This Thursday, the large, vacant space on Camden’s waterfront left behind by the demolition of Riverfront State Prison in 2009 will be transformed. The Brooklyn art collective Nuit Blanche, in association with the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, is putting on a party. The event is meant to coincide with this month’s Third Thursday arts crawl, a monthly event started three years ago by the owners of Gallery Eleven One, an art exhibition space built inside of a 1906 firehouse located in the Cooper Grant neighborhood. There will be light shows on the water tower, performances from local hip hop artists, brass bands, and the city’s famed Sophisticated Sisters and Distinguished Gentlemen, food from local restaurants, and BMX bikers showing off tricks. For a fenced off plot of land that isn’t doing much for the city, this is a decent change of peace.
“But,” I can hear people ask, “why would I go to Camden? And at night, are you crazy? Isn’t that place dangerous? All I ever hear about Camden is crime and corruption.”
That’s sort of the point. The Night Gardens event is more than just a party; it’s the city’s chance to harness the sheer willpower of individuals who want to make a place better, if only for a night, to show that when people get tother for something positive, something great can happen.
What it comes down to for me is the old cliche of strength in numbers. Think about the parts of urban life that people consider sketchy. Dark streets at night with no one around. Dingy, empty subway stations in the off hours. Empty plots of land where building should be. Now think about how those turn into completely different places when people show up. Night markets have been transforming city streets at night in Philadelphia over the past few years with huge turnouts. Subway stations burst to life when a throng of people use SEPTA to get to a sporting event at the stadiums. And the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society turned an empty lot on Broad Street into an amazingly successful beer garden last summer.
What this phenomenon speaks to is the fact that the urban fabric is not itself at fault, but rather, what makes all the difference is how we use its physical spaces. We’re the ones who decide if we’re going to let spaces stay unused, leaving them to feel unsafe, or whether we’re going to use them to bring people together for something great. We’re the ones who bring life to a neighborhood. The power is ours. All it takes is showing up.
So do yourself a favor and change your ideas of what Camden has to offer. Come see its culture, see its proud youths, listen to its music, and eat its food. Come do something unexpected and potentially amazing.
You can check out the event’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Camden-Night-Gardens/455296604597443.