In US urban decay, ex-drug dealer is glimmer of hope

In US urban decay, ex-drug dealer is glimmer of hope
Anthony Dillard, a former drug dealer turned street artist and entrepreneur, poses April 4, 2014 in front of some of his mural paintings made on abandoned houses in Camden, New Jersey. Amid the urban decay of Camden, New Jersey -- one of the poorest and most dangerous of US cities -- a former drug dealer who did prison time is pushing to give his community a new lease on life.

CAMDEN, United States - Amid the urban decay of Camden, New Jersey - one of the poorest and most dangerous of US cities - a former drug dealer who did prison time is pushing to give his community a new lease on life.

"I was not supposed to be on this side of statistics - to be alive, free, to take care of my kids," Anthony Dillard, now an entrepreneur and artist, told AFP.

Grateful for his reversal of fortune, the bearded, soft-spoken 40-year-old with a broad smile decided to try to make a difference.

Together with his partner AJ Riggs, he created a fashion label last year - "Made in Camden" - in the aim of "restoring the morale and pride of our community." Dillard is hoping that his creations - from baby onesies to bright T-shirts - can help put the city back on the map for reasons other than ruin and rampant crime.

Raised by his grandmother in what used to be a predominantly Polish neighborhood, Dillard says he knows what it's like having to live off very little.

"We were poor but we had food on the table, clean clothes, some heat," he said.

And yet, as a teenager, he succumbed to the temptation of selling drugs on street corners for hard cash.

It all started when he was just 15.

"I began to notice our economic situation - my grandmother couldn't get me new sneakers," he said.

"I had been an academically gifted student but then I became a 15-year-old boy with $1,000 in my pocket." Reflecting back on that life-changing move, Dillard added wistfully: "I dropped out of high school for the lure of gold chains and new sneakers." It got him 10 years behind bars.

City in shambles

When Dillard left prison in 2009, Camden was in ruins.

Today, several years later, most of the houses are abandoned, their windows boarded up. Many are on the verge of collapse. Whole blocks have been reduced to rubble.

In the streets - where Dillard says drugs are a huge business - small groups of men loiter, giving strangers unfriendly looks. Nearby, frail young women sport blank stares.

But it all used to be so different, recalled Karl Walko, a union leader who also grew up here.

"In the 50s and 60s, you came here to shop, you could find everything," he said. "It was a hub." Camden, located not far from Philadelphia, was indeed once abuzz with shipyards, and the proud home of both the RCA record label and a bustling Campbell's Soup factory.

But then the shipyards and the factory were shuttered and replaced by cement and wastewater treatment plants that employ few but pollute considerably.

The city has also been the victim of massive mismanagement.

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