His experience as a newcomer to the city doesn't differ much from that of longtime residents. William and Ronja Butler, owners of Gallery Eleven One, started changing that over the years with the arts crawls, which they organize every month and which involves nearly a dozen artistic happenings, food, music, and cross-cultural conversation. It's a hometown option for residents, a draw for out-of-towners, and a challenge to the perception that Camden is more high crime than high culture.
"If you're not at the Victor Pub or out to dinner, you're usually not out in Camden after dark," said Frank Rubio, a writing arts professor at Rowan and lead instructor of the Intensive English Language Program. Rubio, who lives in the Victor Lofts in Camden, takes his students all over the city to get to know its history while developing their language skills.
Last year, his class of international students worked on a group painting with William Butler. Among bright colors and abstract shapes, they painted words in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and some in English, like dream and love.
The Butlers started the arts crawl after opening their gallery nearly three years ago.
They moved to Camden from Des Moines, Iowa, where they were high school sweethearts and where they had spent most of their lives. Both have worked in impoverished communities in Jamaica, New Orleans, and on American Indian reservations in the West, but when he visited Camden, Butler said he felt compelled, by the people and the city, to move there.
"We really have a heart for the impoverished and a heart for restoration - we were doing work in different parts of the country, and really seeing how marketplace and arts can come together and begin to impact a city and a neighborhood and a region," he said.
"We came here not knowing anyone, and now we feel like we're connected to so many wonderful people and organizations."
Butler, a painter for more than 20 years, showcases and sells his work at his gallery and studio on Front Street in the historic Cooper Grant neighborhood to pay bills and support his family. He is also frequently commissioned to make on-the-spot art at galas or other events. Ronja Butler runs the business side of things and homeschools their two sons, Carson and Kaden, both 13.
Attendance since the first art crawl in February 2012 has grown steadily, as have the number of venues participating, from three to 12 last week, Butler says,.
On Thursday, joining the Butlers' gallery, the Stedman Gallery held a performance inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, IDEA Performing Arts screened the film Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson, and Cooper River Distillers offered tours, among a number of events.
There will be no Third Thursday event in December, as it coincides with the holidays, but the arts crawl will return on Jan. 16.
Toward the end of the night last week, Russian student Marina Khachkinaeva sat at a keyboard and sang "Moon River" in the small, warm gallery. A spread of international foods was offered, along with wine and coffee.
Rocky Wilson, who has lived around the corner from the former firehouse since 1978, listened to the song, fondly recalling when it was played at his high school dance.
"It's nice for me because I've seen other places do things like this but Camden never did. This is actually something people are coming to," he said, munching on a spring roll. "It's a sign of the second renaissance."