That other Camden: Eds, meds, and soup

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd (right) with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for Redd's "State of the City" address, given Tuesday at the Adventure Aquarium.
Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd (right) with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for Redd's "State of the City" address, given Tuesday at the Adventure Aquarium. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 15, 2014

CAMDEN The Camden that I encounter at the annual meeting of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership seems unfamiliar.

Who are these people, I wonder as I walk around the Adventure Aquarium ballroom, where hundreds of professional folks are networking over small plates of chic eats.

The theme of the event is "Rediscover Camden," and nowhere to be seen is the familiar Camden - the city cited in "worst" lists and luridly chronicled by visiting celebrity journalists.

Instead, it's eds, meds, the new Campbell Soup campus, and more.

The audience in the ballroom flips through the partnership's annual report - the best Camden promotional publication I've ever seen - as savvy observations emanate from the trio of "Innovation and the Arts" panelists at the front of the ballroom.

Meanwhile, denizens of the "Shark Realm" tank float serenely behind glass along one wall, while the Philadelphia skyline glitters to the west.

The scenic vista is so alluring that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno suggests/demands the blinds on the windows along the Delaware be open, so we all can better appreciate her vision of the future.

"Camden is going to look like what you see across the river," says Guadagno, whose remarks begin in the key of upbeat and ascend from there.

Camden's impending transformation, she continues, will be equal to the remaking of the Jersey City waterfront.

"You have the tools you need to make Camden the next golden shore for New Jersey," Guadagno says, citing the $175 million for economic development projects in the city provided by the state's 2013 Economic Opportunity Act.

The Cooper's Ferry Partnership oversees downtown redevelopment projects, as well as those in some neighborhoods. The organization hosted the annual gathering in part so investors could learn "where Camden is going, and why you should join us," chief executive officer Anthony J. Perno III said.

Mayor Dana L. Redd and State Sen. Donald Norcross shared Guadagno's cheery outlook, as did several city residents in the crowd.

"I really see the arts, which have been deeply rooted in the fabric of life in this city, coming to life again," said artist William Butler, who launched a monthly event called the Thursday Art Crawl about three years ago.

Butler, his wife, Ronja, and their two young sons live in the city and operate a gallery and studio called Eleven One in a former firehouse near the Rutgers-Camden campus.

"I don't think I'd live here if I didn't feel hopeful about Camden," said Gayle Christianson, 30, a Wisconsin transplant who works in the office of civic engagement at Rutgers.

She was chatting with prominent North Camden activist and advocate Bryan Morton, whom she described as "a bridge between the suits and the people walking the street" in the city's neighborhoods.

There's often been a disconnect between the people in charge of redeveloping the city and the people who live in it. The bad blood arose during the I-676 construction and urban renewal frenzy of the 1960s, and continued when Camden's redevelopment efforts were all about the waterfront in the '80s and '90s.

And in recent years, the city, whose solvency has been dependent upon state largesse for nearly a half-century, also has lost autonomy over law enforcement and public education.

So the enlightened approaches, creative use of resources, encouraging signs, and new, unfamiliar faces I encounter at the meeting encourage a bit of optimism.

But I can't help but wonder whether the residents of the familiar Camden I've long known will be the ones to get the jobs, open the businesses, make the money, buy the houses, and reap the rewards.

kriordan@phillynews.com856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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