In 2007, I led a group of college students from Seattle Pacific University on a tour of Camden. They were spending their semester break with UrbanPromise on a weeklong mission trip. In preparation for their trip, I had asked them all to read the book “Camden After the Fall” by Rutgers Professor Howard Gillette. We toured the city seeing sites like the State prison built on prime waterfront property, the crumbling remains of the Carnegie Library on Broadway where trees grew out of holes in the roof, and the wastewater treatment plant, when in those days often gave-off a sickening stench that covered the neighborhood year-round. I had explained to the students how municipalities raise revenue through property taxes. Unfortunately, because the city of Camden did not bring in the revenue needed to provide the services the community needed, they relied heavily on the State and Federal governments to fund their schools and essential services.
I had a connection to meet with Judge Theodore Z. Davis, the Chief Operating Officer appointed by the Governor to oversee the city of Camden. All municipal authority over the schools and city government had been taken over by the State in 2002 in what was the largest municipal take over in U.S. history. We met the Judge in his upper floor conference room at City Hall, a room full of historic relics of Camden’s proud history. Although the view from the floor to ceiling windows was a beautiful view of Philadelphia-it seemed to me as one more slight to the city of Camden. As we began our conversation Judge Davis was gracious and welcoming to the students asking about their studies and future ambitions. He shared about his love for his City, where he was born and raised and still called home. As the conversation moved to the challenges Camden faced, one of the students asked the Judge how Camden could ever stand on its own if the city’s properties had so little value. The Judge smiled and replied, “Young woman you have it all wrong, the property in Camden is very valuable. It makes the quality of life better for all the municipalities in Camden County and even the State of NJ.” I never forgot the significance of that statement…I have thought about it often.
When friends and people from the communities outside of Camden sometimes say to me, “Jim I admire the work you and others do at UrbanPromise, but it is a real shame what those people have done to that city.” I also smile and say to them, “You have it all wrong, the people who did this to Camden no longer live here, they left the scene of their crime long ago.”
Director of Experiential Learning at UrbanPromise
Founder UrbanTrekkers and UrbanBoatWorks