- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

CAMDEN, N.J. — It doesn’t take much time in this city to have doubts about a line written about it by a most famous resident, 19th-century poet Walt Whitman: “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible.”

In the decades after Whitman died here in 1892, the city just east of Philadelphia became a center of industry, home to RCA and Campbell Soup. Then Camden declined into one of the poorest cities in the country, a place known best for government corruption and crime.

Local boosters are trying to get visitors to see and explore Whitman’s city — and not just the well-patrolled sliver of it along the Delaware River that already attracts tourists with an aquarium, minor-league baseball stadium, historic battleship and concerts.

A tour offered this summer called Walt Whitman & His Invincible City celebrates the man who wrote “Leaves of Grass” and the famous ode to Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!”

The tour is also the first major effort by tourism officials to get visitors into parts of Camden away from the waterfront.

The tour route — to Whitman’s home, burial place and other sites — passes through neighborhoods of boarded-up houses and shuttered businesses. In contrast, on nights when the waterfront Tweeter Center has a concert, police line the streets, directing traffic to ensure that concertgoers don’t end up anywhere but the waterfront.

The waterfront has become a draw for people in Philadelphia and the suburbs since the early 1990s, not long after the last major factory shut down. However, the prosperity of that stretch of the city has not spread out into the neighborhoods where most residents live. The city was gritty in Whitman’s time, too. Philadelphians took a ferry across the Delaware River to get there and take advantage of more liberal liquor laws.

“We don’t want to hide anything from anybody. This is a city that has had its struggles,” says John Seitter of the South Jersey Tourism Corp. “That’s really the Camden that Whitman knew. It was a glorified beer garden.”

The Whitman tour originally was scheduled for three runs this summer — with the last one Thursday — but it proved so successful that organizers intend to continue offering it once a month, starting in September. The three-hour tour costs $30.

“The response has been terrific, and we are 100 percent sure that Whitman’s Invincible City tour is a sustainable piece that we will eventually be selling to tour groups and operators,” Mr. Seitter says.

The tours are guided by University of Pennsylvania graduate students in history who moonlight with Poor Richard’s Walking Tours, which takes visitors on routes in nearby Philadelphia.

Visitors to Camden who miss the guided tour can take in some of the sites on their own. Destinations include Whitman’s last home, a carefully restored museum across the street from the Camden County Jail; his tomb in the pastoral Victorian-era Harleigh Cemetery; the banks of the Delaware River; and Pomona Hall, a mansion that houses the Camden County Historical Society and an exhibit about Whitman.

The guided tour also includes a visit with a Whitman impersonator who, during a preview tour in May, calmly read poems as police sirens from the inner city wailed in the distance.

There’s a refresher on Whitman’s poems, which are often studied alongside those of his contemporaries in the transcendental movement, such as Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau.

The guides talk about the daily life of the scruffy Whitman, who was a gregarious artist, hosting Oscar Wilde and painter Thomas Eakins at the wooden home where he lived from 1884 until his death eight years later.

Despite the famous visitors, Whitman’s two-story wooden home a quarter-mile or so from the river was modest. Inside, it was hard to get around because his home was littered with piles of paper.

Tour guide Kyle Feeley says admirers in Britain, where Whitman was celebrated as America’s first great poet even before he achieved that distinction in his home country, were disheartened to see that he lived so modestly, but he adds that Whitman “was so of the people. If he actually lived the lifestyle that they wanted, he couldn’t have written many of the poems he wrote.”

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