Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities Creates Virtual Walking Tour of Camden’s Waterfront South Neighborhood

With precious little history chronicling Camden’s rich cultural and industrial heritage, there is even less known about the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood – but now that’s changing.

Members of the general public can now take a virtual tour of the Waterfront South neighborhood, thanks to a unique partnership between the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University–Camden and the Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET) in Camden.

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Emerald Street Community Garden – 1926

The online tour, takes guests on a series of stops that are based on the structure of CFET’s walking tours and have been thoroughly researched by a team of contributing Rutgers–Camden staff and students.

“A project like this is important for helping people understand the connection between Camden’s past and its present,” says Charlene Mires, an associate professor of history and director of MARCH at Rutgers–Camden. “Today in Waterfront South, there are no markers interpreting the built landscape, much of which is gone. This walking tour addresses this gap, while putting the people who lived in Waterfront South into the picture as well. It’s a great example of a public history project – based in the community and making history meaningful.”

The partnership began about a year ago as a continuation of CFET’s current walking tours. Located in the Waterfront South neighborhood, the nonprofit organization is an environmental retreat center with an urban farm located in Camden. CFET partners with various groups to complete service projects and regularly provides volunteers with tours of the neighborhood.

“These tours help us to identify the challenges, but also the opportunities, that are blossoming around us,” says Mark Doorley, chair of the board of trustees for the CFET.

Enter representatives from MARCH, who further researched the community and provided brief, concise histories for various points of interest.

“These histories could easily be integrated into CFET’s current tour to train new tour guides and, ultimately, to give visitors a better sense of the history of the area,” explains Mary Rizzo, former public historian in residence for MARCH, who coordinated the online tour, conducted research, and trained other contributors in research techniques.

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Line Ditch – 1 January 1906

Realizing the lack of documented history of the area, Rizzo enlisted the support of Rutgers–Camden faculty, staff, and students, including Erin Crean, a senior urban studies and community development major, who researched the history of “Line Ditch Park, 1920 to 1940,” during her lunch hours at the Camden County Historical Society.

Crean’s entry is a poignant example of how the present-day terrain offers little indication of its past. According to the entry, “In the late 1890s, make-shift communities began to spring up on dredge spoils deposited along the shore of the Delaware River to increase the land mass of South Camden. By the 1930s, the number of residents in the shanty town grew. Much like today’s tent cities, these shanty towns, or Hoovervilles as they were sometimes called, operated outside of mainstream society, were self-governed, and self-sufficient. The residents constructed makeshift homes and facilities. Like today’s tent cities, these shanty towns were seen as health risks to the public.”

According to Crean, while researching Waterfront South proved to be quite challenging due to the limited resources, her research opened her eyes to “the disproportionate number of nuisance industries” that have been harmful to the neighborhood’s residents throughout its history.

“In recent years, much work has been done to bring environmental justice to the neighborhood,” says Crean. “However, there is more work to be done – and this public history project is essential to future progress. In order to understand the needs of the community in the present and the future, we must understand its past. I look forward to working on future projects with the Waterfront South community.”

With several locations completed, Doorley has been pleased with the results thus far.

“The history of Camden is so deep, varied and fascinating, yet it is often hidden behind the dirt, abandoned buildings, and empty lots,” says Doorley. “What is so wonderful about the virtual walking tour of Waterfront South is that people can access wonderfully quirky and interesting details about a corner lot, an abandoned factory, or a park. This virtual tool will enhance our tours by providing a depth and perspective that only history can give. I have nothing but gratitude to Mary Rizzo and her Rutgers–Camden team for the work that they did on this project.”

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