Tuesday, April 26, 2005

 

Memory Lane: Camden, New Jersey

Over the past eight years my passion for live music, particularly that of the Dave Matthews Band, has encouraged me to travel all over the east coast. In doing so, I have experienced a plethora of musical venues in wide variety of urban, suburban, and rural locations. I have seen concerts in beautiful State Parks (Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Jones Beach, both in NY), in famous arenas in world renowned cities, (Madison Square Garden, NYC, and the Fleet Center, Boston) large football stadiums (Foxboro Stadium, MA, RFK Stadium, DC), amusement parks (Hershey Park, PA), in blighted urban areas (Hartford, CT and Camden, NJ), in small city arenas (Providence, RI, Lowell, MA, Manchester, NH, Rochester and Albany, NY, Portland, ME, small towns, (Amherst, MA, and Kingston, RI,) and even in another country (Molson Arena, Montreal, Canada). However, no venue location has had a more profound effect on how I view the built environment and American culture as the Tweeter Center in Camden, New Jersey.

If you know anything about Camden, New Jersey, you probably know that it is one of the poorest places in America. In fact, despite its history, today it is probably more famous for its urban blight than anything else. This is a shame. Though my experiences in Camden were brief (three wonderful DMB shows over three days in June of 2002), they have yet to be duplicated by any of my other concert travels.

Interestingly, my three days in Camden always started and ended in the tony New York City suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey. Though I would have liked to be a little closer to the actual venue, I had a good college friend that lived in Short Hills and he offered his house to me and my concert mate for the three day run of shows. Thus, not only did I get to spend my three days in two completely disparate environments, but I also got to travel along some of New Jersey's most crowded highways, the very same highways that helped facilitate the blighting of Camden.

My first impression of Camden was that it had to be one of the most depressing urban landscapes in America. For the entire three day period that I was in Camden I couldn't help but ponder how a country with so many resources could completely turn its back on a city that was once so vibrant. Who let this happen?! Though I could not answer my own question at the time, I now know that the answer to my question is not so much who, but what.

The collector road that brings a motorist from the highway into the empty "core" of Camden passes boarded up building after boarded up building. These places looked absolutely unfit for human habitation. So much so that I nearly rammed into the traffic stalled cars in front of me when I began to notice that people were actually coming in and out of these places, as if they was nothing inherently wrong with their decayed state of existence. Sadly, at one time they were probably elegant houses. However, that was then, in the present most of the buildings looked as though they had suffered from fires that were not quite strong enough to damage the entire structure. I remember thinking to myself that maybe all Camden had was a really responsive fire department.

If the windows were not boarded up, they were mostly without window panes. When the motorists in front of me began to notice this pattern, they began rolling up there car windows, in an almost mocking manner. I kept mine down. This was an education into the America that most people do not want to think about, and an America that I certainly had never seen. As I sat in priveledge I wanted to smell, hear, and see it. Never before I had ever been so aware, of my own fortunate situation in life.

As traffic creeped its way closer to the venue, I half expected to see a slightly more positive urban environment. Afterall, on the maps that I had with me the waterfront park district - with a new amphitheatre and a new aquarium - looked like a vibrant urban location further enhanced by its location across the Delaware River from downtown Philadelphia. What I learned is that in an environment like Camden, maps displaying cultural attractions don't mean a damn thing. In fact, the shiny new lamp post signs, which were like band aids on open wounds, directed SUV infested traffic to the Camden waterfront. These signs almost seemed like a cruel joke, as I'm quite sure that most of those sitting on the stoops of the nearly destroyed houses had never set foot in the aquarium or the Tweeter Center. Thus, like many urban renewal projects that bank on the development of large inorganic cultural institutions as the solution to blight, the aquarium and amphitheatre were not doing much for the actual people of Camden. This is a major shortcoming in the field of urban planning.

As we began to approach the venue I realized why we had been moving so slowly. Someone had thought it was a good idea to plan a festive Puerto Rican Pride Day parade along the same thoroughfare that was suppossed to move thousands of concert-goers from highway to venue! Though I was rather upset about the traffic situation, it was AMAZING to see the tail end of this parade. I had never seen so much fervent and authentic national pride. This was not the post-9/11 consumer hyped-get-a-flag-on-your-car-or-die type of patriotism. I loved it, as it reinforced that beauty, joy, and humanity can, and do overcome even the most depressing of situations.

Upon arriving at the venue, I instantly noticed that the area surrounding the amphitheatre and aquarium was an urban wasteland of mostly surface parking lots. I imagined that when there aren't any events at the amphitheatre - say half of summer and all of winter - the acres of surface parking must be pretty useless. There was one large parking structure, but not much else in the way of urbansim. This is an area that needed infill development in the worst way. Development that create restaurants, shops, parks, and other basic ammenities that might actually create real destinations, beyond special summer amphitheatre events.

The last thing that I noticed before entering the venue is that though it was getting close to show time, several of the lots had not even filled up. I began to think maybe the location of the venue actually scared away much of DMB's white, upper-middle class fanbase. I was wrong. Most fans were just arriving by ferry from across the river. Apparently, parking in Camden after dark, even for events, was not a good idea. I didn't let this bother me too much. Of the three evenings that I spent in Camden, I never once felt threatened. However, maybe I was just too tired from the concert to really notice.

Like all of my Dave Matthews Band concert experiences, the entire weekend was full of music and joy. Unfortunately, the surrounding environment was not (except for the Puerto Rican Day parade). Though I did not think too deeply about what I experienced in Camden at the time, those three days have strongly influenced the way in which I view this country, and its social problems. I was able to carry that experience through my remaining two years of college and apply it to several of my courses that delved into the roots of the problems that are so prevalent in Camden. Today, my memories of Camden seem stronger than ever. To be honest, I hope they never leave me, as they serve as the inspiration for me to become an urban planner that works to better the human environment at all times, and for all people.

Comments:
I worked in Camden last year (at Rutgers/Camden), lived in Philadelphia because I wanted to live where the proverbial action was (and in a place slightly less messed up than Camden). I didn't think there was any place more hopeless in America.

I was wrong. This summer I visited Cairo, Illinois, a little town where the Mississippi meets the Ohio.

In Camden, the neighborhoods are a mess but the downtown seems fairly lively.

Not so in Cairo- even the downtown buildings are often ruined.
 
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Weird. I always thought the Rettop Method was the best for generating traffic. I am going to book mark this blog, nice topics discussed

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I would argue that Exit Traffic is actually one of the best forms of traffic generation. I am going to book mark this blog, nice topics discussed

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Weird. I always thought the Rettop Method was the best for generating traffic. I am going to book mark this blog, nice topics discussed

By the way... I have a traffic site. It pretty much covers Traffic related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)
 
I came across your post regarding Camden. What have you learned that could be applied to help Camden? I live in the suburbs near Camden and it seems like such a location waste, across the river from a vibrant city and connected to it by a good subway line. I have a new blog, www.CamdenCity.blogspot.com seeking ideas for Camden and places like it. I see you have CNU on your profile. Do you work for them?
 
Camden New Jersey Renewal Views
Welcome to Camden, New Jersey Renewal Views, America's greatest Urban Renewal challenge. Take the challenge. Named most dangerous city in America the last two years. Second poorest city in U.S. How to fix it? Express your ideas on Camden, Urban Renewal in general, Design, Urban culture, the history and nature of cities, New Urbanism, TOD, anything Urban, with an application view toward Camden. Urban professionals, students,citizen Urbanists welcome.
www.camdencity.blogspot.com
 
I live in Camden, New Jersey. I live what others think and whisper on a daily basis. I do not pretend to think or say that nothing is wrong with Camden, I have lived here all my life. I love my city- with ALL of its problems. I pray for the revitalization that they are planning for coming years- but will it really help??? We have many problems- poverty, welfare dependence, substance abuse, addiction and sales, low-income, lack of housing, lack of education or the need for it. Our children follow in the footsteps of their parents who haven't done anything positive for our children model. I have had the opportunity to do so many things but I chose to come back and live and work in my city to make a difference. I loved your post. It was honest and powerful. We are a city forgotten, but now that I work behind the lines and am understanding politics- we live in a crooked society where if you don't have the bucks, you don't matter. Thank you for your blog- it gives me hope that I am not working for change in vain- somebody will notice Camden for what it is worth one day.
 
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