FIREHOUSE AND THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
Camden was a city of grand old
Firehouses amid even older neighborhoods with very long established
communities. Not unlike many other old east coast cities, Camden was
an urban center comprised of deep rooted ethnic neighborhoods.
Parkside was the city's Jewish enclave; Cramer Hill predominantly
Irish; German-Americans throughout much of North Camden; and old South
Camden was forever Little Italy. Each ethnic region had it's own
cultural distinction and the community truly mirrored it's ethnic
The neighborhood Firehouse
served to furnish much more than just fire protection. The Fire
Station has been long regarded by the community as an anchor of
municipal government remote from the officialdom of downtown City
Hall. The local Firehouse is also a safe haven during time of need.
Fire Fighters have always been inherently resourceful people who are
capable of doing a great many things from fixing the sprocket chain on
a child's bicycle; to performing first aid or life saving
resuscitation to a stricken neighbor; to rendering assistance to crime
victims; and even thwarting an occasional crime in progress before the
Fire Fighters are truly
neighbors of the community they serve. While on duty they spend as
much time at their assigned Fire Station as they do in their own
homes, and as their second home away from home the surrounding
community is also their community, they shop for meals in the local
stores and they patronize local businesses. The community would often
express it's friendship and appreciation of Fire Fighters when during
holidays, neighbors would remember "their Firemen" with
specially prepared meals or homemade pies and cakes to accompany a
turkey dinner. Even in terms of community pride, neighborhood
residents would personally regard "their Firehouse and their
Firemen" as the best in the City. The social bond between
neighborhood and Firehouse was quite extraordinary.
Such was the case of Engine
Company 7 in the Whitman Park section of South Camden. Whitman Park
was a long entrenched Polish community settled by European Immigrants
at the end of the last century. Anna Ramowska was born and raised in
Whitman Park and married Joseph Dziemanowicz, a veteran of WWII. After
the war Joe and Anna made their home at 1116 Kaighns Avenue, directly
opposite the quarters of Engine Company 7. Over several decades
"Joe and Annie" came to know many generations of members
from Engine 7 who came, worked, formed lifelong friendships, and then
left as a result of transfers, promotions, retirements and deaths.
To Joe and Annie, Engine
Company 7 was "their Firehouse" and it's members were
"their" Firemen for nearly fifty years. On warm summer
evenings, Captain John Letts and other members would sit on the stoop
with Annie and Joe across from the station and pass the time talking
and joking. In winter the men would always clear the snow from Joe and
Annie's sidewalk after shoveling out the apron at the station, and
Annie would often remember the birthdays of certain members while
there was always the Christmas or Easter greeting card signed "to
all our boys at Engine 7 with love - Joe and Annie Dee". When Joe
Dziemanowicz was stricken by a medical emergency, it was Engine 7 that
responded and administered assistance until the ambulance arrived.
Like so many other areas of
Camden, Whitman Park in the 1960's began to under go serious change.
As the immigrants of a century before, Polish-Americans with
generations of family born and raised in South Camden began to abandon
their beloved Whitman Park for a better life in suburbia to escape
crime and urban blight. Such manifest changes in the community were
amply reflected in the annals of Fire Department statistics. In the
late 1950s Engine 7 responded to less than 200 alarms per year. By the
end of the sixties the alarm totals approached 1000 and by 1980,
Sevens sustained well over 3000 alarms annually.
Thousands of Working Fires and
urban blight took a heavy toll on the neighborhood and the Firehouse.
Fire Fighters were no longer regarded as neighbors in the community.
Engine Company 7 often at the scene of it's fifth Working Fire of the
night was no longer greeted by neighbors with hot coffee or soup but
rather with rocks, bottles and menacing mobs threatening the very
safety of Fire Fighters as they worked to prevent the community from
consuming itself. No longer was the local Firehouse treated to holiday
visits or gifts from the community. Rather the Firehouse when vacated
of it's members during fires was broken into and burglarized. Bone
weary members returning from yet another job were greeted by stolen
televisions and ransacked lockers. Through it all, Joe and Anna
Dziemanowicz refused to abandoned their neighborhood.
What seemed like almost a
constant presence at the front door of her stoop, Annie Dee would
stand in her doorway and watch Kaighns Avenue. It is especially
certain that when the Firehouse was vacated of personnel and apparatus
for extended periods, Annie's presence discouraged more than just a
break ins. The neighborhood had become dirty and dangerous while Joe
and Annie's modest row home with sparkling clean windows and freshly
painted trim stood in stark contrast. The building adjoining Joe and
Annie's house for many years, a petite store front shop called
Fairfield Cut Glass, had since
become a Chinese Food Take-out with barriers separating customer from
counter after the proprietor had been severely beaten and robbed.
Windowless vacant buildings now dotted the block on the once handsome
During the 1970s and following
a long illness, Joseph Dziemanowicz passed away. A childless marriage,
Anna became the sole occupant of 1116 Kaighns Avenue. Captain John
Letts long since promoted to Battalion Chief and transferred out,
assumed a personal responsibility for Ann's welfare. During duty tours
the 3rd Battalion would visit Engine 7 and the Chief would always drop
across the street to see if Annie needed anything. Chief Letts would
frequently mow the patch of grass in Annie's small backyard or change
a lightbulb or perform some other odd job. After duty the Chief would
sometimes take Annie to the store for groceries or to the druggist for
During the early 1980's Chief
John Letts retired from the Department and shortly thereafter
succumbed to an illness. Captain James Smith, also a long time friend
of Anna assumed the responsibilities of the late Battalion Chief.
Subsequently Captain Smith was also promoted to Chief Officer and
transferred out but he to would make the frequent visits back to the
district to check on Ann. In the late 1980's Battalion Chief Smith
suddenly passed away following routine surgery. At his funeral Annie
wept for Chief Smith and Chief Letts, and for her beloved husband,\all
who had now and forever become just fond memories of better days.
Engine 7 continued to keep an
eye on Annie following the death of Chief Smith and never did she
forget a Christmas or Easter Holiday without the greeting card and a
warm smile and wave for her Firemen. In 1990 Annie became seriously
ill and was hospitalized for several weeks. In her absence, the home
was broken into from the rear and ransacked without detection. Engine
7 upon learning of the burglary was furious and frustrated. Company
Officers directed housewatch members to keep their eyes and ears open.
Following the burglary, Fire Fighter Freddie Spreng and Chief Bob
Zieniuk - another former Officer of Engine 7, installed iron bars on
Ann's rear windows and doors to improve home security.
When Annie was discharged from
the hospital her sister and nieces begged her to get out of the City
and live with them in the suburbs. Annie wouldn't hear of leaving her
beloved Whitman Park and said her Firemen would look after her. Indeed
Captain James Alexander as the latest generation of Fire Officer to
command Engine 7 was given a duplicate key by Ann to hold in the
Captain's Office where members could check on her as necessary.
Captain Alexander would drop over at regular intervals to see if Annie
needed anything. Ann's continuing illness resulted in kidney failure
and required dialysis treatment three times a week. The dialysis bus
would stop opposite quarters and blow the horn as Annie would slowly
exit the building and walk to the vehicle.
On 12-9-94 Annie's sister came
to visit with her in the morning. Early that afternoon the housewatch
member heard the dialysis bus blowing it's horn repeatedly. After a
short while and following no response to the waiting van, Captain
Alexander retrieved the key from his office and entered the home.
Annie had fallen down the staircase from the second floor and was
found laying on the floor at the foot of the stairs.
There would be no greeting
cards from Annie Dee to her boys this year. Mrs. Anna Dziemanowicz was
laid to rest ten days before Christmas 1994. At her families request,
off duty members of Engine Company 7 served as uniformed pallbearers.
At the grave site the formation of Fire Fighters rendered a farewell
salute in honor of Annie's long standing fidelity and friendship to
Engine 7. It was her last wish that "her boys" would carry
her to the final resting place. Indeed it was a gesture befitting the
extraordinary relationship between the Firehouse and it's
With the passing of Mrs. Anna
Dziemanowicz, Whitman Park lost one of it's real treasures. As always
the Firehouse continues to anchor a long since changed Whitman Park.
New generations of Fire Fighters are now seen along Kaighns Avenue as
even newer neighbors come and go. But the local Firehouse and the old
neighborhood remain inseparable elements in the urban landscape and
will continue so for as long as inner city Firehouses exist to serve