The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 1999
Actor Joe Piscopo finds hope in Camden
By Russell J. Rickford
At Wilson High School, he watched performers and met students. Some will be
on his TV show.
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
CAMDEN -- When Maliki Durant, 18, was a grade-schooler, "causing
mischief" meant lifting candy from corner stores and pelting rocks at
abandoned buildings until the empty window frames gaped like eye sockets.
Five years ago, the South Camden teenager found discipline in a military-style
drill team. But he has since watched many of his boyhood pals graduate from
mischief to misdemeanors to the sort of hustling that earns you a
"rep" in neighborhoods that are crucibles of handguns and drugs.
"Some move away. Some get arrested. Some wish they could rewind time and go
back and do the right thing," the Camden High School senior said.
Yesterday, still mourning a friend slain days earlier, Durant showed actor Joe
Piscopo and a lineup of city dignitaries how he does right, demonstrating drill
maneuvers and formations alongside his teammates in a Woodrow Wilson High School
Piscopo was there on a recruiting mission. The actor, of Saturday Night Live fame,
was on hand to view the performance -- by the local UPK Pasha Generals -- and
mingle with other active high schoolers, some of whom may wind up on a New
Jersey Network show that spotlights everyday youngsters in communities where
television cameras traditionally have been turned only on hoodlums.
Piscopo's Positive Impact Television series, aired twice on NJN last
year, has already featured athletes and culturally conscious youths in New York
City's Lower East Side and North Jersey.
In the next couple of weeks, the show's producers plan to handpick three to six
teenagers from Camden High School, Woodrow Wilson High School and Dr. Charles E.
Brimm Medical Arts High School. Camera operators will then become their shadows,
recording their lives at school, at work, at church and at home, and documenting
their struggles, triumphs and dreams.
The intertwined stories will be aired as 30-minute episodes hosted by Piscopo
but narrated only by the subjects -- not prodigies, just everyday young men and
women who maneuver through a slalom of chal- lenges almost every day.
But "a kid in Kansas will relate to a kid in Camden," Sol Feldman, the
show's executive producer, maintained. "It's not 'the mean streets of
The show is unusual because the economically hobbled city has been skewered time
and time again.
In January 1992, for instance, Time magazine profiled Camden as part of a series
on beleaguered communities, referring to the "city of scrap."
"Many American cities have sinkholes that are just as run down, burned out,
crime ridden and drug infested," the magazine reported. "The
difference is that this describes all of Camden, not just a part of it."
More recently, a Newark Star-Ledger article called Camden's financial drain on
state taxpayers a "gaping wound," prompting an angry buzz among city
Robert H. Dickerson, founder of the city's nonprofit Unity Community Center and
the UPK Pasha Generals, said even when the members of his drill team travel
beyond Camden for performances, they cannot seem to leave the city behind.
"They've announced us by saying, 'Nothing good comes out of Camden,' "
Dickerson said. "Even in Sicklerville and Williamstown, children are
petrified if you say you're from Camden."
Piscopo, who lives in central New Jersey with his wife, Kimberly, and son Joey,
said he created the show to atone for the trouble he used to get into. Although
the actor grew up as a "middle-class white brat" in Bloomberg, a
suburb of Newark, he said he drank frequently as a teenager and was tossed out
of school eight times.
"I went through some bumps and bruises in my own life," Piscopo said.
"I can't tell you why I was such a jerk."
The show's producers are planning three more episodes in as many months,
including features of youngsters in Atlantic City and a rural area in South
Jersey. Piscopo said he hoped that Positive Impact Television can make
the leap to national television, but he admitted that the concept has been tough
to sell to network executives.
"If I hear 'That's not our target audience' one more time . . .," he
At a school where street gangs clashed only weeks ago, a dozen or so other
elected officials and civic leaders turned up for the program, including School
Superintendent Roy Dawson; Police Chief Robert E. Allenbach; and Paul Donnelly,
executive director of the state's Juvenile Justice Commission.
But Paul Goldenberg, who heads the Positive Impact Foundation, which produces
the show, stressed that Positive Impact Television will not showcase city
"The kids are the messengers," he said. "And we want the airwaves
to carry that message."
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