In November of 2017 I took a trip back to southern New Jersey to attend my 50th high school reunion. As background, I was born in Camden, NJ in 1949 and lived with my parents in my grandparents’ home for one year. We then moved to Ocean City, NJ and lived there for about 4 years before returning to Camden and moving back in with my grandparents. The home we lived in was built by my great grandfather and was quite large. It was attached side-by-side to another home, occupied by a family that was the grandmother and aunt and uncle of the boy who became my best friend. At some point my grandparents moved out, into a nearby apartment building and my sister and brother came along. We lived in that home until I was 14 years old and to this day I can remember every square inch of that home. Often when I go back for a visit, I take a few hours to return to that Parkside neighborhood of Camden and on this visit I took my camera and explored the neighborhood and downtown Camden.
We lived in the left hand side of this side-by-side duplex (where the man is standing) and despite a few changes, it looks very much the same. Camden has had some very tough years, leading the nation in homicides during some of them, but the Parkside neighborhood, particularly along Park Blvd. where our house was located, still looks pretty nice. Our house had a garage in the back and behind the garage was a big dirt lot with a few additional garages. That was our sandlot where many happy hours were spent playing ball and sometimes just throwing a ball against the painted strike zone on the back or our brick garage.
I walked down the alley to the back lot and found that it no longer existed as it had. There were fences, trees, brush, trash and this additional deteriorating garage. Our sandlot was gone!
A block down the street though stood the most beautiful high school that I’ve seen to this day. Camden High School, “The Castle on the Hill”.
My dad graduated from Camden High in 1943 and I had looked forward to going there but we moved to the suburbs when I was in 8th grade. I could see it though from my bedroom window and always loved that view. Camden High was recently demolished and now no longer exists either. When I visited, it was being prepared for demolision. I’m glad I visited in time to take a few photos of it.
I then decided to take the long walk to my elementary school on Wildwood Ave. It was about 5 short blocks which no longer seem long at all!
My dad also attended Parkside School and though I went to kindergarten in Ocean City, I went from 1st to 6th grades at Parkside. It looks pretty much the same also except that I think it had a nice wrought iron fence when I attended and now has chain link, sort of making it look like a prison! As it does now, it had a blacktop playground back then, and separate entrances for boys and girls. The boys entered at the end shown in this photo but the little addition sticking out was not there then.
Across the street from Parkside school was a little corner grocery store where after school we would go and buy 1 cent and 5 cent candies and candy bars. That store is now boarded up but another on the opposite corner is in operation.
A block away from the elementary school and the grocery store is Haddon Ave. Still lined with stores and their apartments above, back during my childhood we shopped at a kosher deli, a toy store and a barber shop on this block. The spot where I stood to take this photo was the location of the Parkside Theater where we would often take in the Saturday matinee with cartoons before the feature, for a quarter. At the end of the block on the theater side of the street was the drug store. A block either way on Haddon Ave. were and are now row homes, some nicely kept up while others are boarded up.
When I lived in Parkside it was primarily a Jewish, Black and eastern European ethnic neighborhood. It was a great melting pot to grow up in and I miss that diversity today.
After exploring my old neighborhood I drove the few miles to downtown Camden where my grandparents owned a store that my parents also worked in. Downtown Camden has also changed in some ways and stayed the same in others. It’s once vibrant downtown has been cleaned up and modernized but is a much slower place than it was 50-60 years ago.
Camden City Hall is still an impressive sight and has a nice park in front of it. The store was a few blocks west, toward the Delaware River. Across the street from the store was the main headquarters and factory for Campbell Soup. During the summer the streets were crowded with trucks stacked with baskets of delicious Jersey tomatoes, destined for Campbell soup and becoming cans of tomato soup. Often at corners where the trucks made turns, baskets of tomatoes fell off and were either crushed of picked up by the public, depending on their condition.
The location of the store is now an empty lot in the middle of the block. The rest of the block looks pretty nice. Campbell Soup moved it’s production plant but it’s property is now covered with what I believe are their corporate office buildings.
A block further west on Market St. still stands the original building that housed the RCA Victor Corporation. It’s now been converted to “The Victor” luxury waterfront lofts with a beautiful view of the Delaware River and the city of Philadelphia on the other side. At the top of “The Victor” is the iconic stained glass trademark of RCA, Nipper, listening to his master’s voice, one of the most recognized trademarks of the 20th century. Campbell Soup, RCA Victor and the New York Shipbuilding Corp. were the 3 largest employers in Camden during much of the 20th century and made Camden a fairly major industrial city.
The last sight on my Camden visit was to tour the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62). I’ll have to do a whole separate blog post on that, but from the deck of the battleship I got a nice view of the Ben Franklin Bridge stretching across the Delaware to Philadelphia on the opposite side. Another icon of Camden.