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Camden’s History: Past, Present, and The Future

Camden's history over the bridge

Camden’s History

A brief look at Camden’s History. Purchased by Richard Arnold and William Cooper between 1680 and 1682, Camden was originally referred to as Cooper’s Point, and later renamed Camden by Jacob Cooper, Charles Pratt,and the Earl of Camden from the United Kingdom. By 1688, a ferry was being operated across the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia to then West Jersey (now South Jersey) for trading purposes. The ferry, which was located on Ferry Street, was established by William Royden but later abandoned. The Cooper family took over the ferry in 1695 and would allow the ferry to make stops along the coast of the Delaware River. People started to settle at these points, and these settlements make up what is now, the beautiful city of Camden.

Throughout the 1700s taverns, several hotels, pleasure gardens and ferry houses were being built throughout the city.  These Ferry Houses were eventually torn down but to this day, only one remains; the Benjamin Cooper House. The house was built in 1734, and was owned and lived in by the Cooper Family, and was used as the headquarters of British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie during the Revolutionary War.

Expansion of the City of Camden

In the first half of the 1800’s we see the city of Camden become more and more residential. Several lots across different sections of Camden were being sold at very fair prices to crowds coming in from South Jersey and Philadelphia. Between the years of 1870 and 1920, the cities population grew from 20,000 to 116,000 people. Early settlers were mostly of German, British, and Irish heritage. By the early 1900s, Italians and Eastern Europeans were dominating the town, and people could often be found socializing at their local synagogue or church.

Polish immigrants brought baroque architecture, the Jewish community started the first Orthodox synagogue in South Jersey, and Italians brought great influence over the cities politics and economy.

Camden at it’s core is a melting pot!

Camden continued to grow and by 1821, the city had its very own newspaper, the American Star. With a rising population, brought a growth in industry. Some of the industries were blacksmith, several factories, iron works, chemical plants, and a nickel works, which supplied a majority of the nickels manufactured for the U.S. The city also had some success with their rail line, the Amboy Transportation Service, which ran between Camden and Amboy. Following that success, Camden continued on with another great rail service, which journeyed from Camden to Atlantic City.

RCA-Victor, The “Nipper Building”

The RCA Victor is a major piece of Camden’s history.  Since their founding in 1919, RCA Records has produced many timeless artists such as Elvis Presley, Lou Reed, and more recently, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. Although the company’s current headquarters are in New York City, their first headquarters was right here in Camden, New Jersey. In 1896, Eldridge Johnson developed a spring motor for a hand-cranked music player that would be able to consistently spin a disk for music listening pleasure.

Johnson started manufacturing records by 1900 to be played on what he coined the “His Master’s Voice.” Johnson did so well with his “Victor Talking Machine” that in 1929, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) merged with his company. RCA-Victor made Camden into a center for broadcast, and RCA helped in the development of television. In 1969, RCA also played a role in the moon landing, by making it possible to communicate with Buzz Aldrin, Jr. from space with the use of a backpack radio system that was built in Camden.

Currently, The RCA-Victor are luxury apartments, repurposed by Dranoff Properties.

Great Camden Theater and Movie Houses

Camden’s history with theaters has always been rich and lively, from staging Vaudeville performances, theater plays, live concerts, and eventually showing films. Camden’s first theater was called “The Temple Theater” which opened in 1892. One very notable theater house was The Stanley. The Stanley opened February 19th, 1926 and brought in a big crowd from Philadelphia who at the time had a ban on Sunday entertainment.

The Stanley featured big names like Joe E. Brown whom you might recognize from films such as “Some Like It Hot” and “Around the World in Eighty Days”. Other notable figures who have performed at the Theater were, Cass Daley, Mayris Chaney and Edward Fox, Cappy Barra’s Swing Harmonica Ensemble, as well as other acts.

Unfortunately as the silver screen started gaining traction, many theaters were converted into movie houses. Camden is also home to the first Drive-in Theater! Patented by Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. in the mid-1930’s, “Park-In Theatres Inc.” in Camden was America’s first drive-in.

Camden’s History: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Knowing Camden’s history possessed early on in the creation of this incredible city. The progress of the city has been halted for a long period of time after the economy collapsed after the Second World War. Factories in the city were shut down, leaving the corner stone of Camden’s economy to plummet.

In 2012, Camden’s violent crime rate was recorded at 2,566 for every 100,000 people. In 2011, 42.5% of the city was living below the poverty line, with the average household income at $21,191 per year. In 2012, only 49% of high school students were able to graduate. This allowed Camden to eventually become one of the most dangerous cities in America labeled by Neighborhood Scout.

Furthering Education in Camden

Despite being known as one of America’s most dangerous cities, the people of Camden are now doing their part to try and restore Camden to the bustling city it once was. One topic in particular that the city of Camden wants to focus on in continuing their education. With universities like Rutgers Camden, Rowan, and even Camden County College, it has given the community and city hope. Rutgers Camden is now making it even easier for Camden residents to continue their education. With the university’s new “Bridge the Gap” campaign, New Jersey residents with families making less then $60,000 will have their tuition waived. If the family is making between $60,001 and $100,000, Rutgers Camden will cover half of the student’s tuition.

Camden is hoping to bring Community Schools to town as well. Which will provide health and social services during and after regular school hours. New York and Cincinnati have recently implemented these programs successfully. Allison Steele from Philly.com says that community school models can make available for students, “anything from medical clinics and food banks to day care and after-school tutoring.” It is said that this program has resulted in student performance, and has grown graduation rates.

Future Business In Camden

Under the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, Camden has made it even more exciting to work in Camden. By giving out incentives to large businesses in Camden, the city has cemented over $2.1 billion dollars in development to create a vibrant business community throughout the city. These incentives are an attempt to create jobs and help redevelop the town’s economy.

Organizations like the Philadelphia 76ers have not only built their new practice facility in Camden, but also are bringing their entire corporate headquarters to Camden. This act will bring over 250 jobs into the city. Lockheed and Martin is another company coming to Camden. They too are bringing in upwards of 250 jobs to the city. Formally Cherry Hill’s headquartered Subaru is developing their brand new headquarters near the current Campbell’s Soup off, giving the city an additional 500 jobs to the region. Holtec International are creating 3,000 jobs over 5 years and 10,000 jobs over the next few decades, all of which are to be Camden residents. Together with Camden County College, Holtec is working to put programs in place to teach the skills needed for a vibrant work environment.

The Future of Camden

Despite Camden’s history, the city is destined to be great.

If you look at the infrastructure and geographic landscape of the city, there is no reason why Camden New Jersey can’t be the next Silicon Valley. Located in-between two of the busiest and affluent cities in America (Philadelphia and New York City), the city of Camden can pull resources from both sides and also be the bridge for startups and tech professionals to work, learn, network, and of course have fun!

Companies like Cooper’s Ferry are allowing startups to grow in the city, but with newer startups like GoQuest, the city of Camden hopes that this is the beginning of a new tech boom for innovation, entrepreneurship, and tech.

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