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Wide Awake: A View of the City
Maybe the problem with Camden isn’t what you think

When my oldest daughter was in high school, her class planned a service trip to Camden. One of the moms asked me if I was giving permission for her to go. I was puzzled; I had no idea what she meant. “Well,” she said, and she leaned in to me. “It’s Camden.”

I laughed a bit. But I stopped laughing when I realized she was serious.

Many years ago, I worked in Camden. And since having the magazine, I’ve met and interviewed a lot of people who live and work in the city. I’ve gone on photo shoots and eaten at restaurants there. I filmed an entire show about Camden for “This is South Jersey.” It’s the only episode we filmed with one subject for the full 30 minutes.

I chose to stray from our normal multi-topic format for the show, because I thought it was important to spotlight a side of Camden few people see. I always felt Camden got a bad rap, especially in the media. Sometimes I cringe when I hear people talk about the city as if everyone who lives there is a criminal and anyone who goes there will become the victim of a crime. It’s just not true.

It is true that Camden is burdened with an enormously high crime rate, and poverty makes Camden one of the poorest cities in the nation. Many houses sit abandoned, and drugs are sold on street corners at an alarming rate. Camden can be a scary place.

That is all true. And it’s all frequently covered in national and local media.

But here’s what else is true – and this is rarely covered. Some families in Camden live in well-kept homes where every morning the dad puts on a suit and the mom puts on a dress, they drop off their kids at school, and they go to work. There are Camden teenagers who work part-time jobs after school and then stay up past midnight studying for the SATs. And in some neighborhoods, residents sweep their sidewalks and plant gardens on corner lots. They even host block parties.

I’m embarrassed – truly embarrassed – to admit I didn’t realize these parts of Camden existed.

The first time I met Bryan Morton I was interviewing him about the Little League he had just started. Every time I saw Bryan, he was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and tie, even on the baseball field. Over the course of our interviews, I discovered he lived with his wife and daughter (he now has three) in the home they own in Camden. I was shocked by that. I couldn’t get over that this man in Camden was smart and kind and living what I consider a normal life. I actually started telling people about him, because I wanted all of us who only see Camden in news reports to see the city in a different way. I wanted people to see the good in Camden, because it is there.

I once asked Bryan why he always wore a long-sleeve shirt and tie. He told me that in movies and on television, the bad guy always looks the same, and he wanted to be sure he didn’t look like that. He wanted people to know the minute they saw him that he wasn’t one of the bad guys.

And he isn’t. Bryan is definitely one of the good guys, and there are many more in Camden. You just have to stop watching the news and look for them. When you do, your impression of Camden might change. You might realize this city is home to people who are just like you and me. If more people thought that way, imagine what could happen.

October 2016
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