What went wrong during Camden’s rebirth?

By: Yana Ellis

In July 2002, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey signed the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act (MRERA), which “initiated a major redevelopment effort for Camden, one of the poorest cities in the one of the richest states in the country”(Seith 1). Camden was put under state control and received $175 million in state redevelopment money for different city projects so the city could recover from poverty and crime. The Economic Recovery Board brought up many good projects for investment. The citizens and city officials were excited about the city’s future and were positive that it was bright. Unfortunately, however, rebirth didn’t happen. The main reason the takeover failed is because the money was not used wisely. The problem should have been fixed from the bottom up instead of the other way around. In other words, instead investing money in to the projects like aquarium and the law school the money should have been given to the organizations that could help families of Camden with employment, health care, education and housing. Camden is one of the most dangerous cities in America and giving it a rebirth by building nice waterfront was not the right thing to do, simply because citizens are struggling from unemployment and entertainment is the least of their concern. Instead the majority of money should have gone to fix issues like unemployment, crime, school dropouts and poverty. In the city, one thing leads to another such as lack of care and supervision at schools to dropouts, lack of income to criminal acts like stealing and dealing illegal substances. The solution for Camden’s recovery is investment of money in organizations that help residents to reconstruct their lives and reach their full means such as Boys and Girls Club, CCOP and HCOC.

In Camden’s revitalization plan there were two major organizations that where responsible for planning and accomplishing the plan: the Economic Recovery Board (ERB) and the Camden Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Money was allocated to Residential Neighborhood Improvement, Demolition and Redevelopment Financing, Downtown Revitalization and Recovery, Higher Education and Regional Health Care Development and Economic Recovery Planning, according to the Economic Recovery Board for Camden. The Residential Neighborhood improvement fund received $35 million to fix roads, improve sewage system, and support activities that work on cleaning the community and also to build parks, squares and restaurants for the community. Even without looking at the reports it is very clear that little was accomplished by this fund. There weren’t new parks or kids’ playgrounds built and now known as popular places for the neighborhood kids. As soon as you turn in to the Camden’s exit you see trash everywhere, homeless people begging for change, and houses that desperately need renovation. Hedges, in his article “City of Ruins”, says that “According to a yearlong investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, only 5% of the money had been used to combat crime, improve schools, provide jobs or bolster municipal services.” ERB and CRA received a lot of money for improvement residential neighborhoods but what did they spend it on?

The state provided money for Camden’s renovations of abandoned houses and the sewer system, but most of the money went to projects that were supported by leaders of the Democratic political organizations. City officials tried to fix the economy by investing in major city projects that could potentially bring jobs for the citizens and income for the city’s budget and hoped that that will lead to the economy growth. Demolition and Redevelopment Financing Fund received $43 million to get rid of the abandoned buildings and to help the community in the rehabilitation, demolition and building new houses and apartment buildings. One of the projects that was complete is the Victor Waterfront Lofts, but unfortunately, the rent is so high that not too many Camden residents can afford to live there. Between those two funds Camden was supposed to spend close to $50 million towards renovations and improvements but sadly the city didn’t change a bit. According to Hedges:
“The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts”.
Downtown Revitalization and Recovery Fund received $45.8 for renovating waterfront. Most of the projects that the fund planned to build and renovate were accomplished: Campbell’s Field, a minor league ballpark; Susquehanna Bank Center, a concert venue; Adventure Aquarium; and some luxury housing with views of Philadelphia. The problem with renovated downtown is that it did not bring as much income as it was expected. “The money bought the city a privatized aquarium with hippos, sharks, and a West African aviary. But it did not affect Camden’s median income, the lowest of any medium-sized American city.”(Quaal) Many citizens of Camden are deeply upset that all this money got wasted and the city didn’t recover but got worst. “The city looks worse than ever,” said Anderson, chairman of Camden Churches Organized for People.

Instead of investing money in big projects the money should have went to organizations that help people. “Rather, recovery came to mean, as it has elsewhere in the county, an investment in physical structures over a commitment to people in need” (Gillette 25). There are non-profit organizations that should have got the funds, their main goal is to help people that live in this city and expect nothing in return. Boys and Girls Club, CCOP and HCOC are only some of them. Boys and Girls Club is a great organization that is supervising, educating and teaching social skills young kids and teenagers. They are open after school during weekdays and all day Saturday. This is a great program that saves kids from hanging out on the street or home alone at times when they are most at threat to get involved in to dangerous actions or become a victim of a crime. The program helps single parents, who are 66.8% of the Camden’s population to supervise their kids so the parents can work or go to school, without worrying that their kids could be in danger (city-data.com). This is a big step on the way to fixing the economy because the more people are able to work the more money is coming in to the city’s budget and that leads the city to spending money on issues like the abandoned houses that shelter drug addicts and homeless. Another positive thing that The Boys and Girls Club does for the community is to teach kids how to be responsible and hard working so when the time comes they have no problems getting a job and keeping it. A large part of the state redevelopment money should have gone towards The Boys and Girls Club. With the money they could get more office space and even renovate a few of the abandoned houses so they can expend their organization which will allow them to accept more children to the program. Also that would be a great investment in education, which is one of the major problems of Camden. “There is a 70 percent high school dropout rate, with only 13 percent of students managing to pass the state’s proficiency exams in math” (Hedges).

Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) is a faith-based non-profit organization that builds community organization and helps people to address community problems. “Unemployment, crime, inadequate housing and healthcare, the unmet needs of our youth and senior citizens are all contrary to the foundations of Judeo-Christian values.” (CCOP) CCOP is multicultural group that connects families and individuals from different ethnic and racial backgrounds from different neighborhoods, (which is very important for Camden because of the large Hispanic community 47% according to city-data.com) in a common determination through shared action to address the major concerns which affect families as well as public safety and unemployment, healthcare, housing, economic development. The organization has reached a lot of goals and made a lot of accomplishment, what they are very proud of, some of them are: build the first city park in the Bergen Square Neighborhood, organized a new Community Garden in Cramer Hill, closed 2,000 vacant buildings and demolished over 750 hazardous units all across the city – and reduced crime connected with those buildings and the list doesn’t stop there, according to the organization’s website. CCOP is an organization with the main goal to help the citizens and communities and no intentions on earning profit. If the organization would have received a part of the money the outcome of it would have been immeasurable. With all that they are doing already for the community the money would have made their work a little easier. For example one of their accomplishments is organized neighborhood cleanup throughout Camden. With the money they could have done a better job like renting necessary equipment, advertising their action which would have involved more people. The outcome could be clean city so when the tourists visit the higher education schools or the aquarium they are not disappointed, Camden may be not a wealthy city but if it is clean it makes it a lot better. Besides, when visitors come to the city and see how clean it is that could give them an idea to settle here because the location is great and the prices are low, but the reputation of it is the problem.

There is a lot of proof that Camden’s renovation plan didn’t work but not everybody agrees with that. Officials still think that the state takeover is successful it just takes longer then it was expected; besides the money was never intended to fix all of the Camden’s problems (Katz). Corzine, who is one of the Economic Recovery Board members, says that renovation is a strong foundation for many beginnings including the public safety issue. Experts however insist that there was no decrease in crime control during the takeover that in resent year is even higher. None of the Board members want to take the blame for the failure of the city’s improvement. It is hard to fix a problem when everybody denies that one exists.

The revitalization plan of Camden didn’t work, but it is not a reason to give up on the city. There are a lot of issues that need to be fixed, and even though the money is gone it still can be done. The best option for the city officials is to work with community programs. Together they can fight high crime, low graduation rates, unemployment and housing issues. The way to do it is to start all the way on the bottom and work its way up.

Work Cited
Gillette, Howard. Camden After the Fall. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Print.

Hedges, Chris. “City of Ruins | The Nation.” City of Ruins | The Nation. N.p., 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.
“Camden, New Jersey.” (NJ) Profile: Population, Maps, Real Estate, Averages, Homes, Statistics, Relocation, Travel, Jobs, Hospitals, Schools, Crime, Moving, Houses, News, Sex Offenders. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Quaal, Melissa. Poverty in the City of Camden . Legal Services of New Jersey PovertyResearch Institute, 2007. Print.

Seith, David C., and Zawadi Rucks. “Toward Growth and Equality.” http://www.mdrc.org/. N.p., Apr. 2009. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

Katz, Matt. “Camden’s Waterfront – and Its Woes N.J. Vowed to Revitalize the City. Today, Job Numbers Are Largely Unchanged, but Millions Have Gone to Such “anchors” as Cooper, Campbell’s, and the Aquarium.” Philly.com. N.p., 09 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

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