I published this op-ed in The Courier Post on December 21, 2012.
Camden’s Waterfront Redevelopment:
“Attractions work, but haven’t saved Camden”
Paul A. Jargowsky, Ph.D.
The Courier Post, December 23, 2012
The redevelopment of the Camden Waterfront stirs strong opinions. The new parks, office buildings, museums, an aquarium, and a minor league baseball park have transformed an area that was once dominated by industrial uses. Judged strictly on their own terms, the Waterfront developments are very successful. Properties that were vacant and abandoned less than 25 years ago now host a variety of attractions, drawing over a million visitors annually. Those who said that people would never venture into Camden to look at fish or see a concert have been definitively proven wrong.
Yet the developments are located in Camden and received public subsidies for a reason. They were explicitly intended to help promote the redevelopment, indeed the rebirth of Camden. In that sense, it is easy to argue that the development of the Waterfront is an abject failure. With over 40 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty line, Camden is the poorest city of its size in the country. The housing stock in many neighborhoods is in ruins. There have already been a record number of murders in 2012, most related to the flourishing drug trade. The Waterfront developments, as of today, have not saved the city.
Why have they failed to resurrect Camden? The city’s decline and continued misery were not caused solely by factors within Camden, such as low levels of education and a stubbornly persistent drug culture. Camden’s collapse begins first and foremost with deindustrialization driven by technological change and globalization. Once begun, the decline accelerated when those who had the means to do so fled – sucked out of the city by rampant suburbanization and exclusionary zoning. Unless there is some way an Aquarium can raise labor standards in China or force New Jersey to control the pace and exclusivity of suburban growth, it is unrealistic to expect Waterfront developments alone, no matter how well done, to reverse decades of decline.
Was the public investment in the Waterfront justified? Devastated neighborhoods can and do come back. The Shaw neighborhood was once the murder capital of Washington, DC. Today, it teems with restaurants and jazz clubs. The notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem neighborhoods of New York are undergoing remarkable transformations. Changes of this magnitude require a combination of a strong local economy, tangible assets, an advantageous location, and sustained public investments in education, housing, and public safety.
Camden has some but not all of these factors in place. The proximity to center-city Philadelphia is a clear strength. Every major road and transportation line in South Jersey begins or passes through Camden. With any luck, the national economy will continue to recover from the financial crisis, easing unemployment and increasing the availability of investment capital. The Waterfront developments, along with the City’s hospitals and universities, are tangible assets that can play a role in a recovery. One of the city’s main advantages is its location on the Delaware River and a stunning view of downtown Philadelphia and the majestic Benjamin Franklin Bridge. No city in the country would not like to have such an attractive and developed Waterfront.
It is certainly fair to question the share of public investments in Camden that were dedicated to the Waterfront attractions, as opposed to basic housing and public service needs. Yet if the city does recover in the coming decades, the Waterfront developments will come to be seen as one of the catalysts. At the same time, such assets are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for recovery. Without some restraint in the pace and exclusivity of suburban development, and in the absence of larger and wiser investments in education, housing, and public safety, the Waterfront will continue to be a place apart from Camden, serving the region but not the city.