By Ram Raval, Washington and Lee University (2018)
Interestingly enough, one of the most memorable experiences I encountered while working at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP) in Camden, NJ occurred even before my first day of work. Eager to begin our journey of cooking for ourselves on a budget, my roommates and I decided to buy groceries immediately after settling into our apartment. Shortly after beginning our search, we quickly realized that the nearest supermarket was not only outside of Camden, but also inaccessible by public transportation. Even further, we then learned upon arriving at the supermarket that it also lacked any fresh produce, forcing us to shop at a nearby, more expensive store.
“Although these neighborhood plans undoubtedly please most residents since residents themselves essentially craft their frameworks, we have not completely closed the gap between economic development and residents,” writes Ram Raval (W&L 2018), SHECP Intern in Camden, NJ. (front row, center)
Knowing that around 35% of Camden households lack access to their own vehicle, I quickly began to understand the extent to which food deserts plague Camden and similar urban environments. Having been raised in a suburban community with cars readily accessible, I never truly understood the severity of food deserts as an issue despite countless readings and discussions in my poverty studies classes that argued otherwise.
Still, in retrospect, it seems rather peculiar that the most pronounced memory I have concerning Camden’s problems is from my very first day in the city. In attempting to reconcile this enigma, I realized that this is so because while my first week may have served as an introduction to Camden, its history, and its issues, the subsequent seven weeks of my internship focused on its bright future and the avenues to achieve it.
Indeed, an integral component of CFP’s mission is to change the conversation regarding Camden: Instead of introducing Camden by listing its crime and poverty statistics, we focus on its potential. For example, a mere 1.5 miles separates Camden from Philadelphia, the fifth largest city proper in the United States; Camden has a long stretch of waterfront property with panoramic views of Philadelphia; and Camden is serviced by excellent transportation infrastructure such as the RiverLink Ferry, the PATCO Speedline, and nearby I-295 and I-76. Focusing on the city’s future potential provides it the ability to advance beyond its current state, while dwelling on its issues merely propagates its current negative reputation.
CFP is a not-for-profit corporation that leverages partnerships with public, private, and other not-for-profit entities to execute long-term, sustainable economic development in the city of Camden with the goal of making the city an attractive place to visit, live, work, and invest. As one can imagine, this broad mission statement has led CFP to possess a diverse portfolio of projects. To provide some perspective, my projects for the summer included advocating and promoting recreational trails throughout Camden, improving the business model of the Camden CoLab small business incubator, executing components of a neighborhood plan for East Camden, and assisting in drafting and editing grant proposals for each of the preceding initiatives. Upon hearing this apparent laundry list of projects, most people to whom I have explained my internship become confused as to the true meaning of economic development. In fact, I had a similar reaction when I first received a compilation of the different projects on which I had the opportunity to work over the summer. However, upon closer inspection, each of these projects addresses a major need within the community of Camden and attempts to, as indicated in the mission statement, make the city a better place to visit, live, work, and invest.
Ram (first from left) pictured here with Camden Mayor Donna Redd and other 2015 Cooper’s Ferry interns.
To some, it may initially appear misguided to focus on funding the implementation of recreational trails in an area with as much concentrated poverty as Camden, citing other needs such as financial assistance as paramount. Such an understanding of poverty is reductive: Poverty is a multidimensional issue involving the overall deprivation of resources. Having been born and raised in Virginia Beach, a city applauded for its accessibility to the outdoors, the difficulty of simply finding a decent place to run in Camden after my work hours was actually one of the greatest challenges I faced during my summer. In order to make Camden a better place to live, we must address the essential human need for recreation. Not only does the implementation of trails into Camden make it a more attractive place for prospective buyers, it perhaps more importantly improves the quality of life for those already living within Camden by equipping the city with amenities vital for both mental and physician health. By serving as an advocate for the trail system this past summer, I had the ability to meet with other trail enthusiasts from the Greater Philadelphia region to express the need to give special focus to Camden, which allowed me to both spread awareness and increase the likelihood of future funding.
On the other hand, the Camden CoLab is in many ways a strategic tool to attract young professionals to Camden. As a coworking incubator, the Camden CoLab attempts to blend the value of a coworking space, in which employees of different companies work in a shared space environment intended to stimulate cooperation and innovation, and a start-up incubator, which aims to reduce the cost of capital investment for start-ups (through paying for items such as office space, multifunction copiers, and parking) and to provide business advice. By extending this model from nearby Philadelphia into Camden, the hope is to make Camden a hub for young professionals in southern New Jersey who would otherwise commute further into Philadelphia. Attracting such professionals into Camden would simultaneously attract investment into real estate, retail, and other sectors, thus improving the city both financially and through an improved reputation. Through helping improve the Camden CoLab’s social media presence and suggesting improvements to its current business plan, I had the unique opportunity to ensure the sustainability of the coworking incubator for years to come.
However, one of the primary concerns of economic development in low-income areas is the effect such investment will have on the area’s current residents. For example, the issue of gentrification can prove tragic for residents who are forced to leave their long-established homes due to rising rent prices. Indeed, CFP originally grew from a merger of two separate entities focused primarily on investing in the downtown/waterfront district of Camden; however, as development in the downtown began to grow, CFP quickly realized the need to address problems within the neighborhoods, leading to its undertaking of neighborhood plans such as the East Camden neighborhood plan on which I focused my energies this past summer. While each neighborhood has unique goals and projects based on input received from residents themselves, the underlying goal of each is to make the neighborhoods a better place for the current residents to live, which can be achieved through improvements to traffic safety, crime prevention, health and cleanliness, commerce, education, and recreational opportunities. My specific project within the East Camden neighborhood plan included installing streetscape pole banners and gateway signs throughout the neighborhood’s diverse commercial corridor in order to attract shoppers from surrounding areas. Additionally, I helped draft the beginnings of a request for proposals to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety at a five-point intersection within the neighborhood.
Although these neighborhood plans undoubtedly please most residents since residents themselves essentially craft their frameworks, we have not completely closed the gap between economic development and residents. For example, various entities within Camden, including CFP, the Adventure Aquarium, and the Camden County Board of Freeholders, spent over a year planning a massive event featuring historic ships in coordination with Philadelphia that occurred this past June. While the event drew enormous crowds, several residents of Camden with whom I spoke in the weeks following it had never heard of the event. In fact, I myself felt this same distaste for events that, while raising revenue and publicity for Camden, attracted those from surrounding areas into Camden for only a day. After living in Camden for less than eight weeks, my roommates and I noted that we felt a sincere visceral reaction upon seeing young adults from surrounding suburbs wandering around Camden for concerts held at the Susquehanna Bank Center. Even though the attendees’ presence was undoubtedly beneficial for Camden, I felt as if the city was being intruded by people who did not respect it, and I can only imagine the extent to which this feeling would be amplified if I were an actual resident of the city. Through delivering flyers for events in neighborhoods, implementing neighborhood plans, and undertaking other initiatives such as park installations and business façade improvements, CFP is actively bridging the gap, but it is a long, imperfect process with much work left to be done.
After working on these projects for eight weeks, one of the primary takeaways I gained was an appreciation for the importance of creating capabilities, a notion developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. Nussbaum and Sen’s concept of “capabilities” argues that poverty extends far beyond a mere lack of financial resources; it is also a deprivation of resources and rights such as education, health and healthcare, recreation, safety, cleanliness, and political power, which all work together to promote welfare. CFP works to equip Camden with the ability to provide its residents with these capabilities by improving green space within the city, implementing trails, cleaning its streets, improving roadway conditions and safety, implementing cultural programming, and facilitating investment. By the end of my internship, I began to view economic development as a comprehensive implementation of infrastructure that will create capabilities for the area’s citizens; in other words, an economic development firm aims to outfit its city with the groundwork necessary for the welfare of its citizens.
While economic development is an effective, multifaceted approach to creating capabilities for Camden’s citizens, it is not a silver bullet; if it were, there would be no need for other types of agencies or organizations. Noticeably absent from the list of CFP’s list of initiatives are projects related to health and education. Upon first seeing the list of projects with which CFP is involved, I was excited to be working for a company that accomplished so much on its own. To that end, I was also slightly disappointed when I first learned that CFP rarely manages a project without the help of other organizations; instead, CFP often serves as an intermediary that ensures the successful completion of several projects taken on by other organizations. Learning to respect this trait of CFP was certainly one of the most significant newfound understandings I gained from this summer. The cooperation between different non-profit, for-profit, and governmental agencies in Camden is a critical reason that the city is witnessing a successful rebirth. CFP and different organizations within Camden realize that change will be most successful when each entity works in its area of strength and calls upon other entities when it needs to extend beyond this area. To exemplify, CFP recognizes the importance of neighborhood community development corporations (CDCs) as a valuable connection to local residents, so CFP will often help write grant proposals for projects which CDCs will primarily manage. Similarly, CFP works in coordination with Cooper University Hospital to improve the health outcomes of Camden, while it works in coordination with Rutgers University- Camden and various charter schools to improve education. Leveraging partnerships with such “Eds and Meds” is a growing technique in community development that creates a network of powerful, involved partners working together towards success.
In retrospect, my experience this past summer primarily supplemented my pre-existing knowledge by adding another dimension to it: I now understand and respect the importance of focusing on solutions to poverty rather than merely its existence. Prior to completing my internship, I expected the experience to primarily be a means of becoming acquainted with the nature of urban poverty; nevertheless, living and working in Camden taught me much more about the hope and potential within the city than it did about its struggles. Acknowledging the risk of sounding youthfully optimistic, my experience working at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden taught me that there is an abundance of realistic, feasible work that can be done not only in areas of concentrated urban poverty such as Camden, but throughout the United States and globally in order to make the world a better place to live for all. While we view government benefits and charity as the main solutions to poverty, CFP and economic development serve as a wonderful example of how private organizations can undertake projects that move beyond a financial perspective of poverty and implement multifaceted, systemic solutions to an area’s struggles. Not only am I now considering economic development as a potential career path, but I also have begun to view the world differently. For example, while driving through my hometown of Virginia Beach, I now envision potential development opportunities by considering how projects being done in Camden could extend elsewhere to improve quality of life. Economic development is not simply a solution to poverty; it is also a means of improving the world around in general by fostering capability in aspects ranging from health and safety to recreation and play.