Saturday, March 03, 2012

Camden After the Fall

In Camden After the Fall, Howard Gillette describes the historic degradation of an industrial city and its subsequent recovery efforts to rebuild. The book illustrates one city’s development process, its efforts to get out of poverty and its ongoing consequences of failed policy attempts. Through the thick description of economic recovery, the reader can observe the structural and contextual factors that impede Camden, New Jersey’s search for growth. According to Gillette, the sources of Camden’s on-going problems are multifaceted. Migration patterns, racial make-up, the low-level labor supply, the lack of public financing dollars, and levels of social capital are all attributes that make up Camden’s current economic status. This essay will describe those structural factors, discuss each policy endeavor attempted, and finally, relate those efforts to the public, private, and nonprofit arenas.


Gillette uses the term “recovery” to connote the efforts to rebuild buildings in depressed areas, instead of assisting in the human development of the individuals in need, which dominates Camden’s redevelopment efforts. He tracks Camden from the turn of the century until today, but spends most of his time explaining policy attempts from the 1960s President Johnson’s War on Poverty to 1990s President Clinton era “Comeback cities” approach. Nearly all Washington euphemisms/schemes for economic development have been tried in Camden. Efforts to build social capital, contend with suburbanization and white-flight, redevelop of their waterfront, build a theme park, contract-out public services, and create public private partnerships for development are described in the book.


Starting in the early twentieth century, Camden faced several major urban transformations. First, Camden’s population changed from primarily European immigrants to Southern blacks. In the 1920s-30s Camden’s population consisted of working class residents from various immigrant populations. Germans, Italians, Poles were the first to immigrate to Camden. But as the recent immigrant’s wealth increased, they sought a better life outside the city into suburbia. Next, the insurgence of the “great migration” where African American move from the poor agrarian south to the rich industrial north after World War II replaced urban centers. And finally, the African American’s followed their white predecessors to the suburbs, being replaced by newly immigrated Hispanics in the 1970s-90s. The working class homes remained, thus recycling the poor inhabitants for others.


Although the immigrants held thick levels of social capital, most brought solely might and not skills to the labor supply. Early on industrial jobs were the main source of employment for most people in Camden. The primary employers in the city were RCA, Campbell’s Soup and the New York Navy Yard. If workers were not at the factories, they worked in service industry, servicing the needs of the workers. For example, the community thrived with small businesses, bars, restaurants and sources of entertainment. Industrial jobs were often sporadic and not permanent. Thus providing a predominate role for social organization and mutual aid societies to assist people with short-term needs.


The major structural factors derived from a culture of low wages and manual labor jobs. Without new forms of capital coming in, urban areas expand into pockets of poverty. Possible new forms of wealth for development sought higher levels of human capital. Camden never successfully contested a larger stratified society, like its neighbors of New York or Philadelphia, but predominately maintained a solid working class environment. Because of this, city officials in Camden face the problem of funding formulas for the disadvantaged. The housing market defines a number of decisions about local governments services and its allocation of limited resources. The price of homes determines the public revenue flow (through property taxes), which in turn resolves the quality of public services a city can offer. For example, the tax base in a community determines the quality of education that children receive. Camden made various efforts to create a qualified workforce to look for skilled jobs, but without sufficient resources in the first place, its efforts never materialized.


In the 1960s, Camden confronted its lack of public financing problem. It needed to reclaim tax dollars that flew to suburbia. The city decided to offer services like a trash incinerator, a cement plant and cogeneration factory to the newly incorporated towns in the surrounding areas. In addition, Camden hosted criminals in their jails and charged rates for the service. Unfortunately, this new public sector approach to generate new forms of wealth faced new battles. Whereas the city though it had created a plausible solution to offer its residence, their response was fueled with protests and demonstrations. The civil society protested the infusion of carbon dioxin into the environment and criminals living near their schools. But the city proceeded to bring in larger contracts of direct unburnable waists into its landfills (Gillete, pg. 111). The courts were slow to eradicate the newfound revenue. Environmental injustice fell into the same category, where the poor encounter the negative externalities disproportionately.


Within the milieu of the spatial disparity, based on unequal race and class-based injustices, political fights enraged city hall in the 1970s. Political battles and court appeals maintained the resident’s momentum to fight back. They repealed redlining and urban zoning codes that create city boundaries that funneled private capital funding and public allocation from Federal and State agencies. This accompanied an insurgency of intercity political movements. Racial politics encouraged races to vote for one another instead of the most qualified candidate, thus maintained the status quo and fostered constituent dependency. Historical precedence in Great Society programs cultivated fights for policies like affirmative action, welfare roles and housing subsidy. The politics of identity didn’t help the city of Camden in its efforts of economic development but rather reinforced cultural tendencies of separation and division.


Furthermore, the 1980s national policy agenda changed its perception from the poor deserving government support to one of self-sufficiency, which also affected Camden. The underlining change from the Great Society to Reaganomics pushed from the intercity strife of racial politics, untimely calling on the private sector to find solutions to public problems. Noting that the public solution to problems caused additional headaches, private investors stepped in. The waterfront reinvestment program expected financing for the aquarium would help by developing spillovers for the poor. Yet the tourist bubble to create jobs, encourage people to re-invest, and buy new products as they visited tourist attractions didn’t pop or provide the necessary spillovers as expected. Public-private partnerships united public land with private finance to invest in the redevelopment. Additional dollars were invested in walkways, a park, condominiums and additional amenities, often provided by individual contributions, only directly benefited a few.


Unfortunately, the private financed dollars stayed in the few hands and hardly added additional jobs for Camden residents. The community’s economic impact was scant and expected spillover minimal. The benefit the waterfront reinvestment did have was gentrification with new condominiums inhabited by rich Philadelphia residents. Thus creating the “recovery” but not resiliency to lift people out of poverty.


The neighborhood redevelopment efforts showed some hope. Community Development Corporations (CDC) are responsible for organizing and generating new human and monetary resources (Gillete, pg. 145). Instead of strictly building areas or investing in contracts for services, the nonprofit sector has worked to invest in people and skills to promote their own growth. They provide training centers, job placement opportunities and even daycare for working parents. Even with the CDC efforts with the influx of social capital and private finance, Camden has not immediately bounce back. Gillette suggests that the structural problems of poverty (the racial milieu, low-level quality labor and housing stock, lack of public financing) are not abruptly mended.


This current effort of the “comeback cities” model engages the multifaceted variables and encourages the third-way of policy making. Focusing on the problems of poverty and thus taking on the tough problems one at a time with all three: public, private and nonprofit sectors. Not one effort of a single sector to encourage development will eliminate all the city’s problems. But through a piece meal approach and view of history, readers can see which efforts minimally assisted, while other areas exploded. This model engages political problems, social problems to tackle the hard economic problems in a given locality. Gillette highlights this method for Camden’s next policy idea, but warns that history will be the determinate of its proper implementation.

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