Will the South Camden Theatre Company be able to keep people coming to a blighted neighborhood?
A newly constructed theater in Camden debuts itself with a play about the failure of Camden. The Waterfront South theater was built on the footprint of a deteriorated corner bar.
Waterfront South stinks. About 200 yards west of this Camden neighborhood, a sewage plant is processing effluent from the entire county. On a breezy day the smell blows right through the street, where many of the houses are empty with plywood where their windows should be.
“There are a lot of scrapyards in Camden – always a market for pipes in your house if you weren’t watching.”
Father Michael Doyle is the pastor of Sacred Heart church, which has a property redevelopment arm called Heart of Camden. In 25 years it has renovated about 200 abandoned houses.
“Poor area we are trying to grow flowers in, build it up a bit. We believe, beyond faith and hope: art will save us. “
Doyle believes the bedrock of neighborhood revival is creativity. He is testing that theory by constructing a theater where an old bar used to be and handing the keys to playwright Joe Paprzycki.
“This used to be my grandfather’s bar from the 30’s to the 60’s.”
Paprzycki’s grandfather operated the bar until the late 60’s, when the shipyards closed. It’s the location of Paprzycki’s play about Camden called “Last Rites”.
“You come here, sit in a seat in my grandfather’s old bar, when the lights go up its 1967 and you’re in exactly the same spot. This theater was built because of a play.”
In Act One, two young guys from a different part of town come into Walt’s bar.
No problem here, bud.
No bars in your neighborhood?
I bet they could use the business.
Why don’t you get out of here and go back where you came from.
On this particular day the regulars are more ornery than usual; they just learned the shipyards are closing and they are all out of the only job they ever had.
“You have to come here – you can’t see it in Cherry Hill. You gotta come here. It forces people to stretch and get out of their comfort zones and say, OK, I’m going to Camden.”
The director of the Greater Philadelphia Theater Alliance – Margie Salvante – concurs. She says Last Rites is a powerful story made moreso by the fact that it is being staged on the same spot where it is set. But after Last Rites finishes its four-week run, another play will be staged, one that will not be about Camden. Salvante worries about the new theater’s sustainability.
“They’re off Broadway – the main thoroughfare – it’s as bad as an intercity thoroughfare can possibly be. They’ve got to park in the street, they’ve got to look for a place to eat – there isn’t anything.”
The theater’s main mission is to revitalize Camden. For years the state of New Jersey has has similar goals, to which end they have built a minor league baseball stadium and an aquarium. Professor Howard Gilette of Rutgers Camden says a new theater itself won’t save anything.
“Let’s put it in perspective: 25 years ago people made the same claim for the aquarium. Could the aquarium save the city? The answer is not. Bringing people in for a few hours to spend a few dollars, largely in the aquarium. That doesn’t save the city.”
The difference between the Waterfront South theater at the Aquarium is audiences from the suburbs will have to go into a Camden neighborhood, not just hug the waterfront. Gillette says the entire region is imbalanced – all the money is in the suburbs, all the poverty in Camden – and that gap will begin to close if suburbanites have a reason to go inside Camden.
As workers put the finishing touches on the theater’s facade, Father Michael Doyle is already thinking about what to do with an abandoned storefront on another block.
“It was an idea that, the bit is enough. If you do a bit God will finish it – it’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes – if you have a couple loaves you can feed a multitude.”
Doyle is a patient man, who will wait to see if Camden has a third act left in it. Or a miracle.