CAMDEN, NJ—The stretch of Admiral Wilson Boulevard that runs between Camden and Pennsauken used to be home to seedy hotels, gas stations and bars that were notorious for the trafficking of drugs and prostitution.
As local officials were gathered on that same land nearly 20 years later, a lot had changed — a point emphasized by a bald eagle that flew over the Camden County Board of Freeholders Monday morning ribbon cutting celebration of the county’s newest open space, Gateway Park.
“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash, liaison to the Camden County Parks Department, said during his opening remarks on Monday. “There’s nothing more symbolic of the great City of Camden’s renovation, restoration and revitalization than the change to this property, because 20 years ago this property was filthy and had seedy-types of establishments.”
The 25-acre park sits between Admiral Wilson Boulevard and the Cooper River, and starts behind the Pub in Pennsauken and runs down to where 19th Street meets Admiral Wilson Boulevard. It now includes trails that connect to the Circuit Trails, a network of trails that connect South Jersey to eastern Pennsylvania, and will also feature boat launches for paddle boats such as a canoes and kayaks.
Camden Mayor Frank Moran, who also worked on the park prior to serving as mayor when he was the director of parks for Camden County, said that the new park helps his goal to create a park within a 10-minute walk of every Camden resident.
“Its a park that welcomes you when you come into the great City of Camden,” Moran said.
The mayor added that he hopes the space becomes a catalyst for Camden residents to become more connected with the city’s waterways, and plans to host an “I Paddle Camden” event on May 3. Officials said Monday that boat launches are expected to be installed in the park within the next couple of months.
“You can bike it, you can walk it, you can fish it, you can just come out and enjoy it,” Moran said.
Pennsauken Mayor Jack Killion called the now-completed park a "refuge" for future residents to visit to escape everyday life.
"You can’t put a monetary amount on what that is," Killion said.
The site, made up of 16 lots in Camden and Pennsauken, was first cleared in 2000 by the Delaware River Port Authority [DRPA] after being ordered by Gov. Christine Whitman administration to improve the appearance for those attending the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After it was cleared, it was promised the DRPA would transfer the land to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority [CCMUA].
However, instead it lay dormant and closed to the public due to environmental concerns until 2011, when local community groups began advocating to the DRPA for the site to finally be cleaned up and turned into a park.
One of those community groups was Friends of Cooper River Park West, which is co-chaired by longtime Camden resident Martha Chavis.
“We see this park as an opportunity for residents like myself to just come and visit, to walk and bike through the trails like any other neighborhood throughout the United States does,” Chavis said Monday. “For us, it is also a demonstration of what can happen when we work together collaboratively and with cooperation from everyone.”
According to Nash, it was after members of the public began advocating for the park that the DRPA began to address and clean up the land’s environmental concerns — a number of underground petroleum product-holding tanks were discovered. Now, the park is fully remediated, and the land has been transferred to the CCMUA who will manage the park in partnership the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
“Shaping this landscape has been a dream for me for decades,” said Olivia Glenn, former South Jersey metro regional manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Glenn, now the director of Parks and Forestry for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, grew up in Camden and now lives in Pennsauken. She said that her connection to the Gateway Park, and other parks in Camden, led her to her environmental career.
“I knew that what we saw then, wasn’t always what was here. And that the built environment and degradation that was here, didn’t always have to be,” Glenn said. “This landscape and this river could be repurposed for the public, but it requires systems and citizens to move forward. This accomplishment today proves that environmentalism fosters democracy and civic engagement.”
Kevin Barfield grew up running across the bridgeways over Admiral Wilson Boulevard that connect East Camden to Gateway Park, which is why he decided to become of the Friends of Cooper River Park West in 2012.
“It’s great to see the transformation of the park. Now when kids grow up, they won’t have to experience what we experienced growing up with all the negative things,” said Barfield, also the president of the Camden County NAACP. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be in this situation — growing up across the street and seeing what it was, and now being a part of a group that helped make this happen.”