Cherry Hill residents say that when they think of going to the bank, their thoughts turn to sickness and death.
It's only natural. Without a bank branch or even an automated teller machine in the city neighborhood of more than 10,000 residents, Cherry Hill's nearest banking facility is at the place where many of its sons and daughters have breathed their last -- Harbor Hospital Center.
Many residents and businesses say banking services are their biggest need. Last year, 6th District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a Cherry Hill resident, asked First National Bank of Maryland and Harbor Bank of Maryland about setting up Cherry Hill branches and was told only that a bank presence in the neighborhood could be "a future possibility."
Critics of banks' commitment to poorer communities such as Cherry Hill say the lack of services is suspicious -- particularly at a time when studies show increases in the number of bank branches and ATMs.
"It's powerful symbolism," says the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler, a Baltimore native who is national development director for the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America. "The banks have helped to keep a community sick, and now the people must go to a hospital for an infusion of cash."
But officials at area banks say the truth is more complicated. Many banks provide services for poor city neighborhoods, and the branches and ATMs in the nearby predominantly white neighborhood of Brooklyn Park (population 14,269) give Cherry Hill residents convenient ways to manage their money, they say.
Other banks claim that local residents don't have bank accounts and have little interest in opening them.
But residents of the neighborhood, which is 99 percent black, say the absence of money machines in the places where they live and shop is their biggest complaint.
For some, the lack of banks is the most tangible proof of neglect of their community's needs by city businesses and institutions.
Cherry Hill's light rail stop and its shopping center, which includes a supermarket, would seem like natural places for banking services. But community leaders say the light rail station has seen significant crime, and the shopping center has three vacant storefronts and numerous struggling businesses.
The surviving stores get by on long-standing reputation. At Heavy's Barber Shop, where a haircut is $8, Alexander Foy shaves a 12-year-old's head and notes that he's been cutting hair in Cherry Hill for 50 years.
'Could use the help'
"A lot of the stores here could use the help," says Mr. Foy, 72. "If you had an ATM, it would bring more people into the shopping center, and they might see something they want to buy."
The shopping center's business suffered after a drugstore, and its check-cashing operation, left about a year ago. The grocery store, Stop, Shop and Save, still cashes some of its customers' checks, but little of that money is being spent at stores such as J. J. Discount, where Peter Jung sells everything from lamps to hair extensions.
"When there was a drugstore, everyone cashed their checks and brought their business here," said Mr. Jung, 29, whose father started J. J. Discount after arriving from South Korea. "Now people go outside Cherry Hill for their money, so they shop outside of Cherry Hill, too."
The NationsBank ATM, across the hallway from the gift shop on Harbor Hospital Center's first floor, has become an alternative for some residents since it was installed in August 1992. NationsBank's predecessor placed the automated teller machine in the hospital when it began to offer direct deposit of employee paychecks into the bank, and some residents say they appreciate the security of a hospital ATM.
No access after 9 p.m.
But most Cherry Hill residents emphasize the drawbacks. They complain that the hospital doesn't allow access to the machine after 9 p.m., when fear of crime is greatest. And they complain that the ATM allows people to withdraw or transfer funds but does not accept deposits.
Getting to the Harbor Hospital ATM generally involves either a long walk or a five-minute drive, followed by several more minutes finding a parking place. Earl Phillips, 17, and his mother walk once a week through a poorly lighted alley and then cross two busy one-way streets -- Potee and Hanover -- to get to the hospital. Other residents say they end up taking the bus.
'We need a bank of our own'
"You end up paying someone else to take you to get your money," says Renardo Hester, 25. "We need a bank or ATM of our own tremendously."
On the first few days of the month, Cherry Hill residents jam the hospital, with the line at the ATM extending 150 feet down the first-floor hallway. Many of the customers are residents on public assistance. Some say that the machine often runs out of money by dusk. But the lines are not long enough to satisfy the banks.
John Riggin, a NationsBank spokesman, says the Harbor ATM averages between 6,000 and 7,000 transactions per month -- "about average" for one of its machines.