There are two narratives about Camden, New Jersey that media outlets like to rely on. One is of a city so dangerous and poor that its salvation is near-hopeless. That narrative can be seen in Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article “Apocalypse, New Jersey,” in The Nation’s “City of Ruins” and in NBC’s “America’s ‘Invincible’ City Brought to Its Knees.”
Then there’s the narrative of rebirth—writers argue that despite its long odds, Camden’s resilient spirit will resuscitate its lifeless downtown, turning it into, if not quite what it was at its peak, something better than it is now. “Is Camden on the Cusp of Revival?” Philadelphia magazine questioned last month. “Camden Turns Around With New Police Force,” the New York Times proclaimed over the summer (the statistics contained within that story are extremely misleading, as they only go back two years, beginning in 2012 when the new police force arrived in Camden).
The problem with these narratives isn’t that they’re wrong. It’s that they are both simultaneously right. Camden is indeed one of America’s poorest and most violent cities. Its poverty rate is high and stagnant, hovering around 40 percent year after year. But it is also experiencing an infusion of cash and high-paying jobs. More and more people are visiting the city’s revitalized waterfront district each year. More townhomes at prices unheard of just a few years ago are being built and sold.
These two Camdens rarely interact with each other. Will they continue to coexist side-by-side?
Gallery Eleven One is run by William and Ronja Butler. It’s housed in a converted firehouse, on the corner of one of the city’s prettiest blocks in Cooper Grant. The area is mostly comprised of red brick townhouses tucked behind Rutgers University’s Camden campus—just a few blocks from the city’s waterfront.
From here, you can get to the center of Philadelphia in 10 minutes by car, 20 minutes by train, and 45 minutes by walking over the Ben Franklin Bridge, which can be seen from nearly everywhere in the city.
The Butlers moved to Camden three-and-a-half years ago from Des Moines, Iowa. As William Butler tells it, they were looking for not only a cheap space to produce and showcase art, but a space in which they felt they could help create a sense of community.
“When we first came here, we saw a void,” Butler said as he stood amid his own paintings hanging in the front of the gallery. “I’m one who believes that if you go to a place and you are doing it for good, people feel that authenticity. People feel the revitalization. It leaches out into other neighborhoods.”
To that end, the Butlers open their gallery to the public one Thursday each month, and coordinate with other local artists and businesses to create tours of the limited arts and music venues in Camden.
In cities where gentrification is an ever-present threat to long-time residents, gentrifiers are often too nervous about being labeled gentrifiers to talk honestly about their plans for moving to a neighborhood or city (with the exception of the seemingly never-ending font of Williamsburg residents featured in the New York Times.) But Butler didn’t strike me as ignorant as much as honest. He’s keenly aware of the role artists like him play in the process of gentrification. He just doesn’t know what to do about it.
“You don’t want to drive people out, but I also don’t think you can leave things empty,” he said. “But if you bring in galleries and restore old buildings, does that raise the rents? Of course it does.”
Down the street from Butler’s gallery, sandwiched between downtown and the waterfront, is the The Victor, a converted loft building. Camden’s downtown looks similar to any other medium-sized American city downtown: wide streets, parking garages, and hardly any people. But Camden’s is more empty than most. On a weekday afternoon, I spotted maybe three other pedestrians near The Victor. The streets were so quiet I could hear a construction worker hammering something from blocks away.
Rent for a one-bedroom at The Victor is about $1,200 a month, a bargain compared with New York prices, but steep when you consider Camden’s average income is under $13,000.
As a writer writing about a changing Camden, you couldn’t hope for better symbolism: For most of the 1900s, the building housed an RCA stereo factory, which provided hundreds of jobs to Camden residents. After General Electric bought RCA, production in Camden was shut down in 1992 and the building was left vacant, often prone to vandalism. In 2003, a mega-developer from Philadelphia came in, bought the property, and rebranded it as a luxury loft destination for adventurous professionals.
This is where Stephen Danley lives. Danley, who is a public policy professor at Rutgers, took me through the patchouli-scented, doorman-guarded lobby of The Victor, up its elevator (which has to be unlocked by a doorman via a button behind the front-desk), and to the roof. Here, with the Philly skyline ahead of us, he pointed out what some deem Camden’s biggest success, and others its biggest boondoggle: the waterfront.
The office of Camden Mayor Dana Redd would not return calls for this story. Neither would Coopers Ferry, the economic development organization that oversees most of the development on the waterfront. But it’s no secret that Camden’s leaders are looking to the waterfront to revitalize the city.
“I could not be more grateful today. I am elated for my city,” Mayor Redd said at the announcement of a new practice facility for the Philadelphia 76ers. The basketball organization was lured to Camden with the promise of millions in tax breaks. Redd called the facility a “catalyst for change.”
Camden’s waterfront is where nearly all the money that gets spent on Camden is allocated. But almost no longtime residents live or work there. The waterfront and downtown are cut off from the rest of Camden by I-676, which brings commuters from New Jersey’s more affluent suburbs straight past the city and over the Ben Franklin bridge into Philadelphia every morning. Unless you have a loft at The Victor, or a house in Cooper Grant, the waterfront is out of reach.
“This is the new trickle-down economics,” Danley said. “But it’s really hard to swallow this idea that the waterfront could make people’s lives better when their basic needs aren’t being met.”
The Victor’s developer, Dranoff Properties, just last week put the building up for sale. The company refused to comment, but if the other building Dranoff owns in Camden is any indication, their development strategy isn’t working.
That building is located down the street from The Victor, away from the waterfront and towards the rest of Camden. Dranoff has promised to develop The Radio Lofts for the last four years. It’s unclear why they remain vacant, though some speculate that there’s not enough demand for upscale housing in the city to justify renovating the building. Right now, the building sits gutted with three huge banners hanging vertically near the top. Each banner contains one word. Together they read: “CONDOMINIUMS COMING SOON.”
Politicians have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into redeveloping the waterfront area. In 2002, Gov. Jim McGreevey allocated $175 million in loans and bonds on Camden. But, according to an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, less than five percent of that money was spent on improving services important to Camden’s 75,000 residents—such as job training, schools, and reducing crime. Over $100 million, however, went to the city’s waterfront and downtown to help build a law school, redevelop industrial piers into pathways, and build a privately-owned aquarium.
In exchange for the millions, Camden gave over control of much of its city government to a state board. Many of the city’s biggest municipal responsibilities are still controlled by the state, including its school system.
That kind of lopsided investment continues today. The school system remains chronically underfunded. This year, Camden’s superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced that hundreds of jobs could be eliminated to make up for a $75 million budget shortfall. As a result, many public schools are being turned over to charters (schools that receive public funding but are owned by nonprofits or corporations).
Camden’s poverty rate is 39 percent, about quadruple the state of New Jersey’s. Its per capita income is $12,869. Only 7.6 percent of Camden residents have a bachelor’s degree. Further adding to the burden among the city’s poor: in 2011, Camden’s property tax was raised by 23 percent to help pay for additional police.
Yet money continues to pour into development for the waterfront. Within the last year, the state has announced deals to bring big companies to Camden’s waterfront district. Holtec, a nuclear power plant parts manufacturer that is slated to construct a factory within city limits, could potentially bring thousands of jobs. But Holtec is only required to bring in 235 workers in order to receive a $260 million tax break from the state. The Philadelphia 76ers are building a practice facility in Camden, but only 50 jobs will be created from that, at the cost of $82 million in tax breaks. Thanks to Gov. Chris Christie’s tax break bonanza—he’s given away $4 billion in tax breaks since he became governor in 2010—companies like Lockheed Martin have threatened to vacate the state completely unless they receive tax breaks to relocate downtown.
The problem, according to many residents, is that most of the jobs at these newly arrived companies will be for highly skilled workers, and therefore out of reach for nearly all Camden residents.
“These people are not prepared for these jobs,” said Angel Cordero, one of Camden’s most prominent community activists. “No one is talking about those issues. Camden is booming right now but residents are left picking up the leftovers.”
Camden’s outer neighborhoods don’t look as apocalyptic as Matt Taibbi’s “Apocalypse, New Jersey” might suggest. Some neighborhoods, like Fairview, resemble the outskirts of Minneapolis, or Detroit’s tonier suburbs: century-old brick houses sit on small, manicured lawns. Those manicured lawns sit on tree-lined streets where grass medians with benches divide one stream of traffic from another.
The city’s more bustling sections mirror immigrant neighborhoods in distant cities, but in miniature. On Federal Street, the sidewalks are crowded, the one-story buildings are occupied by stores, Mexican restaurants, pharmacies—normal stuff.
But on closer inspection, Camden’s decay begins to show.
Three activists from one of the city’s biggest nonprofits, Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), drove me around Camden’s outer neighborhoods recently. The streets are in such bad shape that you often feel like you’re driving on cobblestones.
From the back seat, lifelong resident Carlos Merced pointed out the open-air drug markets (there were many), the blocks with more abandoned houses than occupied ones, and the former public spaces that the city government left to die: a tennis court with weeds growing through, a baseball field with no baseball diamond, a library that closed years ago and is only now being turned into something else, though no one is sure what.
“The investments being made—is it to better Camden or better themselves?” Merced said, referring to Camden’s notoriously corrupt politicians. “You only get 50 jobs but, oh that’s great, you made our waterfront look nice.”
Merced is currently looking for a job.
Driving around Camden, it’s hard to imagine the city gentrifying in the same way that New York or San Francisco are gentrifying. With so many abandoned houses, there seems to be a lot of space for wealthy individuals to move in without displacing lower-income residents.
But The Victor and the Cooper Grant neighborhood prove that white, monied folk are willing to move to Camden. And as real estate prices rapidly rise in Philadelphia, Camden may seem ever-more attractive and comparatively affordable. “Philadelphia Could Help Make Camden The Next Brooklyn,” a recent article proclaimed.
The two-tiered development strategy that’s often associated with gentrified cities—bikes lanes here, but not there, increased police presence in some places but not others—is already taking place in Camden. The potholes in Merced’s neighborhood make that clear.
One thing I heard over and over again from residents is that Camden is small. The city is nine square miles. For context, Philadelphia is about 135 square miles. Cherry Hill, which is right next door to Camden and has about the same population, is 24 square miles. That means that every development decision the city makes matters.
Camden is starting an ambitious “blight removal” program. The city plans to knock down 600 abandoned homes this year. That means there will be less space for poor residents to move into if the city’s population begins to expand again. That coupled with the state giving away money for corporations like Holtec and the 76ers to take land near Camden’s waterfront means the city is simultaneously shrinking and filling in its blank canvas.
At a recent press conference organized by CCOP, about two dozen activists gathered to pressure the city’s politicians to sign the “Contract for Camden,” a one-page document listing seven pledges elected officials could make to ensure job creation and development benefits Camden residents.
The press conference was held in an empty parking lot that will one day be home to the new Holtec nuclear parts plant. On the west side of the lot is Camden’s waterfront, which has already been developed into lofts, a minor league baseball field, an aquarium, and a concert arena. To its north is Cooper Grant, where William Butler’s gallery and the Rutgers University campus are located. To its east and south is the rest of Camden.
“You have nine square miles,” Raymond Lamboy, another Camden activist said. “Once you build all this out in a way that’s not going to benefit the guy on the corner, that’s it. You’ve painted yourself into a corner.”
[Photos via the author]