Camden's identity crisis: future metropolis or small town?

While poverty and urban history experts spoke at Rutgers-Camden’s forum Monday on poverty in America and in particular Camden, the city’s mayor put out a news release on Camden’s new business curfew.

“Similar to our surrounding suburban neighbors, Camden does not need to be open into the late night hours,” Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said in her statement about the new 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. hours of operation in the city.

Though Redd was not in attendance at Monday’s forum —— meant to address how Camden got to be where it is today, the poorest and most dangerous city in America and how to change that —— her comment could have fit perfectly in the conversation.

Should Camden strive to be a metropolis or a small town? Based on Monday’s speakers and many of those I interviewed for my February piece on Camden’s struggles, it seems as if Camden might have an identity crisis.

A city in the shadow of Philadelphia, Camden has actually suffered from its proximity to the city of Brotherly Love, said Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program.

“Camden’s proximity to Philadelphia sucks the opportunities that would’ve come to the city if it were 50 miles away, where people didn’t have these giant sets of opportunities across the river, 5 minutes away on the PATCO line,” Mallach said.

Mallach, who from 1990 to 1999 was Trenton’s director of the department of housing and development, suggested Camden focus on creating neighborhoods that offer quality of life for the residents that are already there.

Safe streets, open spaces and decent schools would result in more families staying in Camden, instead of fleeing to suburbs once they can afford it, he said.

Camden’s neighborhoods “are not going to be Haddonfield,” but if they are fixed, “likely you will deconcentrate poverty in that fashion,” he said.

Others in the panel spoke of having a regional approach and opening up affordable housing in the suburbs so Camden doesn’t end up with a concentration of the poor.

Rutgers-Camden professor and author of Camden After the Fall, Howard Gillette said that exclusionary zoning is in part to blame for Camden’s concentrated poverty.

There are zoning laws in suburban towns that prohibit low-income housing, he said.

He showed the following stark statistics:

  • 60 percent of people in Camden live in high-poverty zones
  • 26 percent of Gloucester City residents live in concentrated poverty
  • 21 percent of Glassboro residents live in concentrated poverty
  • The other 75 towns in the region have 0.4 percent concentrated poverty.

“Let’s rebalance that equation, for people of Camden to be part of region again, just like the rest of us,” he said.

But it wasn’t always like that, Gillette said. Camden used to be the economic driving force in the region.

“Camden was a city that worked. Camden had social capital … built along strong commercial corridors, churches,” Gillette said.

Will Camden ever be a functioning city again?

Not if the “sorting” continues, said Myron Orfield, professor of law and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.

Orfield spoke on jobs moving to the exteriors of cities and suburbs because the towns can say, “Hey, we don't have poor people here, we’ll give you abatements, we have new road, new sewer system,” Orfield said.

“The wealthier you are (as a town), the easier it is to sort,” he said, explaining that as wealthy neighborhoods are able to attract middle class residents; places like Camden are left with less ratables and higher taxes.

He pointed that in last few decades, Philadelphia had developed two new rings of suburbs.

“We are building all sorts of new cities we don’t need to have,” Orfield said. “New roads and services are expensive, and it’s all just so one group of people can move away from another group of people.”

Though many of the panelists spoke of regional equality, some spoke against the new regional police force and the state takeover of the schools.

One thing they agreed on is that Camden can’t be fixed overnight. Until it is fixed, one panelists suggested working with what it has.

“For the foreseeable future, most people in Camden will continue to be lower income,” adding that “in that context,” the city should try to give them quality of life.

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask for in American society,” he said.