A View from the Suburbs

I forget exactly how, but a few months ago I heard about a Rutgers-Camden professor teaching a course involving urbanist issues and using the city as a subject in his classes. He was looking for “local knowledge”, what the people on the ground know that others might not. I don’t live in Camden, but I wanted to contribute my view of the city from the suburbs, where basically nobody thinks of Camden other than a place where crime happens. I sent Mr. Danley an essay, and he liked it enough to publish on his blog. Here’s a preview of it and a link to the entire post on his site.

I grew up in a part of South Jersey where you could barely get anywhere without a car. There’s a bus that takes you to a train station, but my parents never talked about anything like that. When I got my license at 17, it was probably something akin to the promise of personal freedom that my parents’ generation bestowed on having your own car. The freedom to get out, to explore wherever you wanted, go wherever you pleased. And for a good number of years, that was my reality. I drove to college, I drove to other cities and states; I got out. It was only when I got my first job that the realities of a car-dependent life hit me. Suddenly spending hours of my life every week in my car wasn’t a liberation, but a chore. I was losing my life to being stuck in a metal box just to get to work and back.

Fast forwarding ten years, I find myself in a much different place. I still have a car, but I take the train to work in the morning. In what’s become somewhat of a demographic cliche, I’ve ditched the ultra-car-dependent lifestyle, moved to an old suburb with a downtown rich in shops and restaurants, and dove headlong into appreciating the history and ever-changing social fabric of my region. During my college years, I started to take the train into Center City and fell almost immediately in love with it. I started to read everything I could about the dynamics of the city, about the play of old and new, about the competing dreams for what could be. And though I am still deeply in love with Philadelphia and its past and future, it is at this point in my life as an enthusiast of the urbane that I’ve started to turn my gaze towards that other city at the heart of our region: the City of Camden, the city invincible.

You can read the entire post on Stephen Danley’s blog  at


5 thoughts on “A View from the Suburbs

  1. nobody says:

    Interesting post. I came across your blog from a post on skyscraperpage.

    Anyway, I come from the opposite side of the tracks as you I guess you would say. I grew up in a now mostly post-industrial borough in PA that even when I was growing up had a fully occupied commercial main street, and I’m not even 30 yet so we’re not talking a long time ago. Funny enough though, I grew up similarly to you in that I really didn’t think about Chester, our equivalent of Camden, though unlike you it wasn’t because I grew up in suburban sprawl. It was because growing up in Southeast Delco you don’t think about anywhere outside of Southeast Delco unless you’re forced to. I didn’t even know Chester existed until I met people from there. I had only heard of Marcus Hook because of Mickey Vernon, and only knew Media because of State Street and Granite Run. I never knew Chester was an actual city until I got on Wikipedia about 6 years ago. I didn’t know how major a city it used to be until I found, which really opened my eyes in the same way moving to Collingswood seems to have opened your eyes about Camden.

    What you understandably fail to realize is that the mere existence of the Camden County suburbs kill Camden every single day. They take tax dollars that would have gone to Camden, take residents, take jobs and businesses and retail. They only exist because of Camden and Philadelphia, yet they refuse to admit that or do anything to pay back the cities for everything they have taken from both of them, especially Camden. Then on top of that they dump all of their problems on Camden and Philadelphia and use those cities for their vices, especially Camden, as you seem to have caught onto. It’s good that Camden started bringing them back for reasons other than vice back in the 90s with things like the waterfront and the ballpark and by building up Rutgers-Camden and now Cooper but what needs to change is the suburbs of Camden County need to accept Camden as the center of the county and the most important part of it again. Right now, as is the case with Delco and Chester city, people talk about Camden like it’s a neighborhood and not an actual city.

    I think one of the only ways to do this is to get Camden a pro team in a sport that people follow more than baseball. Since it’s historically larger than Reading, maybe Camden can have a minor league soccer team similar to the Reading FC or even an ABA or CBA basketball team since Camden has such a rich basketball tradition. Something with the name Camden on it other than the Riversharks would be great in my opinion. The Camden County newspapers should also move back to Camden where they belong, as the Delco Times should move back to Chester. Little things like this are what put a city back at the forefront of a region, though being the county seat and having the county courthouse is a big plus for Camden, as is having the waterfront, the major hospitals, and two universities. Camden will never be Camden again though until the suburbs stop holding it back and start falling back out of the forefront. Cherry Hill can keep its mall as far as I’m concerned but why are all of those hotels in Cherry Hill when Camden is directly across the river from Philadelphia? Why is Cherry Hill more of a job center than the county seat despite never being larger than the county seat at any point in its history?

    These are the questions that people need to ask instead of just accepting things as they are. I’m sure you’ll annoy people if you’re persistent enough but these are questions that everybody should be pondering the answers to.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences across the river. It’s really interesting to hear about how you see it from the PA side. I think it shows that despite being a multi-state region, we share some basic patterns regarding growth and how people have treated our cities over the past 50 years.

      I love everything you said about what these cities can or should do to get back in people’s minds. Basically building them up as brands instead of letting only the negative speak for them. To expand on your suggestions, I’d love to see progress on the local business front. Things like improvement districts have worked in Philly, and there already is a “special services” district in downtown Camden. Something that struck me around the holidays was that the Camden Parking Authority was offering free parking downtown, yet I don’t think anyone outside the city knows what stores there actually are to shop at. I’d love to see a website put up promoting local businesses in the city, because there are a surprising number of them.

      Another sports team would be interesting, especially if it were a soccer or basketball team, something to draw on the passions of local residents. Hell, I love soccer, I’d love to go see a team play in Camden. But again, something to bring pride to the name.

      I have to say, I cannot agree more with what you said about the newspapers. It really bugs me that the Courier Post left the city for Cherry Hill after such a rich history there. Their low-slung, anonymous offices on Cuthbert Boulevard are such a great example of the banality of suburban sprawl and how it hurts our older cities. As a newspaper, they’re the ear to the ground on issues facing South Jersey, and they do report on Camden quite often. You can still report on Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Deptford, or wherever else, but there’s little pride of place in being physically located in an anonymous building suburbs. It would say so much more about their commitment to the region if they moved back to Camden. I’m sure it’s the same with the Delco Times.

      Thanks again for the insightful comment.

  2. nobody says:

    No problem. I’m glad I’ve finally come across somebody from a different background than myself who sees things that way. Even people from my same background often don’t want to hear it because it’s easier to just go along with how things “have always been” even though in reality it’s been an aberration compared to the much longer history of how things were before.

    I completely agree with your ideas, and I’m glad you see what I’m saying about things like newspapers and a city’s brand.

    I’ll be sure to follow this blog from now on. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for the kind words! Oh yeah, that “it’s always been this way and will always be this way” mentality is just crazy to me. I get really frustrated that the lack of imagination and cultural ambition that people are capable of. Like these cities used to be something great, and they abandoned them and turned them into what they are today. There’s no reason we can’t figure this out.

  3. Pingback: Rutgers-Camden students present ways to tackle the city’s problems | South Jerseyist

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