Archive for October 7th, 2009

Wednesday, October 07th, 2009 | Author:

While walking to the Whitman house last week, I was struck by how different Camden must have looked during Whitman’s time. Today’s central Camden would be unrecognizable to someone living there  in the 19th century.

From Whitman’s time until the 1960s, Mickle Street was a narrow tree-lined street with row houses on both sides. Running parallel to the north were the tracks of the Pennsylvania railroad. A few blocks to the west, the tracks ended at the Delaware River, where a ferry ran to Market Street in Philadelphia. This had to have been a bustling, noisy place in late 19th century at least while the trains and ferries were running. Whitman’s bedroom was not more than 60 feet from the train tracks.


Mickle Street was widened to six lanes in the 1960s. To make room for the expansion, all of the houses on the north side of the street were demolished along with the railroad tracks. It was renamed renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard in the 1990s. A forgotten section by the river is still called Mickle Street.


Camden was a booming industrial city in Whitman’s time, but it has never been glamorous. The 20th century  brought dramatic decline to Camden. Today Mickle Street (many people still call it by its old name) is a street of empty lots covered in weeds and trash, with the occasional boarded up, half burnt-out brownstone awaiting demolition. There is little traffic on this six lane street.  Only three or four 19th century structures remain.


What would Whitman think of Camden today? He was a complicated man of contradictions so I can’t say. But if he were living in that house today, Whitman would have new neighbors: a prison (that he could see from his bedroom window), a center dedicated to himself (I can safely say he would have loved that), and a Campbell’s Soup factory that I mistook for a prison. He would be living in one of the poorest and most violent cities (per capita) in the United States. His middle class neighbors would have fled long ago to the suburbs. His fancy friends from Philadelphia might think twice before coming to Camden. Whitman’s Camden is long gone. It’s a miracle the house is even standing while its neighborhood has all but vanished. Hopefully the 21st century will be better for Camden.

image source:

Fahim, Kareem. “An inside look at violence in Camden” The New York Times 9 Feb 2008: web



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