Walt Whitman, 1855
In a stanza of Leaves of Grass (1867) Walt Whitman reveals Camden, New Jersey: a city of human vitality, energy, and emergence.
In this “New City of Friends,” (a reference to Camden’s Quaker roots and proximity to Philadelphia),
“…nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love – it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city, And in all their looks and words.”
Camden’s geographic endowment was fortunate. Additionally, according to Alan Karcher in New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness, when incorporated in 1844, Camden was one of five communities with legislative permission to host a bank. Its roads terminated at vital ports with ferries to Philadelphia and Trenton. And “most important” was its “energetic merchant and manufacturing middle class that possessed an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Camden boomed from 1840 to 1900 , so much so, the Chamber of Commerce briefly ceased operation. After World War One, Camden home to RCA Victor, and Campbell’s Soup Company, was overflowing. The city sought more space and “The Greater Camden Movement” began.
Camden hired “nationally recognized planners” and a PR firm. The planners’ advice: build a new bridge. In 1922, the Benjamin Franklin bridge opened. While successful, the bridge may have also helped shift the population. The plan didn’t deliver its promises.
Karcher cites, “a misconception on the impact of infrastructure improvements, and an almost religious faith that infrastructure could create community instead of the other way around.”
“The dynamic that created the plan was the same dynamic that created the gargantuan public housing projects in the unshakable belief that the brick and mortar would somehow forge a community….Communities grow organically; there can be no specific mold or model. It is a phenomenon that must grow from the bottom up, and resists any efforts to have it imposed from the top down. What we see in Camden, with its overreliance on the beneficent effects of infrastructure improvements, is the law of unanticipated consequences operating to the fullest.”
Walt Whitman did not write these lines in praise of the central plan. One of his many muses in his evocation of 19th century America was the electric energy of a city’s people in action – the spontaneous order he observed as Camden’s urban contours emerged.
(Indeed, Whitman’s greatness as a poet is his vivid celebration of motion and human energy, which makes his end-of-life reflection on what drove his words all the more fascinating, “spontaneity, spontaneity.”)
It is unintentionally ironic that Camden named the Walt Whitman bridge in his honor, when it opened to traffic in 1956. By that time, Camden, a city that originated with a license granted to operate a ferry in 1688, was on its decline, for numerous reasons.
Today Camden is home to the most intractable urban problems in the state: poverty, poor schools, high crime, and little commerce. It is a city tangled in many government plans: a main beneficiary of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s educational rulings, the state’s municipal aid transfers, and the city government’s new, and cautiously advertised, Master Plan . Last week Camden reapplied for federal stimulus funds for a water expansion project that was not selected as “shovel-ready.” Camden’s problems are real, but its potential is stifled as long as it remains an open-ended experiment in government planning.