States, this area is notable for its staggering rates of unemployment, childhood cancer, asthma and other assorted health plagues, wrought by more than a century's worth of pollution emitted by heavy industrial land uses. 

But as some optimists say, out of the darkest night comes day, and in the heart of Waterfront South, dawn is nigh for a small community of artists who believe an emerging studio and gallery space will bring light to the neighborhood. 

"It's my tiny effort to get productive work space back in the neighborhood," says professional carpenter, peaceworker and theologian Chris Haw. He has spent the past three years gutting the inside of a 1886 firehouse that, since its decommissioning in the 1980s, has functioned as a half-way house, apartment building and home to a series of minor social programs. Haw works under the umbrella of Heart of Camden, a non-profit organization started by the neighborhood's anchor, Sacred Heart Church, and its internationally regarded pastor and poverty activist, Msgr. Michael Doyle. 

Thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSEG), Haw has salvaged and restored most of the wood from the interior of the firehouse, which he'll repurpose as ceiling beams, stairs and flooring. He has framed out six studios and the gallery, and recently installed three high-gloss, 200-pound mahogany doors. Within the next few weeks, he's expecting approval and disbursement of a $500,000 grant from the state's Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit program that should allow him to complete the restoration within the year. 

"The firehouse has been a scar on the neighborhood for over a decade," he says. "It's a gorgeous building and we wanted to beautify it. Remodeled useful space almost never goes to waste." 

Several artists from the neighborhood have already claimed below-to-low-market rate studios, including South Philly transplant Cassie MacDonald, who's launching a printing business with a donated 5000-pound press built in the 1950s, and Willie Barnes, a 64-year-old ex-con and metalworker who specializes in converting 55-gallon drums into barbecue grills.

Barnes, a welder-by-trade who says he hasn't "finished grammar school yet," is known as both "the Mayor of Waterfront South" and "Black Jesus." He may have earned those nicknames by spending warm-weather days in his yard, informally teaching sculpting to local kids and teens. 

Once he opens his official metalworking shop, Barnes plans to formalize this teaching program, refurbish junked bikes and employ several workers to mass-produce his barbecue pits.

"My income will come from building barbecue pits for private people," he says. "But I'm more interested in money for this community. I'm looking to bring art here; something brand new. It'll be educational, beneficial and rewarding, and it'll set me in a lot of ease. I want [my students] to achieve things they didn't think they could do. You give them something to do and they run with it. That's what makes me rich."

Barnes is part of a group of about ten neighborhood artists who occasionally get together to perform what they call "guerilla poetry" -- spray-painting poetry on abandoned buildings; they also gather for performances and peace workshops at MacDonald's house, a salon of sorts she calls "Brigid's House." 

Barnes and MacDonald expect that the art space, dubbed "FireWorks," will bring new creative energy into Waterfront South and add to the existing corridor. The stretch already features the newly renovated Waterfront South Theatre, the fledgling Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum, the studio of internationally renowned religious artist Brother Mickey O'Neill McGrath and the church (which draws parishioners from across South Jersey). When the funding comes through, another abandoned building on Broadway will become a café and video production studio owned and leased by Heart of Camden; Rutgers-Camden has already expressed interest in housing its Nick Virgilio Haiku Association there. Supporters envision an art crawl in the not-too-distant future.

"One thing that attracted me to this neighborhood is that there was a sense of possibilities, of space for things to happen," says MacDonald. "There aren't a lot of places you can paint poetry on a building. It's not quite anarchy -- it's not quite that chaotic. But there's a sense of freedom where I could grow these things that are mutually supportive among people who view arts as a change agent."

To Haw, Barnes and MacDonald, FireWorks is a place that cultivates and supports workmanship -- the same workmanship that buoyed Waterfront South in the first half of the 20th century when it was home to both international and artisanal companies. 

Haw says that, these days, most of the money that flows into Waterfront South's residential areas comes carried on the backs of drug dealers and prostitutes. But if he and others like him can reclaim and rehab the larger structures in the neighborhood, he believes they -- along with the newcomers these projects hope to attract -- can honor the community and its proud history.

"The FireWorks would be really expressing what is wonderful about work," says MacDonald. "You have something at the end of the day that you make with your hands. It will be a place where that spirit and pride is restored. In a place where people are struggling, that's a really powerful feeling to have."

TARA NURIN is a freelance writer based in South Jersey. Send feedback here.


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