Ten Years and $175 Million Dollars Later; Failing Camden

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At the turn of the century, Camden was once a prosperous, industrialized city. Major companies were located in Camden such as RCA, Campbell Soup Company and the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. Camden’s major companies were manufacturing phonographs, mass producing canned soup and building battleships for the Second World War. However, between 1960 and 1967 industrial employment fell sharply, by 12,000 jobs. In a single decade, Camden’s manufacturing base declined by 48 percent and the city soon fell into a downward spiral with effects still visible today (Gillette 43). There are thousands of blighted properties on every block in the city meanwhile police officers are being laid off rapidly.

In 2002, the city of Camden received $175 million dollars which was given by the state of New Jersey. The money was supposed to turn Camden around and give the city a new beginning.  The majority of the money was not spent to fix valid problems, but was spent on tourist attractions such as a baseball stadium and an aquarium in the downtown Waterfront area. The $175 million dollars should have been spent on fixing Camden’s real issues that affect the local residents such as the plague of urban blight and the desperately needed, diminishing police force.

Local residents are left to suffer because of the decisions made by city officials on where the money was spent. Residents were promised that the money would be used to fix the problem of abandoned properties but that did not happen. The state spent $145,570 on that plan as part of the recovery, but it seemingly nothing to solve the problem (“Camden Rebirth” Katz). Less than five percent of the $175 million dollars was spent on things that residents cared about the most such as crime and municipal services (“Camden Rebirth” Katz). Almost $100 million of the money was spent on larger tourist attractions such as the aquarium. With millions and millions of dollars being invested in tropical fish and a hippo exhibit, the neighborhoods within Camden are suffering from urban blight.

About one in five housing units are vacant. The blighted property problem is so abundant that a local church group hosts an “ugly house” contest in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. One of the candidates is the 210 year old Samuel Cooper house. The house was built by one of South Jersey’s founding families and that once served as a station on the Underground Rail Road (Nark). Now, the dilapidated home is on the verge of falling apart due to fire damage and neglect.

The longer it takes to get these buildings renovated or demolished, the more problems follow. Abandoned buildings pose serious threats to the city. They can shelter people who are drug users, hide those running from the law and serve as gang hideouts. Abandoned buildings also are a dumping ground for hazardous materials. Things like needles, syringes, oil drums and oxygen tanks are typically found in abandoned warehouses. Meanwhile, Camden has faced three major fires in old factories in the past few years. These left over materials can be very combustible and increase the danger when fire fighters attempt to put out the flames.

However, cities in similar situations who also suffer from urban decay such as Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey have found ways to turn these properties into assets. Out of Newark’s 1,000 vacant buildings, 519 of them have made the list to begin the process of rehabilitation. So far, 419 have continued to the next stage and nearly half have been either demolished or redeveloped. These properties will become affordable housing units. Dan Kildee, president and founder of the Center for Community Progress based out of Flint, provides encouragement by confirming “In Flint, We had properties that were abandoned for decades, and now they are jewels” (Vargas).

Instead of having private investors purchase the blighted properties, the city has taken control of them and put them in good use. If private investors purchase the properties, the city has no say of what they can do with them. They could possibly remain abandoned indefinitely. Camden should have used more money from the recovery money to employ a plan like the one similar to what they are doing in Flint and Newark. If Camden had formed a rehabilitation program with a portion of the $175 million, they could have started combating the plague of urban decay.

To repair the morale of the city, these properties need to be rehabilitated. If the affordable housing would have been built, Camden would be taking a step into turning around its post industrial wasteland. The redevelopment would lead to a new beginning. Camden could possibly return into the blue collar city it once was. With more affordable housing and potential employees, businesses could invest their companies in Camden.

Along with the redevelopment of abandoned properties, Camden should have set a portion of the $175 million to ensure the police force would stay intact. Camden’s police force is being abolished because the city cannot afford to employ fully sworn officers. Many residents across South Jersey know, Camden is continuously ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country. This year of 2012, Camden has reached an all time high in homicides with 64. This is 6 more than the previous record set in 1995. There are a couple more weeks left in the year of 2012 and there is bound to be more homicides, raising the record even that much more. Camden has more than five times the national average of violent crimes with 2,333 crimes per 100,000 people. 42.5% of those who live in Camden live below the poverty line, compared to 15% nationwide. With police numbers going down, crime rates are going up.

Camden will be getting rid of their 141 year old police department and terminate their remaining 273 officers in the next few months while 163 have already been laid off.  By cutting the department’s workforce by forty six percent, John Williamson, president of the rank-and-file police union, says it would be “the kiss of death”  (“Christie” Katz). Camden officials say that generous union contracts make it impossible to keep enough officers on the street and that they are simply out of money (“To fight Crime” Zernike). However, even Scott Thomson, Chief of Police in Camden, is taking a pay cut of up to $15,000. The $175 million dollars should have given the Camden Police money to make sure that this would not happen.

Camden’s new plan is to employ a countywide police force starting in early 2013. They will employ 400 non-union uniformed, unarmed – without arrest powers- civilians to patrol one of the country’s worst cities (“County Police Force” Simon). They will be hiring 25 civilians at a time.  Some of these civilians will have little to none experience and will require on the job training. These civilians will be hired from all around the nation, and therefore will be unfamiliar with the city and have no established relationship with locals. Only about 49% of current Camden Police Officers will retain their job with the city.  Camden officials call this “forward thinking” and say it will cut costs tremendously. However current salaries for a fully sworn officer range from $47,000 to $81,000. Anticipated salaries for the new countywide police force will range from $47,000 to $87,000 (“To Fight Crime” Zernike). Residents are worried about how effective these uniformed civilians can be. If fully sworn officers can not contain the crime, unarmed civilians certainly wouldn’t fair well.

Some feel the revitalization to the Waterfront and the money spent on it was worth it. In 2002, it was called a triumph and the best possible hope for the city and the region (Gillette 192). Except over ten years later, Camden has made little to no improvements with the money they had received. Despite promises that increased downtown investment would ultimately aid the neighborhoods, that prospect has yet to be demonstrated (Gillette 125). Camden is not the central hub as it once was predicted to be when the city had received the money.  The Camden Police Department is being disbanded and the city is still fighting urban decay. While the Waterfront facilities brought jobs, they did not lift the financial prospects of significant numbers of Camden families (Gillette 125).  Camden’s Waterfront serves as a cautionary tale about the limits to what investments in a single sector of a city can do for the whole (Gillette 125).  While tourist attractions are nice, they did not uplift the city as they were projected to do.

Camden’s problems are evident. After receiving $175 million dollars over ten years ago, the city has shown little improvement. The downtown waterfront attractions did not boost Camden to the next level. As a result of poor spending decisions, residents are left to suffer. A desperately needed police force will be disbanded soon and the city is still a mirror image of what it was before they received the grant; a post industrial wasteland.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Gillette, Howard. Camden after the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-industrial City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005. Print.

 

Goldstein, Joseph. “After Deep Police Layoffs, Camden Feels Vulnerable.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Katz, Matt. “Camden Rebirth: A Promise Still Unfulfilled.” Philly.com. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 08 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Katz, Matt. “Christie Grants Camden $69 Million in Special Aid, but Little to Avert Layoffs.” Philly.com. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Nark, Jason. “Ugly-house Contest Aims to Draw Attention to Camden’s Vacant-property Problem.” Philadelphia Daily News. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 July 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Simon, Darran. “With County Police Force, Camden Residents Will Have New, Unarmed Officers.” Philly.com. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Vargas, Claudia. “Camden Belated in Blight Offensive.” Philly.com. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

Zernike, Kate. “To Fight Crime, Camden Will Trade In Its Police.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

 

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