Let’s All Pretend Camden Doesn’t Exist

Oh, wait. We already do that.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Rutgers-Camden may soon get usurped by Rowan University, and the faculty and other employees are up in arms. This defense of an institution as prestigious as Rutgers-Camden makes sense. The positive influence of the campus and its outreach programs have done a lot for the city of Camden.

Camden was recently listed as the ninth richest city where no one wants to live by 24/7 Wall Street. I have lived in Collingswood for 20 years, and Collingswood is right next door to Camden. I never think of it like that, though, as next door, and am surprised when people ask me questions like, “Don’t you have to drive through Camden to get there?” I guess, technically, the way I come home is “through” Camden, but since I am on a major highway or the PATCO High Speed Line, I don’t think of it that way. I don’t “touch” Camden proper at all.

The shake-up at Rutgers-Camden and the list made me think about our relationship with Camden and the snobbery, the caste system that exists even within a town. I remember once, several years ago, a man I knew who lives further east than me on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood said, “Admit it: The closer you get to Camden, the smaller the houses get.” I truly had to stop and think if that were true, but mostly, I got stuck on “closer to Camden.” Since one has to go under an overpass, and past a huge cemetery, Lady of Lourdes hospital and many other large business before one sees anything of Camden, I never think that I live “on the edge of Camden.” I mean, it’s not like I can cross a street on foot and be in Camden.

Residents see Route 130 as a “buffer” between Collingswood and Camden, a road that allows our town to insulate itself, to avoid seeing Camden as a looming problem or threat. There’s no wandering around between the two towns.

Collingswood promotes the town and its real estate as “close to Philadelphia,” just as other South Jersey towns, like Haddonfield and Cherry Hill, do. We all mention the easy, safe, clean public transportation to Philadelphia; we just don’t mention that we go through Camden to get there. Collingswood has this beautiful shot of the town that they put on the front of their brochure, the full-size print of which hangs proudly outside the Mayor’s office. It is an aerial shot of the town at its annual May Fair. The trees are in full bloom, and 11 blocks of the town are filled with tents with games and crafts and music and food and people. In the image, the right and left margins are simply green, the middle is a swath of color from the tents and people. At the top of the picture? The Philadelphia skyline. Between Collingswood and Philadelphia? That would be Camden, but you can’t see it in that photo, making it easier to pretend it’s not there.

When I am approaching my house from the east I usually take South Park Drive. There’s this one moment as I come home that I always, always notice and love: There’s the “learn to sail” club on the Cooper River and the boathouse for local rowing teams, and finally, the Philadelphia skyline. It’s breathtaking, these layers of images. Guess what falls between? Camden. But I can’t see it, so it’s easier to pretend it’s not there.

Before I started teaching at Drexel, I taught at Rutgers-Camden, where I also got my graduate degree. People would often ask me if I felt safe there, or tell me their child was interested in going and ask for my advice on its safety. The answer was always the same: If he/she stays on campus, he’ll/she’ll be fine. That same advice is what students are given at Drexel, but in my six years here never once has anyone asked me about my safety or for advice for their children. People on both sides of the bridge go to Camden for the aquarium, the Susquehanna Bank Center, Riversharks games and Campbell’s Field. We all get in, get out, and then we pretend it’s not there.

My family’s cell phones are on a family plan. My younger daughter was chagrined and upset to see that when she calls people her location comes up as “Camden,” and even more upset when she saw that her sister’s says, “Haddon Heights.” She actually asked if I could call our carrier and get it changed. Her sister is bummed that her location doesn’t say “Collingswood,” due to her own Collingswood pride, but is “relieved” that it doesn’t say Camden.

Just yesterday I had lunch with a friend who recently divorced. She signed up with an online dating community, and when she keyed in her Haddon Township address, Camden came up when she entered the zip code. She “tried and tried” to change it, to no avail. She considered walking from the whole thing as an epic fail. But she kept her profile up, and she has had more than 20 men write to her. Every one has asked, “You don’t really live in Camden, do you?”