Camden Fire Department
"The Firehouse
and the
Old Neighborhood

Besides putting out fires and engaging in fire prevention activities, a firehouse and its members are part of the fabric that makes up a neighborhood. The article below, from the book Camden Fire Department 1869-1994 125th Anniversary", is about the relationship that the firefighters of Engine Company 7 had with their neighbors. 

Members of the Camden Fire Department have long served the city in ways far outside the scope of their normal activities. On this page you will find accounts of such service, as well as accounts of those who lived in the neighborhood and who interacted with the firemen on a daily basis. The people mentioned and events described are from a time long gone..... this website is honored to have the opportunity to post the article here for you to read and learn.

Phil Cohen
April 23rd, 2010 

The Firehouse & the Old Neighborhood

Click on Image for Enlarged View

by Joseph Marini

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 roots.

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 cops arrive.

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 few
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 thoroughfare.

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 a prescription.

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 neighborhood.

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 society.

The above photograph is from the limited edition book "Fire Department Camden NJ 125 Anniversary 1869-1994". Others found on the site are courtesy of Bob Bartosz and Joel Bain of the Camden Fire Department, as well as other sources and contributors..