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Collingswood: The small town for people who love big cities

Second Saturday in Collingswood

The Collingswood Book Festival

Cruise Night in Collingswood

The Collingswood Farmers' Market

Collingswood is a small town for people who like cities. 

Bordering Camden and a mere ten minute train ride from Center City Philadelphia, it is distinctly walkable with a reinvigorated main street, a local bike share program, and a commitment to transit-oriented development. One of the only towns in South Jersey where it is possible to comfortably live without a car, this charming hamlet has become a prime destination for young families seeking character, affordability and community. 

Collingwood's bustling downtown is a definite draw. In 2009, the American Planning Association proclaimed Haddon Avenue, the main commercial corridor, one of America's Top Ten Great Streets. (It begins in central Camden, winds through the city's Parkside neighborhood, then into Collingswood before terminating in Haddonfield.) It is lined with shops and restaurants, and most are topped by apartments. The new The Collings at the LumberYard complex added additional mixed use capacity on seven acres adjacent to the main drag and within an easy walk of the PATCO station.

Things weren't always so rosy. 

Although the area had long been settled, Collingswood was only incorporated in 1888. It's growth was the result of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Atlantic City line and the Reading Railroad's Seashore line, which both swept through town, and its proximity to major industrial centers. The town grew up around its railroad stations, which carried commuters into Philadelphia, and trolleys that brought them to Camden's factories.

In 1882 the area had a population of 20 (according to an old Philadelphia Inquirer article), which grew to 1,625 in 1900 and 9,000 in 1920. (In a fit of hyperbole, the town dubbed itself "the fastest growing community east of the Mississippi" during those years.) Many of Collingswood's row homes were built to cater to working-class residents, while the larger Victorians went to the professional classes. There are also a few apartment buildings, ensuring a diversity of housing stock and some affordable options. 

Collingswood's population peaked at almost 20,000 in the mid-20th century, but the town shrank as neighboring Camden began its rough transition from industrial juggernaut to struggling city. The main street retail stores were hollowed out by the success of the Cherry Hill Mall and other sprawling suburban shopping developments. The vacancy rate on Haddon Avenue reached as high as 40 percent while the population shrank to 17,090 in 1970 and continued to fall. The borough's high rise Park View apartments were in disrepair and losing tenants; the owner was bankrupt and $1 million behind on his taxes. 

"We sit on the immediate eastern border of Camden, so we've got issues about being an inner-ring suburb -- as Camden suffered, Collingswood felt some impacts," explains Mayor Jim Maley, who has held the office since 1989. "There was a perception in town that there was this creep that was going to go on out to the inner rings." 

The borough put a lot of energy and resources into reinvigorating Park View. Maley considers its resuscitation a turning point in Collingwood's revitalization. 

His administration also worked to reverse a trend towards carving up the borough's historic homes into multi-family dwellings. During Collingswood's period of decline, many large old houses were clumsily converted into duplexes and triplexes. Those buildings were often owned by absentee landlords who did not put work into the properties. A program was established that encouraged homebuyers to purchase houses and reconvert them to single-family homes: The town backed loans from a local bank; they were interest free and required no payments for two years. About 200 houses were converted under the program. 

Next Maley and the town's other policymakers decided that if they could not compete with the malls for retail, they could become a hub for independent restaurants, especially BYOs (Collingswood is a dry town). They gauged the market correctly. Since 2000, when greasy spoon or Italian fare were the only options on offer, 20 new restaurants have opened. Two more are anticipated to open this year and McFarlan's Market, a butcher and specialty food shop, is planning a second location on Haddon Avenue. (Another market opened and closed in December.)

"We were the second full-service restaurant in town right before the food renaissance started to happen," recalls Mark Smith, chef at Tex-Met eatery Tortilla Press (703 Haddon Avenue).

The restaurant opened in 2002, but it took a little longer for the rest of the scene to emerge. 

"For a while it seemed like other [restaurateurs] would be there for 6 months or a year and then move out," he says. "But we've been pretty stable and have a really nice mix of Italian, South American concepts, nice sushi. [Local leaders] are always looking for ways to keep the town clean, attractive and progressing so it doesn't get old and stagnant again." 

The range of options is truly staggering. At 729 Haddon Avenue there is both the 1950s diner-style grilled-cheese mecca The Pop Shop and the Ecuadorian steakhouse El Sitio. The Clay Oven Palace (329 Haddon Avenue) serves delicious Indian food and there are numerous Italian offerings, from slice and hoagie spot Cafe Antonio (827 Haddon Avenue) to fancier fare on offer at Bistro di Marino (492 Haddon Avenue) or the Kitchen Consigliere (700 Haddon Avenue). There are a few coffee shops and one of the finest sweets stores in the region, The Candy Jar (742 Haddon Avenue), which serves everything from brightly colored stuff for kids to classy chocolates for adults. 

And a short trip from Haddon Avenue in Collings Avenue sits Zeppoli, a tiny BYOB serving up Sicilian-influenced fare; it's widely considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the region.

The town's density remains its major draw -- which isn't to say there isn't plenty of green to be seen. Collingswood is a joy to explore because it was developed before the reign of the automobile and because local leaders have worked to ensure that it remains pedestrian friendly. There are bump outs and other traffic calming devices to ensure that cars proceed slowly and numerous crosswalks to allow quick and safe passage across the street. PATCO trains run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Collingswood is great for people who "don't want to have a car or if they do have a car they don't want to be driving all the time," explains Maley. "They want to be able to walk out and eat and buy whatever they need, jump on the speed line for working or going to the theater. We have much more of an urban feel. [The revitalization] has been a huge success."
JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.
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