“No, I never dreamed how rich I could become in the poorest city in America.”
– Rocky Wilson, poet and Cooper-Grant resident
Development is booming in Old City Philadelphia. Affordability is being pushed farther and farther from Center City. Although we have yet to see Philadelphians crossing the Delaware River en masse to live in Camden, I am one particle to have reached escape velocity. In this article I will try to answer the questions: why Camden? what is it like living here? what are the financials? and why it was a smart decision.
Over my years renting apartments in New York, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Philly neighborhoods including Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and the Gayborhood, I hardly expected to sign my first mortgage in Camden, NJ – a city of 77,000 people, notorious for urban disintegration. Many Philadelphians love to hate Camden – as if the city’s poorest neighborhoods are much different from huge swaths of Philadelphia (see poverty map below).
I came to know Camden over two years working as a construction inspector on the Ben Franklin Bridge (the Bridge). Via bicycle, I explored neighborhoods including Cramer Hill, East Camden, Fairview, Parkside, and traced the Camden Greenway along the Cooper River.
The idea of renting in Camden crossed my mind in 2014 in light of Philly’s increasing prices and 24/7 service on the PATCO High-Speed Line (subway). But when it came time to buy a home, the pull of Cooper-Grant overpowered my inclination toward similarly-priced neighborhoods in Philadelphia, like lower Passyunk and Kensington.
My first consideration in choosing a place to live is location and commuting. Knowing I wanted easy walking/biking/transit access to Center City (for work and much else), downtown Camden beat out Philly locales because:
- The price
- The Bridge walkways are beautiful, and separated from cars for 1.5 miles, and
- PATCO runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with good frequency and reliability, (and wifi at stations).
Both PATCO and the Bridge are within minutes walking from my house. If I need to drive somewhere, Zipcars “live” one block away at Victor Lofts. If heading to New York, I walk one block and board the NJ Transit River Line (a diesel-powered tram connecting Camden to Trenton Transit Center).
Unfortunately the Bridge walkways close at 9 PM daily (8 PM in the winter) – but we can work on that – and DRPA is planning to replace the existing stairway with an accessible bicycle and pedestrian ramp.
In looking for a home near the Bridge and PATCO, I found one in Cooper-Grant, the landmarked neighborhood bounded by Rutgers University, Victor Lofts, Campbell’s Field, and the Bridge. The Delaware River is three blocks (and 4,000,000 parking spaces) from my stoop.
During Camden’s industrial boom, Cooper-Grant was home to both working and wealthy people, as well as Campbell’s Soup production ops. Nowadays it is one of a few neighborhoods to have been renovated with newly paved streets, wide brick sidewalks, and street trees.
While the housing stock is limited, Cooper-Grant’s collection of historic architecture is complimented by new homes designed to blend with the old. Residents include seniors who’ve remained since birth, newbies like me, families, a puppet-wielding bicycling poet (Rocky), and a few too many Rutgers students.
To reiterate, my criterion was proximity to PATCO and the Bridge; it was not an elegant, relatively well-to-do waterfront neighborhood. I would be pleased to live on a street having yet to be renovated. Such places gain the most from each new community-oriented owner-occupier, and from any amount of increased foot traffic.
Important footnote: Cooper-Grant and its cousin Lanning Square are outliers – pockets of stability in a city suffering from decades of systemic racism, political corruption, neoliberal globalization, and persistent poverty. For me personally, part of Camden’s appeal is the opportunity to engage with and try to understand the needs of people living in third-world conditions, right here in America.
What is it like living in downtown Camden?
As for crime, so far college students have been the principal threat in my neighborhood. But I go all over Camden, and my first-hand experience differs from the common stereotypes, built on partial truths, drummed into our collective psyche by the corporate mass-media.
I can hardly discern between Camden and Philadelphia with respect to safety. Either place can be dangerous, especially if you’re trying to score drugs, or if you don’t happen to be a white, straight male.
My location is walkable – in that there are sidewalks – but there could be more to walk to. I took a 25-point hit on Walkscore.com in moving from Washington Square West (98) to Cooper-Grant (73). But the price was right, I’m OK with bicycle dependence, and the center of the 5th most populous US city is minutes away, 24/7.
Car traffic through my neighborhood is low. In Downtown Camden traffic is minimal outside of rush hour, when workers pour in from (and later flee to) the suburbs.
Downtown Camden has great lunch joints – Friends Café, New York Pizza, Latin American Restaurant, and Black Eyed Susan’s food truck, to name a few – but the quality of bar-restaurants leads me to assume their managers never experienced Philadelphia’s food scene.
Other than The Victor’s Pub, downtown nightlife is scant – hence the importance of 24/7 PATCO service.
For sustenance I rely on farmers’ markets and grocery stores in Philly, Collingswood, Westmont, and Haddonfield. Although, I recently discovered an exceptional grocery store in the vibrant Federal Street commercial district (revitalized by Hispanic immigrants over the past decade).
There are positive developments downtown. Third Thursdays is the year-round art gallery crawl. Cooper River Distillers at 4th and Market – Camden’s hippest joint – hosts a lively happy hour every Friday (one block from PATCO City Hall station).
Most importantly, Camden is home to great people. I’ve come to know and befriend long-time residents and newcomers having as much integrity, sincerity, creativity, and generosity as anyone else I know. The powerful stories of an array of Camden residents are brought forth in the 2005 book Camden After the Fall by Howard Gillette.
One handful of Camden’s great people includes my girlfriend – a Rutgers employee, alumnus, and Lanning Square resident – and her family, who immigrated here from Honduras in the 1990’s.
In moving from Center City to Camden, the cost of living (in my case buying a home) was a major impetus to crossing the Delaware. As a bicycle commuter, I was hard-pressed to find a similar value in Philadelphia that didn’t force me to ride longer distances on car-choked streets without serious bike facilities.
For example, I could have spent $24,900 more to live in the ugly house pictured below – albeit in a spectacular neighborhood – traveling a similar distance to work, but with 1.5 additional miles subjected to Philly drivers, while paying Philly wage tax in full, and missing my street trees.
The housing stock in Cooper-Grant being limited and turnover low, finding comparable sales was tricky. Adding to this, the area’s been plagued by low-appraisals, including in my case, in which the appraiser agreed to increase $18,000 after another home sold for what I perceived to be market value. (So much for professional judgment.)
I ended up with a monthly payment of $755 for a two-bedroom, two-story, 1,060 square foot brick row home in great condition, including:
- Mortgage principal and interest
- Property taxes (about $2,000/year)
- Home owner’s insurance premium ($550/year)
- Flood insurance premium ($975/year)
(I am pleased to recommend Trident Mortgage, Trident Land Transfer, and my agent Cindy Stanzilis (Berkshire Hathaway)).
Watch out for flood zones. Thanks to parking lots and runoff-generating development upstream in the Delaware watershed, our 100-year flood zone is as shown below, according to FEMA. In my case it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Happily, there is a tax advantage for New Jersey residents working in Philadelphia. Due to a PA-NJ reciprocal agreement, I claim a credit for wage tax paid to the city of Philadelphia (3.47% for non-residents).
Moral of the financial story: in my case buying a home was a no-brainer. And in my case – not minding a degree of dependence on a bicycle, PATCO, and the Bridge (as opposed to walking 5-minutes for everything) – buying the home I wanted in Cooper-Grant was an easy decision.
Why buying in Camden was a smart decision
Accounting for the practical, emotional, and financial rationale already described, my decision to buy and live in downtown Camden wasn’t as smart as it was rational. Perhaps there’s achievement in seeing through the propaganda dogging the city. After all, negative ideas commonly held about Camden (justified or not) probably result in a lower home prices than similar quality-of-life neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
On average, American downtowns are beginning to rebound from devastating post-WWII decline. Many Rust Belt cities have seen their 60-year population losses slow down or reverse in the past decade. More and more Americans are seeking walkable communities, and the physical bones of central cities are best equipped to support them. We Millennials – now the US’s largest and youngest adult generation – are flocking to central cities and downtowns.
Here in Camden, a number of developments are in the pipeline. To mention only three “in my backyard”:
- Athenian Razak (Philly-based developer) plans to convert the Ruby Match Factory, a massive brick warehouse behind my home, into a flex-space office building, complete with a restaurant or café (existing building pictured below).
- A badly-needed “restaurant row” may emerge on Market Street, one or two blocks from the PATCO station. Eating/drinking establishments to include Newtown Kitchen & Lounge, and Bistro to Go.
- Liberty Property Trust (of Malvern, PA) is planning to develop what is now four blocks of award winning waterfront parking lots.
The massive Liberty Trust project is exciting and will probably increase the financial value of homes in my neighborhood, but observers of recent history shouldn’t expect the benefits of a new “campus” to trickle into Camden’s mostly poor population.
Nevertheless, there is more opportunity for a superb quality-of-life in Camden than most area residents are led to believe. As walkability-seeking Philadelphians become less able to afford living in places like University City, Fairmount, Fishtown, and Passyunk, moving to Camden will become an increasingly popular alternative.
Downtown Camden does have a long way to go before reaching a critical mass of residents and amenities; but 24/7 mass-transit service, skyline views of Philadelphia, recent development plans, and gut instinct suggest to me that central Camden is moving towards being to Philadelphia what Hoboken is to Manhattan.