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Camden: bright lights, happy nights

Thursday night a pretty great (albeit freezing) event kicked off at the North Camden waterfront and today Camden's "happy" video was released.

I've been covering Camden for the Inquirer since August and I get my share of criticism, often fair, about the negative depiction of the city.

It's a place that has owned too many unwanted superlatives - highest crime rate, lowest graduation rate, all compounded by extreme poverty.

But Thursday's North Camden night garden festival showed off the spirit and creativity of the city and the untapped potential for its North Camden waterfront, currently covered in parking lots and grassy fields. Cooper's Ferry Partnerships spent around $20,000 in the form of a William Penn Foundation grant to put on the show.

With the Ben Franklin Bridge twinkling in the background, hundreds gathered around a stage in front of the Camden water tower, illuminated in colorful lights. As girls from the Sophisticated Sisters danced, their movements projected in giant shadows behind them onto the watertower. And as the night got darker, the shadows became even more clear for the salsa dancers in the Suzette Ortiz jazz trio, the African drum ensemble and others.

Artists from around Camden painted a mural while attendees signed a giant peace sign nearby. Jamal Balkman, an artist and clothing designer for Camden-based clothes line, Sweet Tooth SpecialTees, worked on the "N," in the mural, which spelled out "Camden."

"I love it. I'm just glad to see the positivity of the arts being highlighted," Balkman said. "Being an artist you don't see that much and it's really cool." The 34-year-old Centerville resident said he'd never been to the North waterfront area - the home of the former Riverfront state prison. "Never, in my entire life. It's really cool to see."

There were food trucks, bikes, a full BMX course (positioned capriciously close to the river but the performers stayed on dry land)  and a bonfire, which brought people together by necessity in the 30-degree, windy weather.

Despite the frigid cold, which unfortunately made for quick visits for many of the hundreds who came through, the setup and mood of the evening transformed the space into an artistic festival.

But Camden has always been an artistic city, said Dwayne Cooke, 16, of North Camden. "This isn't so out of place. Camden's not really what people make of it. We've got a whole lot of talent here," he said, watching performers on stage.

Next year - if there is a next year - organizer Cooper's Ferry Partnerships should consider doing it a month further into Spring.

Speaking of 'Happy' things in Camden, the goodness project released its 'Happy' music video showcasing nonprofits throughout the city to the tune of Pharrell's over-played but well-loved song, and it's impossible not to smile watching it.

Yes, there's a lot that Camden does not have, and should - a supermarket, a movie theater, a supportive educational system for its children and a job market for its adults, and those storylines will continue to be told.

But it's also a city with a whole lot of heart, and that's a storyline I won't let go of either.