Reasons to Love Collingswood

What makes this Jersey "sub-urbia" a place to call home

During Collingswood’s last Second Saturday, my boyfriend and I went through town on our way to the train to Philadelphia. There was a blues band in front of Grooveground, paintings in front of the new Frugal Resale, and the sidewalks were filled with people. We looked at each other and had the same thought; we ran back home, grabbed a bottle of wine, and ended up at the counter at Kitchen Consigliere, which is like watching the Food Network and the Jersey Shore at the same time—in the best way.

About 12 years ago, I wrote a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the experience of living in Collingswood. I talked about how bucolic it is, yet how close to the city, what a great place it is to raise children, et cetera. Collingswood was at the precipice of its renaissance then; folks were holding their breath as to whether the town could turn itself around. Mayor Jim Maley made copies of the article and put them in every civic employee’s mailbox, as confirmation of the work they do and motivation to continue it. But, what I also had written was how NJ bedroom communities were treated like the crazy sister in the attic—Philadelphians know we are here, but pretend we are not. I wrote about working in the city’s arts sector and people’s shock when I’d tell them I lived in NJ. Suddenly I was nowhere near as cool as they had first thought.

Now, when I tell people I live in Collingswood, I hear: “Ohmygosh! I love Collingswood. We just had dinner at [insert restaurant]!” or “My brother-in-law lives there. We love to go visit and just walk around.” Or, my favorite: “Oh! We wanted to buy there and couldn’t afford anything!”

I’ve always argued that Collingswood is not so suburban. We have every race and economic background here as well as many interracial, multiracial and homosexual couples. It’s a microcosm of the city.

When I first moved to this town I met many people who had been born and raised here. I had a mixed reaction to that: It made me happy that residents were pleased enough with childhood in this town that they wanted to come back. But, I worried about insularity and a small-town mentality. I think that’s changed, too. I’ve met more and more couples and families who have moved to Collingswood for comfort and acceptance. It’s as much a melting pot as any city, and city dwellers are drawn here because they can still walk to coffee shops, restaurants and public transportation—a kind of sub-urbia. Hell, Kelly McGillis moved here and the news made the New York Times!

Collingswood contradicts the hoary cliché that suburbanites have to climb into cars to go anywhere. In Collingswood, you can walk to almost anything you need as well as see theater, live music, lectures and readings. My Cherry Hill relatives tell me they’re always stunned by how many people they see on the street. “And they’re not just walking their dogs!” they say.

Of course problems occur in a small town. Personality issues with teachers or bullying are harder to manage, but I have seen more benefits to this familial environment. I’ve stood on the playground and watched as younger children just raise their arms, knowing that an older child will pick them up, help them get on the monkey bars. A teacher who never even taught a particular student still knows the child by name, knows his or her family and sibling, and will stoop to help with an untied shoe. There’s simply a deep sense of belonging.

My children’s grade-school principal lives on our street. My kids would always be so excited to get a glimpse of him in his yard or driveway, like they got a glimpse of a movie star. When my two oldest went to high school he happened to get promoted to the high school, too. My second oldest, Hayley, graduated this year, knowing Principal Hill for 13 years. He leaned in to her at graduation practice and said, “It’s been really wonderful watching you grow up.”

That scenario, for me, epitomizes the Collingswood experience. When I bought my house, it was a coin toss: The town was either going to rally and become something really special or go straight down the crapper. I won.

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly and an associate teaching professor at Drexel University. Don’t follow her on Twitter @kvm1303 because she hardly ever tweets. She hopes to have her own website one day, and also, no war.