“Why are you always in Camden?” my mother asked me. I’m not. But every time I updated Facebook in Philadelphia, my post was tagged as “Near Camden, NJ.” Any proud Philadelphian will respond coldly: We certainly are not Camden. Yet, there’s something too reflexively dismissive about that reaction.
“Your father and I are concerned. Why are you always in Camden?” my mother asked me last year when I was visiting them at their home in Quakertown, Pa.
Even out there on the Philly frontier, Camden had developed a salty reputation. I can understand their concern. Living and working in Center City, I spend most of my splendid isolation within a two-mile radius on a neat little grid with perpendicular streets designed hundreds of years ago. I have no regular, in-the-sunlight business in Camden. So were I to frequent this city across the river from Pennsylvania’s crown jewel, it must seem that I’m doing something shady.
My mother was, of course, referring to the fact that every time I updated Facebook in Center City, Philadelphia, my post was tagged as “Near Camden, NJ.” Yesterday, Elizabeth Fiedler reported on this very 21st-century — very annoying — Philly phenomenon.
Pride and prejudice
Now, while there may be technological reasons at play beyond my grasp, it’s understandable that I would bristle at my mother’s implication. Any proud Philadelphian will typically respond with the same chilliness: We certainly are not Camden.
Philadelphia was once the capital of the union; we’re the home of the Phillies, the Eagles, Rocky Balboa (fictional or not, he kicked Communist ass), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Liberty Bell, the Mütter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and many other institutions of cultural, educational and commercial import.
Camden has an aquarium and a Rutgers campus.
NOT Camden, indeed, thankyouverymuch.
Yet, there’s something unsettling about the visceral discomfort I feel at being mistaken for a Camdenite. There’s something too reflexively dismissive.
My Facebook status update quoting my mother that day got more “likes” than almost any other in my personal online history. Using this very (not-at-all) scientific measure, I am left with the sense that this is a shared experience for us, we happy-to-be-in-Philly-ites.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Camden and Philadelphia share little socioeconomically. Camden’s white population is 5 percent to Philly’s 36 percent. The average Camden household size is three people, while Philly averages 2.5. And the median household income in Philadelphia is $11,000 higher than in Camden. Most importantly, though, Philadelphia is a titan in both population (1.5 million) and sheer size (134 square miles) to dwarfish Camden (77,000, nine square miles.)
When you compare Camden to the Center City and adjacent ZIP codes directly across the river (19147, 19103, 19102, and 19107) — areas of about equal population — the gap is even wider. For instance, the median household income on the Philly side is about $60,000. In Camden? $25,000.
Basically, all that Philadelphia and Camden have in common is geography. To make any comparisons between the two is as close to an apples-to-oranges scenario as you can get. These differences are so wide right now that the two cities seem to have nothing in common whatsoever.
And, this is exactly why we need to start engaging with our neighbor to the east. The differences between us will continue if we give up on an entire city that shares not just a border but also a history with Philly. The truth is, we do have a lot in common.
Not so different, after all
As in Philadelphia, settlement of Camden began hundreds of years ago. In fact, because of the Delaware River, Philly and Camden share an industrial and locomotive past. After Irish, British and German immigrants became the privileged majority in the 19th century, Italian, Irish, and Polish folks immigrated to Camden just like they did to Philly. And after these groups solidified their American identities, African-American and Latino populations began booming in Camden, just like they did in Philly.
Still, it is all an American tale: different cultures, ethnicities and races adding their own unique flavors and twists on our centuries-old fable, the American Dream. Philly and Camden are the same in this regard. It’s more than that, though. The Pennsylvania Railroad used both of our cities as anchors historically, our industries mirrored one another for centuries, and our demographics used to be quite similar. And we are literally right next to one another.
So why the vehement need to distance ourselves? Or, in some of the worst cases, why do Philadelphians feel the need to outright insult Camden?
Quite simply, we often are myopic, provincial bullies. I’m guilty of it, too. It’s easy to kick Camden in the shins, particularly while forgetting about Philly’s own checkered past. Look at politics on our side of the river. Philadelphia has bestowed gifts of stultifying stupidity to the world, including disgraced former councilman Rick Mariano, the demonstrably racist Mayor Frank Rizzo, and, just currently, Pa. Senator Leanna Washington, who, according to state prosecutors, seems to have difficulty understanding the differences among political, narcissistic and governmental duties.
Let’s not forget that, while Philadelphia fares better than Camden economically, a quarter of its population currently lives below the already very low threshold of the federal poverty line.
Throwing stones, building bridges
Still, we in Philly are choosing the easy, unfriendly, careless path downward, rather than harder, sensible, engaged path upward toward our New Jersey friends.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the widening gap between rich and poor, the differences between the so-called upper and lower classes. I rarely hear talk here in Philadelphia, though, about the widening, and ever dangerous, gap between these two cities. Their respective futures are veering disturbingly far away from each other. Yet, we in Philly almost never talk about how to contribute to building a neighboring city that’s as attractive as it is close; instead we jeer and bristle at the mere idea that we’re anything like Camden.
If we can start to have serious conversations, we create a viable alternative to living in Philadelphia and a competitive commercial alternative for area businesses. While we might be in different states, the fact remains that on PATCO alone 38,000 people move daily between the cities, sometimes to pass through Camden and other times to stop there. Until Camden starts focusing on its robust economic development, Philadelphians will keep cruising right past the city’s transit stations and into the New Jersey burbs beyond.
Yet, Philly has to be willing to have these conversations likewise. We need to start taking an interest in what goes on across the river, and we need to explore areas where our commercial and cultural interests overlap — because they certainly do.
If we don’t have this cooperation neither city will win in the end.
Don’t believe me? Think for a moment about the block you live on. When one of those houses is abandoned for a very long time, the entire block slowly degenerates. No matter how much money you spend improving your personal dwelling, if those around you are crumbling, your house is threatened.
Philadelphia is your house. Camden is your neighbor.