I was looking forward to the Camden Night Gardens all this week. I couldn’t wait to get on the waterfront and see just what it looks like when we make an effort to reclaim an urban space and do something fun with it. I was watching the clock in work, waiting to get out of there so I could get on a train to cross the river. Then a few hours before the event, I got worried. What if no one showed up? What if getting out to Camden was just too crazy for people? What if it wasn’t warm enough and people stayed home?
Thankfully none of that was the case. Last night was awesome.
There was so much to see. Going through the effective festival entrance at Delaware and Elm, there were immediately tents, tables, and food trucks. There was a pop-up bike share from the Camden County bike share program letting people take bikes around the area and going on rides on the Ben Franklin Bridge’s walkway, usually closed at 8 or 9 but left open until midnight for the night. There was an art student from Rutgers-Camden putting on a piece about how waste is energy, with a trashcan whose food waste powered a light coming out of it. There were lots of tables for local businesses like Camden Printworks, whose “I (bicycle) Camden” shirt I was finally able to buy. There were even a few national outfits like Uber, who was there signing people up for their Philadelphia service (I should have asked if you could get a ride to or from Camden from Philly, though its UberX service possibly starting up in South Jersey might mitigate that need).
Beyond that, there was a stage set up up against the water tower, which was lit up beautifully by the Brooklyn arts collective that runs Nuit Blanche festivals up there. There were half a dozen acts, including the impressive to see in person Sophisticated Sisters drill team, The UCC Royal Brass Band of Camden, and Camden native hip hop artist Yung Poppa. The dramatic lighting that projected the artists on stage onto the side of the water tower must’ve been visible from the train and maybe even Penn’s Landing across the river.
There was even more to see past that. A BMX group from New York set up a course on a sliver of land between the old guard road of the prison and the water, again amazingly lit up for the nighttime. There was a huge peace sign for people to write their names and messages of love and support on. There were graffiti artists painting and wheat pasting on huge letters spelling out CAMDEN. And at the very end of the walk, there was a tent playing an old RCA Victrola, the thing that put Camden on the map all those years ago.
Overall, the night was a success. It was a little colder than I thought it would be (it might be better to do this in late May or early June next time), but people still came out and there was a ton to see and do. I can only imagine the turnout with even more promotion and coverage (and warmer temperatures). You’re just not going to get a festival like this in any other town in South Jersey. Camden’s dramatic vistas of the Delaware River, the bridge, and Philadelphia coupled with the imaginative and creative efforts of those who want to bring people together to celebrate the good things in the city resulted in a unique festival I was proud to attend. I can’t wait for the next one.