Why Camden's Parkside neighborhood has a spring in its step
Phyllis Womack has seen Parkside fall, stabilize, and begin to rise. "It's better. It's cleaner," says Womack, a retired nurse who raised six children in the Camden neighborhood.
Phyllis Womack has seen Parkside fall, stabilize, and begin to rise.
"It's better. It's cleaner," says Womack, a retired nurse who raised six children in the Camden neighborhood.
"A lot of the abandoned houses are gone," the Park Boulevard resident says. "They're doing a lot of renovation, and it really looks nice."
I meet Womack last Tuesday at the holiday celebration of Parkside Business & Community in Partnership Inc., the nonprofit community development organization behind much of the neighborhood's momentum.
Since 2000, PBCIP and its partners have built 101 units of rental housing for seniors; rehabbed and sold 60 single-family homes to qualified buyers; and constructed 49 apartments in the adjacent Whitman Park neighborhood.
The presence of long-established and new businesses aside, however, about half of the commercial properties along Haddon Avenue, Parkside's de facto Main Street, remain vacant. So do at least 100 residential properties.
And groundbreaking for RENEW, a mixed-use project on the avenue at Liberty Street - scheduled for three years ago - may at last happen in 2017.
"We have had success, and we need to ramp it up," PBCIP executive director Bridget Phifer says as about 100 people fill an event space at the Early Childhood Development Center on Pine Street.
Representatives of KSK Architects & Planners Inc. of Philadelphia are on hand to unveil a preliminary version of a five- to 10-year revitalization strategy for the neighborhood.
As outlined by display boards, a PowerPoint, and presentations by Paul A. Vernon and Laura Ahramjian of KSK, the plan focuses on sustaining economic development efforts, such as the renovation of vacant homes, as well as neighborhood services.
"The recommendations are resident-driven, and many are programmatic more than physical" projects, Vernon says, citing calls to establish a farmers' market and reestablish a volunteer system of block captains.
"We heard about crime, and problems with landlords, and overgrown trees - and those concerns are reflected in the plan," adds Ahramjian.
The planning effort is funded by the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, which partnered with PBCIP about a dozen years ago and requires intensive consultation with the community.
"We really want to make sure the residents and the stakeholders are part of the conversation and buy into the plan," says executive director Denise McGregor Armbrister.
PBCIP "will be competing for implementation dollars" from the foundation once the plan is completed, she adds.
Parkside, initially developed in the early 20th century as a middle-class neighborhood, is characterized by the solid homes and leafy streets around Farnham Park, as well as the struggling but still-vital spine of Haddon Avenue.
A 55-block area that's home to about 5,000 people comprises the heart of the neighborhood, where the population shifted from predominantly Jewish to African American after the 1950s.
Parkside's assets include the presence of or proximity to major medical facilities, including Lourdes and Cooper, as well as good mass transit access and an abundance of green space.
"Parkside is beautifully positioned," says Margaret B. Sowell of RES Advisors, a consultant to the planning process. "It's hanging in and doing relatively well."
That doesn't surprise me; I picked up on Parkside's resilience when I first wrote about this distinctive section of Camden 30 years ago.
Parkside has long been an aspirational neighborhood, home to the city's civic leaders, its black middle class, and essential institutions such as Camden High.
Despite the problems, which are many, there's still a lot of pride in Parkside.
"Historically, this has been a community of civically engaged people," Phifer says. "They are determined that things are going to happen here."