Bad news has been flowing out of the City of Camden for, well, decades. Whether it's Camden's recurring presence on yearly "most dangerous cities" lists, reports of corruption in its institutions, near-daily headlines of violence and crime, or, most recently, coverage of a controversial attempt to dismantle the city's police force and replace it with a county force, it is no wonder that the city is perceived by many as a lost cause.
What often gets overlooked is that Camden, despite its struggles, is the extent to which residents and civic groups are working to improve their local communities. Work that RPA is doing in the neighborhood of East Camden has allowed us to witness those efforts up close.
Compared with much of the rest of the city, East Camden is fairly suburban. Single-family homes, often with small, manicured yards and gardens, dominate the neighborhood, which is home to nearly 21,000 people. East Camden also has a thriving commercial district spread across three streets in the middle of the neighborhood.
Working together with Coopers Ferry Partnership, a city-wide planning and development group, and Saint Joseph's Carpenter Society, a local neighborhood community organization, RPA is helping to develop a plan for East Camden's future. The initiative aims to leverage recent investments such as new housing and a new school to continue to strengthen the community. The plan will tackle areas including land use and zoning, public safety, parks and open space, and traffic and streets. The effort, sponsored by the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, will lay out implementable steps that can be carried out over the next 5-10 years.
To help inform the plan, the team conducted a detailed resident survey capturing both demographics and resident perceptions of their neighborhood. Nearly 400 residents were surveyed. Their responses offer deep insight into what works, and what could work better, in the community.
The concept of community runs deep in East Camden. Fifty percent of residents surveyed live there in order to be near family and friends. When asked if given the choice to stay or leave the community, more than 60% of East Camden residents said that they would choose to stay. This reflects the community satisfaction of nearly three-quarters of respondents who indicated that they were somewhat to very satisfied with living in the community.
So what is it about East Camden that residents like? A variety of things, it turns out, including access to community services and stores, proximity to public transportation, schools, distance to work and their neighbors.
East Camden isn't immune to the problems found throughout the rest of Camden. Clear majorities of respondents cited safety as one of the things they liked least about living there. In addition, police protection, public libraries and street repair and maintenance ranked lowest among services in the community. Camden's police force and library system have both been handed over to the county to administer. The public library was forced to close most local branches, consolidating into only two locations for the entire city. East Camden doesn't have a library. Schools close at 3:30 PM and there are few after-school activity programs. Crime and drug use are on the rise.
Despite the tough issues being faced in East Camden , when asked to think about how the community is likely to change over the next three years, respondents were largely optimistic, with nearly half anticipating improvements and a third confident that it will remain stable. And nearly 60% of residents say they are involved in addressing issues of importance in the community. More than anything else, this level of commitment captures why East Camden has good reason to be hopeful for the future.