Something I’ve been struck by as I’ve explored cities and urban neighborhoods across the country and here in South Jersey is how much work went into “otherizing” cities and urban communities in the 20th century. The cliché in the suburbs when I was growing up was that cities were dangerous places full of dangerous minorities and that venturing into them was to risk personal harm or death. Surprisingly, this view often came from the lips of people who moved out of them decades previous, a move which itself set off the chain reaction of decline we know so well today. And unfortunately, this is still sometimes the mindset of older Americans despite a solid few decades of urban growth. But visiting even the most struggling communities left behind by generations of people can show you that people are still people, no matter what environment they live in, despite ugly, racist stereotypes about what kind of person lives in these places.
I ride my bike a lot, including through Camden to get to my job in Philadelphia. I often ride during the morning school rush, past schools busy with parents dropping their kids off, saying hello to crossing guards as I pass. It’s a cliché in its own right; it smacks hard of the kind of suburban idyll that people generally idealize. So it’s always interesting to me that when my route takes me across Route 130, the moat-like highway that hugs Camden’s borders, I come across a scene that might be surprising to pearl-clutching suburbanites in neighboring towns: kids being dropped off by their parents, with smiling crossing guards helping them to across the street, who are just as friendly as their suburbanite counterparts. The only difference is the scene is that in the suburbs the people are mostly white and in the city, the kids are people are mostly black and brown.
Even though state lawmakers over the past sixty or so years saw fit to separate people into wealthy and poor communities through a kind of de facto northern system of segregation whereby property taxes fund education, they couldn’t stop people being people. Generations of politicians couldn’t stop parents loving their kids and wanting what’s best for them and they couldn’t stop those parents fighting for their kids’ futures, such as through a fight over the school board representation that Camden parents have dealt with for ten years as the state took over its schools to little positive effect.
This is something I don’t think people who continue to demonize cities and their residents care to realize: that people are people. Everyone has hopes and dreams for themselves, their kids, and their communities. The only difference is the amount of resources that governments give or withhold from them. Sometimes, Camden hasn’t managed its own resources all that well, but as suburban towns suffer decay across the state, it’s clear that isn’t exclusively a “city” problem. We make our own world in every way, and New Jersey has simply chosen to make this one. It just happens to have had the effect of radicalizing entire generations of people against cities and the people who live in them.
As an aside, this is part of the reason I host a monthly dinner in Camden: to get people to see the city through their own eyes instead of through other people’s prejudices, and to have some great food in the mean time. If you’re interested, check out camdensupper.org.