Camden’s Other Millennial Story

This is cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog.

There was a big feature over the weekend on millennials in Camden. It featured a lot of folks I know and consider friends — and it’s cool to see that work highlighted. At the same time, I think there are two parts of the millennial story here in Camden that I believe are really misunderstood. The first — which I’m quoted at length in the article — is the way that much of the development in Camden cuts against what millennials look for when they choose to live here (i.e. suburban design in an urban space) — some of the growth is likely happening in spite of development efforts not because of it. The second, which I think is far more important, is that the way we tell the millennial story too-often erases communities of millennials that are already here or grew up here.

I hinted at this in my comments in the article about millennials of color, but want to take the time to spell it out here:

When we talk about millennials we often tell a particular story — that of recent college graduates, of those living downtown, of urban entrepreneurs or urban explorers. The discussion of millennials has both racial and class connotations. My good friend Keith Benson gets at that in his Facebook post about the article:

It’s sad how much is missed in that conversation. There was no conversation in the article about how young entrepreneurs (many of them working with the Latin American Economic Development Association) have turned Federal Street into a thriving, walkable main street that embraces the type of new urbanism that makes cities special and attractive to young people (that coordidor is so much more lively than those around the recipients of tax subsidies such as Holtec, the 76ers or Subaru). There was no conversation about Erin Johnson’s efforts to start a young group of feminist small businesses. There was no talk of Camden millennials who got their education elsewhere then returned and bought homes here.

I firmly believe that those stories — all with local millennials at their core — are far more important than the story about downtown millennials (like me!) that is told far more often. Folks like Erin have roots and reach into community that holds potential to impact residents in a way that’s just hard to do as a newcomer living downtown.

Camden is a close-knit community, and downtown is often isolated from that. I’m a part of that downtown circle — I admire the idealism of some of its members, but after 5 years here, I am tremendously aware of the limits of its reach.

I also think there’s real danger in focusing exclusively on downtown as if its residents are going to save Camden. Young millennials moving to the city not only bring their energy and idealism, but they also bring their own blind spots. Too often, those blind spots erase what else happens in the city and exaggerates the impact of downtown institutions.

Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s article on the recent bike share. It closed with this quote from a Rutgers student:

James Rodgers, a sophomore at Rutgers, said he was looking forward to trying Ofo, especially because it is cheaper than the docked system he used in Philadelphia recently. Though, Mr. Rodgers said he wasn’t sure where he would ride in the city.

“It’s Camden,” he said. “There’s not a lot to do.” 

This type of commentary may be innocent in intent, but it’s tremendously damaging to the city. It erases all else going on in the city, simply because a college sophomore doesn’t know about it. It’s even worse that the Wall Street Journal chose to run this quote rather than talk to genuine residents who are in a better position to actually know what’s going on in the city. Brutal.

That’s exactly how I feel about the “millennial in Camden” narrative. The conversation is so narrow and it excludes so many who do such good work but don’t fit the young, hip downtown narrative. Let’s do better.

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