No matter how skeptical I am walking into the building, the shark room in the Camden Aquarium always takes my breath away. It’s majestic. It gives any event a little gravity. Not that the Cooper’s Ferry Annual Meeting, featuring the mayor’s State of the City Address, needed more pomp and circumstance. It had every Camden dignitary, politician, potential developer or cheerleader possible (and they were all thanked more than once). But the meeting made me sad. It made me sad because it was a dishonest conversation about Camden. The Narrative (with a capital N) was that everything is fixed, everything is getting better, everything is hopeful. But to make that case, the speakers had to hide the real Camden, the one I know and love. I long for the day that we can stand in front of developers and tell them about Camden as we know it, not about a 5 block radius of downtown, and talk about Camden’s diversity and history as assets, not something to sweep under the rug. I walked into the aquarium wanting to hear a pitch for Camden that asked people to be a part of what was already here, not pine about a mythical shining city that fails to resemble the city we live in. 

A friend joked that the first speaker, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, brought the speech for another city, and accidentally got it mixed up with Camden’s. Her speech didn’t change much from last year, still using the gimmick of giving away her phone number. But this year the speech took on a particular mission accomplished tone that even George W. Bush would blush at. 

Here were a few of the most dubious claims (all paraphrased): 

  • She claimed she went to her community in Monmouth County to say if Camden could turn around, so could they. 
  • She claimed the Camden revival was complete, but if we there was anything she’d missed, we should just give her a call.
  • She told developers they should have bought property five years ago, because now all the prices were going up. 
  • She said there was no more housing in the city because so many folks were moving here. 

I call this Manhattan Syndrome, an affliction causing folks to refer to the downtown as the entire city, saying New York City instead of Manhattan, Philadelphia instead of Center City, and talking about Camden as if it was only the downtown and waterfront.

If the Lt. Gov. had taken literally a step out of downtown, she would have seen a different Camden, one that struggles with blight, abandoned homes, and serious poverty. To discuss a mission accomplished while ignoring this reality was shocking and revealing. 

Mayor Dana Redd’s State of the City took a different tact. The speech emphasized all the key points of the Narrative. Education is being solved by new Renaissance schools. Jobs are being created by new companies receiving tax credits. Safety is addressed by the new Metro Police. 

I’ve expressed my concerns about these policies plenty of times on this blog. But I want to express my concern now about the Narrative. And that’s because the Camden being spoken about at this meeting is different then the Camden I experience when I go to church in Cramer Hill, or stop by a friend’s house in Waterfront South, or talk to a teacher at Camden High. 

The Narrative has an incessant need to airbrush Camden.

A walk down Broadway shows that the city is still on her knees; the street is a remnant of a once-thriving corridor, now crowned by a library that has a tree growing through its roof. Even the Waterfront, with all of its aquariums and baseball stadiums and performing venues, is empty most days, and is littered with parking lots once promised to be high rises. 

Ignoring that Camden is dishonest. Pretending that there is a housing shortage, or a property shortage, while thousands of properties remain blighted, and hundreds of properties are slated for demolition adding to the plethora of empty lots already in the city, is also a mistake.

It’s a mistake because it promises people a city that isn’t here, and keeps people from appreciating the one that actually exists. 

Corporations that come to Camden build campuses. They do not want to engage with their neighborhoods, so they build a fence, build a cafeteria, provide vans from Patco to the office, anything to set themselves apart from the city. And part of the reason for that is because they do not come here to be a part of the real Camden. The Cooper Annual Meeting could be an opportunity to introduce people to that Camden. Instead, it’s a dog and pony show that hides diversity and poverty behind a sterile waterfront.

Imagine if we sold this city based on the potential of its old main streets. If we told corporations they could move in, and have Dominican or Puerto Rican food for lunch, and soul food for dinner. Buy their Valentine’s Day flowers from a locally-owned flower shop, and their whiskey from a locally-owned distillery. Imagine if the companies that came here wanted to be a part of the Camden we know and love, not a sterile waterfront set apart from the rest of the city. 

Imagine the type of people that would attract. 

Tonight, after the State of the City, I drove with a dozen or so friends to East Camden. We met for dinner at Freddy’s, ate Mufongo, goat stew, beans and rice, and talked about the city we all are in various stages of getting to know. There were folks from South Jersey, Philadelphia, downtown Camden, and other Camden neighborhoods. There were folks who’d held political office in Camden, academics, students, and millennials. But what drew them was the neighborhoods, the dives, the mystique of Camden’s history and the remnants of its dignity and majesty. What drew them was the quirks and beauty of the city’s neighborhoods and its people.

What if we had an honest conversation about what’s here? What if we actually discussed the challenges in Camden City? And what if we shared the reasons we love it anyway?

Yesterday, I sat and listened to a white-washed, sterile Camden narrative and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we introduced people to the city I know and love. You know, the one that’s actually here. 



  • Good piece, Stephen. Not mentioned, however, is the role that Cooper’s Ferry Partnership plays in the Camden scene. It is the central body of powerful people in our region that works to set the development agenda. It is what urban academics call the local “growth machine” — it’s all about advancing growth and development in very traditional ways. These entities, quite consistently, do not understand the local culture, the local people, and the diverse assets they have. In fact, they see them as obstacles to be worked around and overcome. So what folks got at the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP)annual meeting is what one would expect at such a gathering. Not real. Not grassroots. But loaded with resources and connections, committed to shaping the City in their image. And to shape it in their image, they need to spin its successes in their image.

    Look at the CFP Board. Leaders from regional corporations, hospitals, waterfront attractions, banks, institutions, and development entities. The CEO was part of the Barer Commission that initially recommended the Rutgers-Camden and Rowan merger and politicization of University governance that seemed so wrong to many of us. These folks are not Camden folk, and they have an agenda that does not include the assets of the “real” Camden Stephen speaks about.

    Hence the importance of neighborhood-based community development entities that work to give residents more control over the development agenda, encourage and support true neighborhood businesses, and that sometimes are able to challenge the “growth machine” agenda. The most recent notable (and noble) example is Cramer Hill’s successful fight to ward off the pillage that Cherokee offered to bring, with no objections from anyone at CFP.

  • I was really interested in this line:

    “But what drew them was the neighborhoods, the dives, the mystique of Camden’s history and the remnants of its dignity and majesty. What drew them was the quirks and beauty of the city’s neighborhoods and its people.”

    I wonder about how much of Camden’s history shapes how ordinary residents think of the city. And, I wonder how that sense of history conflicts with the cherry-picked history that supports the narrative extolled by those in power.

    With those thoughts in mind, it would seem that the power players do not care to record some parts of Camden’s history, nor its current story. They do not acknowledge the ‘dignity and majesty,’ the ‘quirks and beauty.’ Maybe they don’t acknowledge that beauty because it’s not in their political or financial interest. But, whatever the reason, I ask: how can Camden’s residents redefine what is dignified and majestic? How can a city push its economic and political leaders to acknowledge all of the beautiful and ugly parts of Camden, which they seem to overlook? How can a city redefine what is noteworthy, meaningful, beautiful?

    I think you raise fascinating questions on the relationship of beauty, politics, money, and history.

    • I was wondering if a “People’s State of the City” would be in order as a kind of response to this event. There are so many voices out there, I bet you could get a great group of people together. And invite all the politicians, Cooper’s Ferry people, to come to it. Bill it as a real honest conversation about the city, outside of the pretense of a fundraising event, which is basically what this was.

  • “Imagine if we sold this city based on the potential of its old main streets. If we told corporations they could move in, and have Dominican or Puerto Rican food for lunch, and soul food for dinner. Buy their Valentine’s Day flowers from a locally-owned flower shop, and their whiskey from a locally-owned distillery. Imagine if the companies that came here wanted to be a part of the Camden we know and love, not a sterile waterfront set apart from the rest of the city.”

    And you know what, I think that even some of the employees, if not most, of the companies coming in WANT that Camden. I think that if you polled them (and I would love if we could engage every single one of these new employees coming into the city), most of them would want what you suggest. I strongly believe the young people coming to work at separated, cordoned off places like the Ferry Terminal Building don’t want a sterile drive-in, drive-out work experience. They want a vibrant, interesting, dynamic city, and I think they’re very apt to support local businesses, if only they were located near them and not across a vast ocean of parking from them.

  • Having seen what happened to large parts of east London in the early 2000s this is an all too familiar narrative.. The trick is to find ways to build institutions that build on rather crush existing energies, but that does require changing the way cities are managed and what governments are comfortable with.. I think if we look carefully there are interesting and relevant examples to learn from.

  • A couple of folks have passed along comments via email or Facebook, just wanted to share them below (but anonymously, given that folks haven’t chosen to use their name here):

    – “Great reality check – so many great little lights go unseen and so many little darknesses go unlit in ‘The Narrative’ ”

    – “The only thing I would add (and I don’t know that this merits a separate post) was that the separation you so poignantly portray between the Camden they presented and the one you/we know and love, was magnified by the absence of the community in the audience. A community that doesn’t know about the staged and scrubbed fallacy that they call the State of the City, because they aren’t part of the equation, they aren’t even respected enough to be invited. In short, if we ignore their existence we can go on to create a world (one that’s fantastical) without the messiness of having to consider them, or the real state of the city.”


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