My writing life takes me all over the place, and last week it brought me to Camden, NJ, reputedly one of the five worst cities in the United States. It’s a kind of a sister to Paterson, another very troubled and run-down New Jersey post industrial city; and also Trenton, where I ended up later the same day when I took a wrong turn. And all these cities are kin to Hartford, CT, my native city, which shares the same woes, urban problems and random, sporadic violence. All were, in their day, glorious, vibrant places filled with hope and promise. The sort of cities where the immigrants were drawn to, to chase down their version of the American dream. I feel weird kind of affection and respect for these kinds of old-lady cities, even with all their issues. If some think back on idyllic childhoods spent on rural farms with friendly animals, I think with great nostalgia of scurrying down alleyways between factories and the forbidden joys of playing beside (or on!) the railroad tracks, or running over to Dominic’s on New Park Avenue for penny candy that actually cost 1 cent…and paying for it with a grimy penny found in one of those alleyways. Even though I grew up in the 1960s, I really had more of a Depression-era kind of childhood. And it was great, certainly great fodder for my writing.
So I nonchalantly ventured on my own to one of America’s worst cities ever, and survived just fine, and nobody even vandalized my car which I left sitting on the street all day, while I conducted research at the Camden Historical Society. My biographical subject grew up here, during World War I, when it was a very different kind of city. But still a gritty, poor-relation of Philadelphia, a city of strivers and dreamers. Afterwards, I inadvertently got a tour of the city’s darker side, when I got turned around direction-wise (Yeah, yeah, I know, I could have asked Siri on my phone, but I don’t really trust her; and it’s more of a fun challenge to figure it out on my own.) I caught a glimpse of Sacred Heart Church, a true survivor of the city, still a thriving parish despite being in one of the poorest waterfront areas—it was here that Father Irenaeus—then a 17-year-old high school dropout named Joseph—received his call to vocation, stopping at the Church on his way to work at a shipyard. So that church is a kind of shrine as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to see it still standing.
I expected a burnt-out kind of apocalyptic war zone—the fifth worse city in the nation?!!–but really didn’t see much of that, just a lot of fairly lively neighborhoods in varying degrees of both decay and revival. But you still see the struggle: Still a lot of pain, some anger, some despair, but people moving on, continuing with their lives. I wouldn’t write Camden off just yet.
And the historical society there is top-notch, although it was amusing to use an old-fashioned microfilm machine again. But through its murky lens, I got a glimpse of old Camden, bursting with new buildings and neighborhoods and shops, European immigrants and bluebloods too, South Jersey farmers and Quakers mingled with the newcomers and shipyard and factory workers. And the next time you eat Campbell’s Soup…well, I can tell you where that all started, too. My weird fact of the day is that of the twenty original varieties, chicken noodle was not among them, but oxtail and mock-turtle were. My biography seems to be a kind of crazy mosaic: the sort of thing that seems jumbled and random when you look at it up close, but then when you step back…ah! You see the total picture. Campbell Soup is one of those chips in it; as is the New York Shipbuilding Company (Yes, it was named that even though it was in Camden), Sacred Heart Church, a certain valley in Alsace-Lorraine and a certain university in upstate New York. And dozens upon dozens of other personalities famous and unknown…the trick is piecing them all in, just the right way.
I might return to Camden; the folks at the historical society were so friendly and helpful, and I don’t think I got to everything I needed to research. But I worry for the city, as I do for all the troubled, struggling cities across the US, in this current political climate, and as a long hot summer lies ahead. Having lived through the ‘70s in an urban environment, remembering the riots: No one wants to see that part of American history repeat itself…