When you leave the baseball fields at Pyne Poynt Park in Camden, New Jersey, you can stroll two blocks south or one block west, and there, under a power line hung with sneakers, or here, next to a giant stuffed tiger tied to a telephone pole, you can most definitely buy dope and maybe powdered or crack cocaine, though that's not the flavor of the month, hasn't been for a decade. You could walk another few blocks and buy prescription drugs or weed. It's all right out in the open, nothing shy or taboo about it. Just the glassy-eyed tiger looking a bit rain-scraggy but also slightly menacing, and the roads are potholed and cracked, unlike those in Cherry Hill or Mount Laurel or any of the surrounding suburbs where most of the buyers live. Those customers usually grab what they need and get the hell out, but some get waylaid, dope-snagged, hook, line, and sinker, and move into one of the tent cities that have mushroomed along the edge of the neighborhood. The homeless addicts sport farmer's tans and use the neighborhood parks as shooting galleries. And the children of North Camden—a ten-by-twelve-block neighborhood, bounded by rivers on three sides and on the fourth by a freeway—have their own ghost stories to tell: We seen this dope fiend on the bridge making noises, going cack, cack, cack! and I yelled to my friend: Run, Ronald, run, the fiend's gonna get you!

Here, on the tiger's block, you'll come to the spot where a 24-year-old was gunned down last May, a newbie to the drug trade. That's why he was killed, people say: He just hadn't learned the ropes. Walk a bit farther west and you'll come to the John Wesley apartments, where the paved courtyard is almost always filled with kids in the warm weather and where two men were shot on June 3, one taking eight bullets but surviving. People say it was his fat that saved him; he was a big man.

Three years ago, Camden ranked as one of the poorest cities in the country and the single deadliest, with a murder rate twelve times the national average. That was also the year that Camden, faced with a mounting deficit, decided to lay off almost half its police force. Ah shit, everyone was thinking, this is when all bloody hell breaks loose. Some drug dealers printed up T-shirts proclaiming January 2011: It's Our Time.

And Bryan Morton? He had an idea: "Let's start a Little League."

Forty-two years old, thin in a springy, muscly sort of way, with a giant smile, a jutting chin, and light-color eyes, Bryan's not only the founder and president of the North Camden Little League, he coaches two of the teams. His 4-year-old daughter plays on his T-ball team, his 10-year-old son on the minor league Yankees. Last April he began registering kids for the league's third season at Northgate Park, where there's a playground and a sculptural fountain that used to work until some desperate junkie stole the copper piping.

When I meet up with Bryan, he's already negotiated an agreement with the dealers who normally post up inside the park. They're pacing the sidewalk just outside, and one of the crew, a very tall, supple man called Treetop, starts mugging for me, tiptoeing by the entranceway like a bad kid who just got a time-out, his index finger to his lips: Shhhhh…

"His mother didn't give him enough hugs," Bryan says with a laugh like a sharp bark.

As soon as the dealers had sauntered out of the park (they didn't want to look too accommodating) and Bryan set up his folding table, arranging the sign-up sheets in a neat pile, children began to stream in through the gates, on bicycles, scooters, running on sneakered feet. Word had gone out: The park was safe. It was like watching spring bloom in a minute.

When an addict tries to enter the park, Bryan blocks his path. "The park is for kids and their families today," Bryan says. The man looks flummoxed. "Where am I supposed to go?" There's absolutely no light in Bryan's eyes when he says, "Not my problem." What incenses Bryan is that the children of North Camden are invisible to men like this. They must be, because how else could these junkies decide, again and again, that it's okay to shoot up in front of 5-year-olds on slides, toddlers plucking at the grass?

"Whaddup, my man?" Bryan asks a small boy standing shyly with his mother. "You ready to play some ball this summer?" It's only $25 to join the league, and for that each player gets a practice uniform and a game uniform, cleats, a glove if he needs one, and a trophy at the end of the season. "Our kids already have two strikes against them," Bryan says. "They come from Camden, and they come from North Camden. But they will never look like they're not competitors." He manages this with the help of the Philadelphia Phillies RBI program and a generous private donor who buys all the game uniforms. By registration's end, he has 200 kids signed up and twenty-nine volunteer coaches.

The coaches, from left: Danny Calo; Aaron Streater; Bryan Morton; Frankie Rosado; Julio Ruiz.

For Bryan, baseball is a multipurpose tool: It can unify the neighborhood, and it pits the diamond against the corner. Since the dealers recruit kids at about the same age as the coaches do, Bryan's in a tug-of-war for the souls of these 12-year-olds, some of whose parents are out there slinging, too. "Look," Bryan says, "we can all agree on children, you know? That they should be free to be kids. And if Dad or Mom is at a game for a few hours a week, they're not hustling. They're at a game."

Bryan's philosophy in a nutshell: Don't let circumstances dictate your behavior. Reverse that dynamic. Fill the parks with kids and families and eventually the junkies and the dealers will drift away. Pretend that you live in a safe place and maybe it will become one.


Downtown camden is deserted. Saturday morning, June 22—opening day—and the North Camden Little League has gathered for a parade from City Hall to Pyne Poynt Park. Coaches, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a couple of hundred players, looking sharp in their new uniforms, fall in behind the Camden High School marching band and, led by some high-stepping, poker-faced majorettes, take off down Market Street.

As the parade crosses the freeway that separates North Camden from the rest of the city, people spill out onto their front porches to watch, the old men nodding their heads in some secret, silent satisfaction. Meanwhile the dealers who would usually be trolling the edges of the street, ready to step to the window of any car that slows or stops, are standing on the sidewalk today (looking sharp themselves in their Jordans and crisp white T-shirts), simply waiting us out.

Millie Delgado is sweating as she tramps back and forth between her kids' teams, first walking alongside her 6-year-old T-baller, Serenity, and then plunging back to march with her 8-year-old son, Makhi, and yelling herself hoarse: "Let's go, Pirates!" Makhi, round and buttery looking, marches along in his yellow Pirates uniform, beaming to bursting, a Buddha ball of suffused and suffusing joy. Millie's got sharp little teeth, faded blue tattoos, a baby-girl voice, and a bruised look in her eyes. She's got a thousand regrets for the things she did when she was young—"They raised us like animals. We were taught it was okay to fight people, okay to hurt people"—and another thousand fears of what North Camden can do to a sunny, loving boy like Makhi. But for now, here in this happy crowd, she can take a rest from her worries.