When I first came to Camden, I was skeptical of this particular rumor: that after downtown concerts or the 4th of July, police officers block suburbanites from side roads to keep them from driving through rougher neighborhoods in Camden. But I’ve witnessed it. To a resident, it’s a funny thing — Cooper Street backs up and it can take close to an hour to exit the city, while, if officers allow it, you can sneak out the back way in 5 minutes. But this type of attitude speaks to the challenges in developing Camden — the city needs investment, but the region’s deep history of demand for segregation makes for “cities within cities” constructed to reassure those fearful about the city. Police officers making sure that suburban guests don’t accidentally end up in North Camden is a symptom of that demand.
For decades, that has been the legacy of development within Camden — anything new had to be sharply separated from existing neighborhoods. But it’s exciting to see new projects turn that on its head, making inclusive, neighborhood-friendly development, and seeing those areas thrive.
Just around the corner from me is what’s colloquially known as the old “prison-site”. Formerly the site of a prison in North Camden, the lot has long been rumored for development. But recently, it was converted into a park with a modern playground.
I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes when the park opened the day before the primary elections. But it’s quickly become one of my favorite examples of good design in Camden. First of all — the centerpiece of the park is a playground, and there are always people there. That’s beautiful — it means the park is being used, but it also makes the park safer, because most illicit activity in parks comes when they are largely empty. The park also has a beautiful bike path, an integrated shoreline (with shrubs and water access), and open space. The result is that alongside families there are runners, dog-walkers, couples on romantic strolls and the park was even used for a nonprofit picnic over Father’s Day weekend. In a perfect world, there would be some sort of retail connected to benefit from the foot traffic, but this is a pretty excellent start.
Similarly, in Cramer Hill, the American Water Charitable Foundation funded a “sprayground” (here’s the full article) that adds another element to Von Nieda park, which has a similar mix of amenities.
I think there is room for nuance here (I hear those that see projects such as the American Water “sprayground” as a small return for large tax breaks, and critique the policy more broadly), but I think there is room to acknowledge when something is done well. And this type of community-friendly development is welcome in a development context that sees Subaru developing a “city within a city”.
One of the most vivid examples of the older, exclusive model of development is the waterfront of the aquarium where there is an anti-loitering device specifically to keep people from enjoying that section of the waterfront. It’s a still-evident sign that design in Camden too often has an eye towards exclusion.
So let’s enjoy these parks. They’re well-done. They’re well-designed. And they’re a sign that some of the most problematic and long-held beliefs about Camden development — i.e., that the city can only attract outsiders if it excludes residents — are starting to break down on the margins. There is a long way to go, but this is what progress looks like.