I t’s April Fools’ Day in Camden, N.J., and the joke is on everyone near the intersection of Cooper and 4th Streets on the campus of Rutgers University-Camden — just a 10-minute train ride away from Center City on the PATCO Speedline.
A New Jersey Transit River Line tram full of dozens of passengers is stuck in the middle of a left turn onto Cooper Street, lodged behind a red, crusty Chevy Cavalier parked in the right lane, close enough to the intersection that the tram would smash it if it went any further. Instant traffic jam.
“It sucks to suck,” a man in a black hoodie yells towards the tram while walking on the other side of the street.
One police car arrives on the scene, then another. A police officer in the first car activates her siren so that the owner of the Cavalier might come out and retrieve his vehicle. Then a school bus approaches, turning right onto 4th Street off of Cooper. It takes 10 seconds for the bus to squeeze between the curb and the tram. The two police officers shake their heads in disbelief, and so do the handful of pedestrians who have stopped to watch.
Finally, the owner of the Cavalier comes rushing out of a Subway and 7-Eleven plaza across the street.
“I’m so sorry!” he says.
“Write him a ticket!” a bystander yells gleefully from the street corner, as if this 2:30 p.m. logjam is guaranteed to be the highlight of his day.
The Cavalier’s owner drives shamefully away after the police officers are done with him, but not before the tram driver honks the horn one more time for good measure.
“What was that?” the first police officer asks.
That was the schoolchildren, police and citizens of the city, innocent and guilty, black and white, all struggling to navigate around each other. And in a nutshell, that’s Camden.
‘Local Knowledge’ is power
J ust across the street, sitting in his office, is Rutgers professor Stephen Danley , the Oxford-educated, 6-foot-8, three-time Ivy League champion Penn basketball forward who moved to Camden in July. He’s far removed from the cacophony of sirens and horns below, but he’s got more than enough voices in his ear to make up for it.
That’s because Danley’s Local Knowledge blog has become arguably the most important forum for citizens of Camden, which in February was ranked the most dangerous city in the country in a list compiled using FBI data from 2012. Camden has the highest crime rate of any city with a population over 75,000, suffering 131 homicides from the beginning of 2012 through Feb. 19 of this year. In September 2012, United States Census Bureau statistics revealed Camden to be the poorest city in the nation.
These are powerful superlatives, and they define Camden for many. But Danley’s blog goes beyond the superlatives to lend a platform to voices crying out for ownership over their own policy as the city moves away from democratic processes and its citizens feel like they have increasingly less formal power.
“What I’m trying to point out in the blog is that power has been exploited,” said Danley, who graduated from the College in 2007.
But it’s those voices in Danley’s ear that are doing most of the talking.
Contributions to his blog are varied and touch on redevelopment, public education and other city issues. Danley has scored guest posts from fellow Rutgers professors as well as his students, Camden School District teachers and representatives and the founder of the Sunny Camden, a blog committed to highlighting the positives throughout the city.
Most of these voices are saying the same thing: Camden lawmakers have willfully ignored their constituents.
“Local voices are the best way to provide context,” Danley said. “The great failing of urban policy is we take a cookie-cutter approach.”
Danley first encountered this approach in New Orleans, where he worked with neighborhood associations while earning his doctorate degree from 2009 to 2012. When he got to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, city planners had decided to rebuild all the public housing facing inward, leaving a green space in the middle for a suburban neighborhood.
“People were 100 percent against it, and no one could figure out why,” Danley said. “Every developer says face it in.”
But it turned out that the housing was on the Mardi Gras parade route.
“So their favorite memories were sitting on porches watching the parade facing out,” Danley said. “It was a cultural link to their street. For that to get lost is a huge loss in issues of urban development.”
The perils of ‘poverty porn’
P ete Toso knows all about the zero sum game of urban development. His pizza shop Little Slice of New York stands just two blocks from Danley’s office, and it’s been there since September 1992, when Toso moved from New York to start his own business.
“I was told the streets were paved with gold,” Toso said.
Toso only came to Camden because he was hoping to capitalize on what was rumored to be a new plaza in the area around the old RCA Victor buildings. But after manufacturing ceased in 1992, the plans dried up.
He’s still here, though. Toso beams at the before and after pictures hanging on his wall. The before is of the shack Toso first bought back in 1992, a boarded up skeleton of an establishment. The after is of the building as it still stands today — after Toso constructed an entirely new one, laying the cinderblocks himself.
Two decades later, it’s still a popular restaurant among Rutgers students. It’s also the kind of resilient small-scale entrepreneurship that Danley believes is the key to turning around Camden long-term.
“It’s an interesting town,” Toso said sardonically. “Nothing but good things to say about it.”
Like Toso, Danley didn’t take long to find out the streets of Camden weren’t paved with gold.
Upon moving to Camden, he’d walk through a new neighborhood and get asked whether he was looking to buy a new home. If he stopped by a new shop, the owner would want to know if he’d just moved to the area. When he’d park his car downtown, he’d be approached and asked if he needed drugs.
“The message to local residents is clear: The nice things here aren’t for you. We need other people,” Danley wrote in an August blog post for Next City, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit providing online coverage of progress in metropolitan areas around the world.
Danley’s post, “Camden, A City for Others,” proved extremely popular.
“That piece would make this an office where students wanted to show up to talk about Camden,” Danley said.
And when they showed up, they all said the same thing: Camden was getting exploited in mainstream media. The Nation’s November 2010 feature “City of Ruins.” Brian Williams’ March 2013 NBC News special. And then, in December 2013, Rolling Stone’s feature “Apocalypse, New Jersey,” in which writer Matt Taibbi posited, “If Camden was overseas, we would have sent troops and foreign aid.”
All three profiles of Camden portrayed the city as broken, highlighting its impoverished despair with photos of shacked up houses and passages on resident drug addicts. Danley calls this “poverty porn.”
“It’s the cheap calories of looking at Camden,” Danley said, playing with his pen as he becomes more agitated. “The idea is people come here to tell the story about how horrible it is. They decide that ahead of time. They come, they look, they show pictures, basically to inspire horror.”
But if Brian Williams or Matt Taibbi can’t speak for Camden, who can? Camden doesn’t have a city newspaper and is instead covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the Inquirer is owned in part by New Jersey Democratic Party boss George Norcross, an unpopular figure in Camden due to what many residents say is his political control over the city.
So it’s little surprise that those residents have immediately embraced alternative media like the Local Knowledge blog and the Facebook page I Am Camden, another page often focusing on positives around Camden which has more than 9,000 followers.
“I would hear so many negative things about Camden, not to mention the looks people would give me when I said, ‘I’m from Camden,’” said the page’s founder, who wished to remain anonymous for this story. “I applaud [Danley] on his efforts. He is doing what most won’t for the city of Camden.”
But Father Jeff Putthoff sees very little good to write about. As executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a nonprofit dedicated to getting youth ages 14-23 back in school, Putthoff has become convinced that Camden is far more ravaged than resilient.
“I actually think the Rolling Stone article was spot on,” Putthoff said. “I think the reaction, ‘Oh, but you’re missing the good,’ misses the fact that people are wounded. It is terrible here. We need to claim that every day.”
More than token participation
I n fact, Putthoff, one of Camden’s most prominent nonprofit leaders, has an analogy to demonstrate just how egregiously he thinks Camden is hurting itself.
“[NFL running back] Adrian Peterson hurt his knee really badly,” Putthoff, a 16-year resident of Camden, said. “Then he came back in 10 months and almost broke every NFL rushing record. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, how does that happen?’ The very first thing that happens to him after he hurts his knee is people run out on the field. He gets surgery. My experience in Camden is when people get hurt, no one responds.”
Two years ago, Putthoff was part of a protest group that planted nearly 100 white crosses bearing the names and ages of victims from 2012 and earlier in front of Camden’s City Hall.
“The mayor and city government got really upset and said we were giving Camden a bad name by drawing attention to this,” Putthoff said. “We’ve normalized the violence and trauma so much that we now say the problem is when you talk about it.”
And since murder is part of the Camden landscape, so are its police. Three hours after the traffic jam at Cooper and 4th streets, there’s still a police car parked right outside Little Slice of New York. There’s one parked outside the Subway and 7-Eleven plaza. A third keeps driving around the block. And this is Rutgers, the “good” part of town.
The Camden City Council approved a plan to lay off the city’s entire 270-officer police force in January 2013, welcoming a controversial new Camden County-run Metro Police force. An official of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police called the merger a “recipe for disaster” that would introduce new personnel unfamiliar with the city, and local residents marched in rallies and protested at city council meetings.
Earlier this month, a post from a Rutgers student on the Local Knowledge blog featured a long list of recent resident complaints about police overreach and harassment in response to the one-year anniversary of the new police force taking over. Yet total crime in Camden dropped nearly 30 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same quarter in 2013.
The jury is still out on the Metro Police, though, and the same holds true for the Camden School District. The majority of resident contributors lament the state-appointed superintendent, the mayor-appointed school board and a public participation process that seems to be interested in only token participation.
Camden activist Juan Rodriguez was a security officer in the Camden School District for 10 years before leaving in November partially so that he would be able to speak out against the district’s power structure.
“When it comes to the Camden School District, if you don’t allow residents to vote for board members, the government gets control and Norcross appoints somebody to do his bidding,” Rodriguez said, summing up the views of many contributors to Danley’s blog.
Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that 20 percent of school staff and 32 percent of administrative staff will be losing their jobs.
“The political structure here has alienated the police union by moving to a Metro Police force and attacked the public school system by shifting jobs from the public sector to charters and Renaissance schools,” Danley said. “People are starting to ask where the base will be for [the political structure’s] coalition moving forward.”
A walk down Haddon Avenue
Y ou’d think Mr. J’s Fine Wine & Spirit would be one of Camden’s hottest crime spots. It sits on the edge of town, far away from the tiny campus bubble that Rutgers provides and far enough that it adopted a policy of not calling the police after the old city-run police were always too slow in responding.
But on this April Fools’ Day, it’s nothing but laughs as Kharee Jenkins gets his jokes watching “Tosh.0” on a screen to the right of the counter he’s standing behind. The screen to his left is a security monitor giving the all clear.
“The Metro Police force has been a lot better, they’re the real deal,” Jenkins said.
Since Mr. J’s is just a stone’s throw away from Collingswood, a dry town where alcohol cannot be sold, the store serves its purpose. So does Collingswood’s police force.
“The Collingswood police, everybody knows, are real rough,” Jenkins said. “They don’t want any Camden spillover.”
Still, Jenkins said he feels safe in Camden, where he lived briefly with a girlfriend.
“One of the most pleasant experiences of my life,” Jenkins added.
But for Jenkins, you can’t experience Camden until you’ve walked down Haddon Avenue, one of the oldest and longest roads in Camden. Thirteen homicides occurred last year within a 2-mile radius west of the intersection of Haddon and Kaighn Avenues.
As the sun sets on Haddon Avenue, it’s clear that this is not the apocalypse. A walk between Kaighn Avenue and I-676 reveals six restaurants and several other businesses. Yes, there are several very rundown buildings along the way, but it’s not the war zone that Taibbi portrayed. It’s a city with the darkest of corners, but it has its bright spots for those daring enough to open their eyes at what has been broadcasted many times over as the scene of the crime.
Is Penn in or of West Philadelphia?
C amden is so close, it shouldn’t have been surprising when Facebook started identifying many posts from Philadelphia as “near Camden” last month. But Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Brian Sims saw it as enough of a political issue to mention it on a visit to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., last month. If it wasn’t for some misguided GPS triangulating, Camden would be easy for Sims and his constituents to forget about altogether. It is the other across the river, a city redeemed in the eyes of many by only its college campus.
Earlier this month, an early-morning shooting with a semiautomatic weapon near 40th and Spruce streets left a 31-year-old man named Timothy Cary dead. Neither the victim nor the suspect are affiliated with Penn, according to the Division of Public Safety. The murder served as a reminder for many members of the Penn community of how uneasily Penn’s campus opens to the West Philadelphia neighborhood in which it resides.
When College of Liberal and Professional Studies student Alan Chelak moved to West Philadelphia six years ago, he encountered many who had negative perspectives of University City.
“I remember thinking that Penn seemed like an anomaly, really out of place and inaccessible in many ways,” Chelak said. “I was on the other side looking in.”
Chelak took part in a dumpster-diving tradition dubbed “Penn Christmas.”
“I found all sorts of textbooks that I sold on Amazon, and a friend of mine found a laptop computer,” Chelak said. “Who throws this shit out?”
Penn Christmas is obviously an example of extremes, but an Ivy League institution expanding within a neighborhood like West Philadelphia will bring such examples to the fore from time to time.
“Penn has provided part of the neighborhood with a lot of growth, but especially because of the way that many Penn students think about the rest of West Philly, I don’t think it fits perfectly,” College junior and Philadelphia native Kyra Reumann-Moore said.
“I just think University City is something completely different than West Philadelphia,” Wharton sophomore Melanie Smith said. “The second you walk onto campus, you know you are no longer in West Philadelphia. The feel changes, the culture changes, the people change.”
Change has been a good thing with regard to Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia. Penn political science professor John Dilulio — who taught Danley at Penn — grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and graduated from Penn in 1980, commuting to and from Penn on subway car No. 36 every day.
“Penn was not in the best shape back then, and its relations with West Philadelphia were generally thought to be less than mutually beneficial and harmonious,” Dilulio said.
But Dilulio observes that the last few decades have brought significant progress in the relationship, which was marked by gentrification dating back to Penn’s redevelopment of the close-knit West Philadelphia community known as the Black Bottom in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Walking towards the campus from 56th Street, I get the sense of a University City continuum,” Chelak said. “The signs slowly present themselves. Security guards on bikes ready to walk you to your destination so you can feel safe. Fancy or casual restaurants, corporate and indie bookstores, quirky boutiques.”
Before it was his job to learn about the place he lived in, Danley as a Penn student was in Philadelphia, not of it.
“I would say I didn’t start living in Philly until I graduated from Penn. I only visited Old City once in four years,” Danley laughed.
But now he’s the model for instant community involvement. Within a month of moving to Camden, his Next City blog post raised questions of what it meant to be a resident of the city, and within three months, his Local Knowledge blog was off and running. It may have been his job to acquaint himself with Camden, but he did so clinically, going to neighborhood meetings in Cooper Grant, Night Garden — a nighttime art and bike festival — dine arounds with the Latin American Economic Dining Association and City Council and grassroots meetings alike.
“I think that a lot of Penn students consider themselves Philadelphia residents. I hear a lot of students talk about their Philly pride, or post photos saying how beautiful their city is,” Reumann-Moore said. “However, just because they say they love Philly doesn’t mean that they understand it or know it the way that people who have lived there their whole lives and have explored many more parts of the city do. And I wouldn’t expect them to. Most of them have only been here for a couple of years.”
But it hasn’t taken even that long for Danley’s students to start engaging with the city right along with him.
“One of my students said one of the big results of my class was that she said she could talk to her grandmother about Camden and know what her grandmother was talking about,” Danley said. “I am unbelievably jealous of that student, because I wish I could talk to my grandmother about Camden. I thought it would be two to three years of me learning before my voice was in the mix here.”
The ‘cities for others’ are for you
T he Penn continuum that Chelak notices daily with West Philadelphia and Center City on either side is natural — most universities boast an aesthetic distinct from their surrounding neighborhoods. The trick for Penn students who feel a distinction between University City and neighboring communities like West Philadelphia, Center City and yes, Camden, is to start navigating that continuum. Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships exists for that very purpose, and so do other programs such as Sunday Suppers and Philly AIDS Thrift.
One can’t begin to understand the stigma of Camden until one lives it. That axiom has become Steve Danley’s life, and his Local Knowledge blog’s many readers, guest posters and other contributors wouldn’t have it any other way.
Of course Penn students ought to join Danley in doing something about Camden’s startling superlatives, even if it’s merely changing how they think of the city for a start. But above all else, it’s Danley’s general embracement of an urban university as a forum for negotiating communities of difference that current Penn students should follow.
“The question I asked at my job interview was, if I walk into a community meeting with a Rutgers shirt on, what will people say to me?” Danley said. “It’s the question I ask myself every day when I go out. So I just put my best foot forward.”