I've seen the future in Camden.
Don't laugh. Camden still awaits its much-ballyhooed revitalization, but the city that has suffered mightily for others' sins appears to be catching one well-earned break.
This summer, the last inmate left Riverfront State Prison, in the glorious shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. This fall, demolition crews will descend upon what was surely the most ludicrously located correctional facility in America.
Once all that concrete and concertina wire comes down, prepare to gasp at the horizon previously reserved for guards on tower duty. Cleared land equals unbridled potential, for struggling locals and wealthy outsiders who will come because amazing waterfront real estate always lures the monied class.
"Look at that river," marveled the Rev. Margaret Herz-Lane of nearby Grace Lutheran Church, who joined me last week on a tour of the vacated 16-acre prison site, part of an 88-acre tract that could become a mix of parks, piers, housing, and businesses.
In 28 years of living in the neighborhood, Herz-Lane had never been that close to the water.
"That's our river," she said, giddily, "and we've been cut off from it for so long."
Optimism, regular readers know, does not come easily to me when we're talking about Camden.
I've written countless columns about the $175 million state-imposed recovery plan, criticizing its disregard for residents and its preposterous promises. Remember the artist's rendering showing beret-wearing intelligentsia spending their days in outdoor cafes?
Long before Trenton took away Camden's right to self-rule, it imposed Riverfront Prison in exchange for state aid. Locals fought the facility before it opened in 1985, and they kept on complaining, never knowing if anyone was listening.
"Camden wants to stand on its own," explained activist Clarence Bagwell. "Just these acres alone could give us the tax ratables to take this city out of deficit."
Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash heard the cries and shared them in 2005 with gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine.
"From that day on," Nash recalled, "whenever he'd see me he'd say, 'We're going to close that prison.' "
The gutsy decision led to protests from legislators and the state corrections officers union, but the governor never wavered.
Even the Delaware River Port Authority did the right thing this time. I've long mocked the port authority for blowing toll money on political pet projects, but spending $6 million to demolish the prison is one down payment on progress I can buy.
North Camden has 7,600 residents who've never had a gymnasium as nice as the one at the prison.
"Could we keep it?" Herz-Lane asked during the tour. "The kids would go nuts."
Transplanting the basketball court might be tough, but the North Camden Plan is one the residents themselves designed. As long as locals get to stay and be heard, they'll hand over the waterfront for public joy and for-profit developers.
"We need to start mixing," declared Rod Sadler, a 33-year resident and activist. "Camden people want the amenities that come from a higher-income community."
The key, as always, is planning.
"My son, a professor, lives in a beautiful community in Charlotte of single-family homes, cul-de-sacs, and little McMansions," Sadler said. "But on his block, there are three or four subsidized units you can't tell apart. The kids all play together. It's a positive thing."
Still, Sadler realizes that well-heeled newcomers will want to distance themselves from the crime and drug-dealing in the area.
"We have to make it safe," he acknowledged, "but a closed community doesn't necessarily need to look like a prison."
And after living next to Riverfront for 25 years, they know a prison does not make a community.