A Taste of Hidden Culture in America’s Most Dangerous City


Camden_NJ_poverty

An almost completely abandoned block in Camden is not uncommon.

It’s 7 pm on a frigid Wednesday in November on 3rd street in downtown Camden. It’s dark and
the streets are mostly empty, but there’s a little bit of light and sound coming from the pizza shop
called Little Slice of New York. No, it’s not a bunch of rowdy Rutgers students on break from
partying in order to get their drunk-munchies fix, it’s a bunch of poets eating pizza, sipping on
wine, and singing along to classic folk and Bob Dylan songs. Many of the attendants are
baby-boomers or older, but there is a consistent influx of Rutgers students who come to read and
listen at this casual open-mic as well, both undergraduates and graduates.
Who is responsible for this outrageous display of, (could it possibly be?) culture in Camden?
The man’s name is Rocky Wilson, and he’s been the host of Pizza and Poetry for almost as long
as Little Slice of New York has been open. And the before and after photographs hanging on the
right-side wall of this small pizza parlor portray the two buildings that it now occupies,
previously boarded up and abandoned, now a thriving business. The same goes for the monthly
Pizza and Poetry event, in the seventies Camden’s movie theaters closed, along with many of the
other businesses and factories that made this city a bustling center of industry and culture in
South Jersey. The amount of success in the mayor’s agenda of supporting the universities and
medical centers in the city may be debatable, but the mission of a few Camden residents to
establish art and propagate peace has become undeniably more and more apparent in this city.
Mr. Rocky, (as his former students call him) was born at Cooper Hospital, but grew up in
Haddonfield. However, Rocky has been living in Camden for thirty some odd years, and his
house is appropriately situated on Penn street, right behind the Walt Whitman Center. Even
though Rocky’s business card reads “The Puppet Laureate of Camden”, he’s most well-known
for what he calls being a Walt Whitman interpreter. This means that he’s frequently invited to
events where he is called upon to dress up as America’s greatest poet and recite classic poems
such as “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” with stunning theatrics. Mr. Wilson is
also a formidable poet himself, and has had his poetry published in reputable journals, such as
Painted Bride Quarterly. His first poetry collection, much of it involving the desolation and
hidden beauty of Camden, will be published in the spring of 2014 by Whirlwind Press.

Rocky Wilson isn’t the only Camdenite who is responsible for a resurgence of culture in this
troubled city. Cassie MacDonald, a frequent attendee of Pizza and Poetry, hosts writing
workshops and spiritual healing meetings at her home in South Camden, which she calls Brigid’s
House. Her home is down the street from Sacred Heart Church, which is on the corner of
Broadway and Ferry, in a struggling neighborhood that these local artists call “SoBro” (south
Broadway). This run-down and dangerous part of Camden has benefited from Sacred Heart
Church and Father Michael Doyle’s mission to support the downtrodden community through art,
charity, and activism. Cassie MacDonald hosts an outdoors poetry reading and barbecue in the
summer months at what is known as “Peace Park,” a circle of stones on a well-kept triangular
field of grass on what used to be a vacant lot. MacDonald and the community have been slowly
transforming the park into a safe haven for locals, and next year plan to officially name the park
after the late nationally renowned poet and pacifist, William Stafford.
Close by, on the corner of Jasper and 4th Street, lies the South Camden Theatre Company, a
“nonprofit professional theatre company dedicated to helping revitalize the City of Camden,
New Jersey by producing meaningful, professional theater in the City’s Waterfront South
District.” The theater is in its ninth season, and has produced high quality plays that have caught
the attention of local and regional theater enthusiasts. Downtown Camden is just a short trip
north up Broadway, however, what lies in between Rutgers and “SoBro” will dishearten and
frighten anyone, as Camden’s rampant poverty and drug epidemic is absolutely evident even on
what’s supposed to be a main street of the city. Although another cultural event that is meant to
alleviate the despair of Camden, the 3rd Thursday Art Crawl, occurs every month at Gallery
Eleven One, Rutgers’ own Steadman Art Gallery, Filbert Studio, and other venues that can be
found on art11one.com.
It’s getting late on November 20th, and the host of Pizza and Poetry keeps humorously
reminding everyone that it’s a school night. The main themes of the night are the celebration of
two birthdays, that of Rocky’s childhood hero, Roy Rodgers, and Father Michael Doyle,
Camden’s real-life hero. A few poets read in tribute to the famous Irish Catholic priest and
activist, and Cassie MacDonald reads some of Father Doyle’s own poetry, which was published
in a book of poems and letters called “It’s a Terrible Day: Thanks be to God.” All of a sudden,
Michael Doyle himself makes a surprise appearance, and the priest (who’s known for being
among the Camden 28 Vietnam activists) ends the night by reading several moving poems and
expressing his gratitude in his gentle brogue to Rocky and company for helping to make Camden a
better place.

Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

8 Responses to A Taste of Hidden Culture in America’s Most Dangerous City

  1. pembroke5 says:

    Beautiful article and photos. One of your best prose pieces.

    Alexander Marshall pembroke5@aol.com

  2. Very…very good piece. I have shared it on FB and urge all of our theatre followers to share it as well. Rolling Stone published one of the laziest, told over and over again stories that has been repeated over and over by national press who feel they are groundbreaking. Thanks for digging deeper and writing a piece with care and integrity.

    • Sean Lynch says:

      Thanks Joe, I’m sorry to say that I’ve yet to actually see a production there, but I’m looking forward to seeing Express Tracks, as well as the other productions you’re doing in the upcoming season. The only thing is that it’s tough to get down to that part of town without a car. I’m really into theater, and I’m an actor myself, but I used to live in Philly and would take the patco to Rutgers, so I was aware of your theater but never got the chance to visit.
      I read the Rolling Stone article, and I thought that it was well written, but you’re right about the national press being exploitative with Camden when they actually do pay attention, although most of the time the city is just plain looked over.

  3. Philip Freeman says:

    I would like to speak with Rocky to do some poetry at the Walt Whitman Arts Center in May, 2014 for a Walt Whitman birthday celebration. Please inbox me for my contact information.

    • Sean Lynch says:

      I’d love to get you and Rocky together. Rocky’s actually having a poetry reading tonight, the kind that was the subject of this article. I set up a Whitman poetry reading at Rutgers last May with Rocky, and hope to do so again. I’m afraid that I have no way to inbox you, as you say, because you commented without using a gravatar. So hopefully you see this comment and email me at poetryandpoverty@gmail.com

  4. Phil Cohen says:

    I took that picture on December 24, 2002. It is of Arlington Street, which was razed in its entirety a few years later.

    The biggest industry in Camden is NOT drugs, not even close. The biggest industry in Camden is the Social Services industry…. add up all the money from all the sources public and rivate in that and it dwarfs the local drug trade… and I’m not blowing smoke here, I worked 20 years in public housing and know the dollar amounts involved and a good number the recipients profiting off of urban misery…. whichis exactly what Rolling Stone…..an ENTERTAINMENT publication, just did.

    http://www.dvrbs.com/camden-streets/camdennj-streets-arlingtonstreet.htm

    • Sean Lynch says:

      You’re right about various publications profiting off of urban misery, and it goes even further than that. As far as I can tell, the political machine is responsible for this, and it’s not even just the local government, but goes all the way up to Christie and everyone in between, specifically the Norcross brothers. They’re only interested in their “eds and meds” agenda, which does nothing to help those who are actually residents of the Camden, as none of the jobs from these new institutions goes to them. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. Some fascinating photos on your website.

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