Politics

Off The Wall

Camden, New Jersey, has a new kind of homeless problem involving the city's namesake, an 18th-century English earl who never set foot on American soil.
by | March 2003
 

Camden, New Jersey, has a new kind of homeless problem involving the city's namesake, an 18th-century English earl who never set foot on American soil.

Ever since Camden's City Hall went up in 1933, an oil portrait of Lord Camden has hung in the city council chamber. The nobleman was a heroic figure to colonial Americans--he publicly supported their independence from Britain--so when a few villages on the banks of the Delaware River incorporated, they called the place Camden.

Several years ago, however, renovations at City Hall began and his lordship's picture came down. Since then, Camden's portrait has been shuffled from one dark corner to another.

Now the council chamber's walls are adorned with a new set of murals. They include images of Walt Whitman, who lived his last years in Camden, and a local black activist named Charles "Poppy" Sharp. The faces, city officials hope, will connect with contemporary Camdenites in a way that a wig-wearing aristocrat never did.

It seems likely he'll be shipped off to the county historical society, which is happy to take him. But some think the city, which frankly is best known today for its corruption and urban desolation, is making a big mistake. The new murals are "a shorthand of Camden history," says Robert Thompson, an historical society board member who also works for the city government.

"Lord Camden is sitting in the hallway outside my office door," Thompson notes. "One hell of a place for a painting of that value. But when cities arrive at desperate situations, they don't think about art and culture. It's one of the tragedies of Camden."

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