Ellen Wiencek, Coopers Ferry Development Association
“In a dream I saw a city invincible.” The great American poet Walt Whitman once used these words to describe Camden, New Jersey, the city where he spent the last few years of his life. In the 1800s, when the poem was written, Camden was indeed a strong city. Home to the Campbell Soup Company and across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden was a prosperous manufacturing center. Today, however, most people would not immediately think of Camden as a “city invincible.” For the past decade, Camden has instead been identified as one of the nation’s most dangerous and impoverished cities. The murder rate in the city is 12 times the national average, and about 42 percent of the city’s 77,000 citizens live under the official poverty line. Knowing these statistics and Camden’s reputation, I was not initially optimistic that I would be making an impact on the community during my internship.
I spent my summer working for Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit economic development agency based in downtown Camden. Cooper’s Ferry manages and participates in development projects in Camden that involve many neighborhoods and work to improve multiple sectors of the economy. In the past, Cooper’s Ferry has worked with other community organizations to improve city transportation, attract businesses, and keep public spaces clean. My projects were based in the Waterfront neighborhood, with a focus on the arts and community place making. From my office building in Central Waterfront, my coworkers told me that I had both the best and the worst view of the city. Because the office windows overlook the entire waterfront, I was able to see all of the progress that has been made in the neighborhood: all of the attractions, businesses, and tourists that occupy the city every day. At the same time, however, I was also able to see the many areas on the waterfront where redevelopment is still needed: the empty parks, the abandoned buildings, and the lack of restaurants and retail shops are problems that need to be addressed. Knowing that so much progress has already been made in the city, though, kept me hopeful when looking through my office window at the potential for redevelopment.
My main project for eight weeks was to create a plan for the revitalization of Camden through arts and cultural initiatives. Cooper’s Ferry had identified the arts as an important component in community building that had not yet been officially established in Camden. Through the arts, I made a plan to spur economic development in the city through initiatives such as artist relocation, murals and public art, community art classes, and pop-up gallery events. A typical day was spent researching plans and programs used in other cities and determining whether or not the same programs would work in Camden. Being close to Philadelphia, I also had the opportunity to visit artist space in Fishtown, a neighborhood that has recently undergone its own arts revitalization similar to the one I was working to create in Camden. In talking to dozens of artists from the Philadelphia and South Jersey regions, I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive responses to my project—almost all of the artists that I talked to were enthusiastic about my ideas and willing to help promote and support the initiatives I wanted to begin in the community. As a math-minded person, I had always turned to the data for information and credibility in my research. My project, however, helped me understand the importance of anecdotal evidence and personal feedback.
In designing my plan, I had to understand how to balance the needs of the community with the projects for development. One of the most critical components in any economic development plan is determining how to revitalize the community without excluding those who already live in it. Hearing stories from artists in Philadelphia who were forced to leave their locations due to the development in their neighborhoods helped create a visual image for me as I completed my work. Maintaining community involvement became a central component of my plan. Through these interactions, my internship helped my poverty knowledge transcend the classroom by making the data more personal. It’s one thing to discuss ideas in class; it’s another to actually implement those ideas and see them at work in the community where you’re living.
I helped manage a community arts crawl, called Third Thursday in Camden. Every third Thursday of the month, the arts community in Camden, including galleries, restaurants, and a distillery, opens their doors for free viewings and tours. I helped advertise the event with flyers and social media, and I processed the surveys to get community feedback. To my surprise, there were many great suggestions by community members who wanted to become involved with the arts. People had suggested art classes, live music events, poetry readings, and even a petting zoo to attract more people to the art crawl. Seeing the surveys and talking to community members at the event again reminded me of the value of personal interactions in economic development, and it reaffirmed my high hopes for the successful redevelopment of the city.
The first Third Thursday event that I attended began with a concert in one of Camden’s parks. On this particular day, the concert was preceded by a park dedication ceremony for a woman named Sheila Roberts. A person who has given many years of service to the Camden community, Sheila epitomizes what it means to be optimistic in the face of poverty. At the end of the ceremony, during her closing speech, Sheila paused and addressed the crowd with an important question: “How many of you didn’t know you were poor before you read it in the papers?” To this, the crowd laughed amusedly,
Sheila along with them. Then she paused again and answered her own question: “I sure didn’t know I was poor.” And again, the crowd laughed and cheered in agreement. In this instant, I was taken aback—wasn’t it obvious that these people were living in poverty? Camden has plenty of dilapidated housing, lacks a grocery store, and has one of the highest crime rates in the country, among other things. From my perspective, it was clear that the people of Camden were impoverished. But the people themselves did not seem to agree.
In my poverty class at W&L, we discussed the different definitions of poverty, as defined by the government’s official poverty line and Martha Nussbaum’s guidelines for human capabilities. After thinking about Sheila’s question and the community’s response, I’ve realized the importance of emphasizing human capability when defining what it means to be poor. In terms of capability poverty, the people of Camden in the areas I visited are optimistic and cheerful, and they have faith in the city. They seem to have strong community relationships, which they hold in high esteem. In terms of fulfilling basic needs, the people with whom I interacted seem to have most of the necessities. When you have supportive friends and family, shelter, running water, and still have food on the table, in many ways, you’re not poor in terms of the things that matter most.
It was at this moment that I learned what it truly takes to rebuild a city: courage, determination, and above all, optimism. When I had arrived in Camden, I did not think that my efforts would make much of a difference in the face of the city’s many problems. Hearing Sheila proudly declare that she did not consider herself or any of her neighbors to be poor made me realize that it’s more important to be optimistic and positive than to think negatively. The work I was doing, even if not necessarily ground breaking, was still helping the community’s economy as well as its overall atmosphere. Being able to work directly with residents and see how the community members interact played a large part in this realization—I was making the city better for people who believe it will have a successful future. After working in Camden for two months with people who are optimistic and dedicated to the city’s redevelopment, I am confident that Camden will someday reclaim its status as the “city invincible.”