Emma Busse from Washington and Lee worked in Camden, New Jersey, and reports on what she learned about community and economic development.
Do you notice the beauty of a torrential downpour on a blazing hot summer day? If you have ever been two miles away from your new home without an umbrella while out on a run in an unfamiliar city, the answer is probably no. After a few of these rainy experiences, let’s just say, the local weathermen and I are not on great terms. In a way, learning to answer that question positively given those circumstances is an apt parallel for my summer in Camden, New Jersey working for Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a non-profit development firm that uses a multi-faceted approach to make Camden a better place to live, work, and invest.
Camden, NJ, located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is known for a lot of things—murder, drugs, weapons, and prostitution (you know, the really bad stuff). Before coming here, I had heard the statistics, seen the pictures, and read the journalistic representations of what Matt Taibbi in a Rolling Stone article coined “Apocalypse, New Jersey.” Despite this negative picture, I thought I was ready to jump out of my small town comfort zone and fight urban poverty head on. I knew it would be challenging, but I felt prepared, both personally and academically. My first week at Cooper’s Ferry showed me that this negative media fails to capture the real challenges of Camden, New Jersey. While crime rates are not something that you want at twelve times the national average, this is not the whole story. One of the biggest, most unexpected issues that I encountered this summer was a fight to overthrow a bad reputation.
Driving up to the Camden Waterfront, the home of the Cooper’s Ferry offices, is much like driving around any city. There are crossing guards, school children, street signs, directions to local attractions, tall buildings, and police officers. It is a normal city. Realizing this normalcy showed me how much a negative stereotype can affect the perception of a city.
But, despite the first few glimpses of normalcy, the more time I spent in Camden, the more I saw the despair. As a native West Virginian, I am no stranger to rough roads, but during my first week working at Cooper’s Ferry, one of my supervisors took me on a driving tour of Camden on roads with more holes and makeshift patches than I have ever seen. I thought I knew about potholes until my supervisor’s sturdy jeep bottomed-out in a one along a main corridor of a Camden neighborhood. This disrepair was the first sign of a cloud in the idealistic picture I had painted of the skies ahead of me this summer—it was the first sign of a storm ahead, like the lingering evening cloud that seemed to dwell outside my window some nights as I headed out for a run. The first week at Cooper’s Ferry was like that day when you look out the window to see clear skies and head out without an umbrella, despite a threatening forecast, thinking that there is no way it could rain with such a beautiful sky. But in the end you wind up soaked, trudging home, defeated.
Seeing the poverty and crime that the negative media advertises as the sum of Camden made me a bit cynical. At first I feared Camden would be solely Apocalypse, NJ, and then I realized that there was innately hope in this place. For a short time, all I saw in Camden was poverty. I bought into the negativity some people have towards this place. It took one of my co-workers to change my perspective. As a lifelong resident of the City, she had an interesting perspective on Camden. She regularly pointed out that negative media sells, and Camden has its fair share of negativity. However, Camden is a unique juxtaposition of crime and of invincibility. Walt Whitman, who spent his last years in the City, called Camden, “a city invincible” during a time of economic prosperity for the City. This title has stuck with the City for decades, through economic ups and downs, and remains an apt description of this place, despite those who tout the violence as indicative. People like my Camden resident co-worker believe in this place. She proudly claims the City as her own and believes in Camden and in Cooper’s Ferry. Cooper’s Ferry has become a part of the fight to mitigate the effects of the “Apocalypse, New Jersey” side of Camden, to get the invincibility of Camden recognized again, to get people to understand that a city’s worth is more than the sum of its violent, widely propagandized parts, and to get people to see the beauty in a rainstorm.
Cooper’s Ferry has many projects in progress, and during my summer, I worked on a few projects targeted at small business support and growth. One project involved grants for facade improvements to businesses in main economic zones. As a sociology student, I have studied and debated the merit of the broken-windows hypothesis of preventing crime: that a group of tested propositions (like the ill-repair of the storefronts) can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena (like a lack of efficacy for a community). Through façade improvements, I was able to see that while broken-windows hypothesis may not translate well into the social realm of policing, there is some merit to the view that repairing broken-windows and boarded up buildings can create collective efficacy: a social agreement of neighbors to act on behalf of the common good.
Granting micro-loans to small businesses helped me to see that collective efficacy should be built from the ground up, and that sometimes a small amount of money is the catalyst needed for small business growth. While Cooper’s Ferry is involved in very large-scale deals in Camden, some of its most important efforts focus on grassroots change. It takes a multifaceted approach to combat poverty in an area so entrenched in hardship that it sometimes struggles to see another way, to remember that the value of this city far surpasses its crime rates, to remember that Camden is simultaneously “Apocalypse, NJ” and the City Invincible, and to see beauty and opportunity in a place of poverty in a time of rainstorms.
The day-to-day work at Cooper’s Ferry was a lot like work in any business setting. Invoicing, event planning, marketing, and grant writing do not exactly sound like poverty relief. But in an area like Camden that has such disenchanting poverty, a corporation trying to improve the area through development necessarily touches poverty every day. The arrival of large corporations means jobs for people who have never been employed. Park improvements mean relocation of drugs to make a safe space for children to play. New bike trails mean a safer, healthier means of transportation for those without other options, including children walking or biking to school. All of Cooper’s Ferry’s work runs parallel to Camden’s economic and opportunity disadvantages.
Cooper’s Ferry not only gave me the opportunity to experience business and poverty-relief firsthand; it also introduced me to businesspeople in Camden. These businesspeople touch the lives of Camden residents everyday and affect its reputation. One meeting with the director of a major attraction on the Camden Waterfront stuck out. This successful businessman advocated for Camden and its people. He showed me that an individual working in a for-profit industry can still make a major difference in the community.
The development of the Camden Waterfront has not come without criticism. Many residents say that the Waterfront is too expensive and comes with too many barriers for them to feel comfortable there. However, this director made a point to tear down the physical and social barriers between the City’s residents and the Waterfront, to send resources out into the community, to welcome Camden’s people into the developments on the waterfront, and to make these proud attractions of Camden, not mere extensions of Philadelphia.
Seeing this commitment by businesspeople to the City Invincible was the moment when I saw the beauty in the torrential downpour even though I was miles from home without an umbrella. As a poverty minor, I have felt that my path needs to include working for a non-profit that feeds children, teaches kids how to read, gives veterans housing, or something else at the forefront of the fight against poverty. I worried that pursuing a career in economics would be turning my back to my time in the poverty department. However, the examples of businesspeople in Camden committed to changing the City for the better help me realize that there are career opportunities in business-like non-profits (like Cooper’s Ferry) and in socially responsible for-profits (like the waterfront attractions), and choosing a route that may not for some look like the path of a poverty minor does not mean that I am turning my back to this study. Maybe following my economics training into business will help to continue bridging the gap between poverty-alleviation and for-profit industry. The Shepherd Program, both during my internship and in the conferences preceding and following my time in Camden, has introduced me to many people who are doing just that. There is poverty-relief work in socially responsible business, some beauty in a torrential downpour, and merit to looking at things from a different perspective.