This past Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the Camden Policy Project Kickoff, an event put on by Rutgers-Camden professor Stephen Danley and students from his Camden, Philadelphia, and the Region class. The event was an opportunity for his students to present their suggestions for how to tackle a wide array of issues the city is facing. There were six groups of students giving presentations and soliciting feedback on their ideas from members of the community. Overall, it was a fascinating event. There was a huge crowd despite the fact that the region was in the middle of having one of its worst rain storms ever. Here’s just some of what we talked about.
- Development. Partnering with the city’s artists to bring art to the public spaces as a placemaking effort to help bolster pride in the city. One idea was to help artistically transform the Walter Rand Transportation Center, a very visible city institution sitting at the intersection of multiple bus and rail place. Placemaking is a popular idea right now, and it’s easy to understand why. As suburban sprawl has homogenized regions, bringing people together around a particular geography and promoting it as a culture brings us back to a time when we were proud of where we lived. This was one of my favorite ideas, because if Camden needs anything in its relationship with the outside world, it’s a message of pride of place.
- Housing. Rehabbing and providing housing to homeless writers and artists, an effort that has been put forth within the past few years in Detroit. It’s an interesting idea, and I love any efforts to bring housing to the homeless. It’s crazy to me that there are homeless people in a city with such a high vacancy rate.
- Education. Questioning the constant standardized testing and its effects on students’ ability to learn and interest in subjects at school. I graduated way after Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind were implemented, but it sounds like adults are effectively sucking any joy out of education there was to be had for today’s students.
- Healthcare. The students detailed how the city has no urgent care centers or non-hospital emergency room places for people to go when they’re sick, which is something that suburban communities take for granted. Even not having just evening hours for care in the city is a huge detriment to residents’ healthcare. There is also little effort in educating residents about the Affordable Care Act, which was supposed to provide coverage for the very people who go to hospitals’ emergency departments for non-life threatening illnesses.
- Regionalism. This struck a particular chord with me. One student brought up the same exact thoughts I’ve written previously about, that is, how no one knows about Camden outside of the city, even if you grew up in the suburbs. The groups suggestion was to help expose the city to the surrounding suburbs as a way to humanize it in the face of constant negative news coverage. Another idea the group came up with was to provide shuttles to area grocery stores, given that Camden currently has none for its entire population.
- Faith-based Initiatives. The idea this group had was to create a central organizing office in the city government to bring together charitable organizations who can help address issues and possibly supplement the work of other organizations already in the city.
All of these issues are available for much further reading on the wiki the class has created for these issues, the idea being to give their research and ideas over to the population in general so as to encourage a continuing dialog once their semester ends. You can find that at http://camdenpolicy.wikispaces.com/.
In the end, what really impressed me was the sheer number of people in attendance who cared deeply about the city. Not only were the students engaged with the issues, but every member of the community was too. They were interested in hearing what the students had to say and generous with their thoughts and advice for them. The honest discourse about the city was refreshing when you’ve been used to sensational newspaper articles that paint the city as some mysterious “other” you should never visit.
What I would love to see is for the city administration to invite these students to present their ideas to city and state leaders (since so much of the city is managed by Trenton) for serious consideration. Their ideas deserve an honest audience with those in whose hands the fate of the city rests. Not every solution can be implemented, whether due to a lack of money or political will, but there’s no reason we can’t start a discussion about how to address the city’s problems. And honestly, enthusiastic young people like these are exactly the people we should be listening to, because the adults at the helm haven’t exactly figured out how to get Camden out of the troubles it’s in.