I’ve known nine mayors of Camden, seven of them during their time in office.
All nine dearly wanted, earnestly sought, and strenuously struggled to save the city.
A few also had other, less laudable, aspirations.
But every mayor, from Al Pierce to Dana Redd, has tried to stop Camden’s seemingly inexorable decline.
And with all due respect to her predecessors, only Redd, who has announced she will not seek a third term, can plausibly claim to have served at the start of a genuine shift in the city’s trajectory.
No Camden mayor has been able to do much of anything about the postwar rise of suburbs and the relocation of manufacturing largely responsible for transforming the city from a mostly working-class and predominantly white city to mostly poor and majority minority.
For all practical purposes, Camden became insolvent about 40 years ago and ever since has kept the lights on only with help from Trenton and Washington. The city will remain beholden to the kindness of outsiders for the foreseeable future, a single-party state without much clout or enough wherewithal to pay its bills, let alone rebuild itself.
So it’s not surprising the fledgling rebirth is emanating almost entirely from outside Camden. Which suggests that any mayor might have enjoyed the city’s current development boom.
But Redd’s steady, savvy, confident, and collegial leadership likely has reassured investors, visitors, potential residents and others to take a chance on Camden, while inspiring longtime residents to keep the faith. Nationally, cities are on the rise, and Redd has risen to the occasion on behalf of hers.
Still, the taxpayer-subsidized corporate headquarters and eds/meds projects rising all over town are primarily the products of a majority-white alliance of public and private interests, rather than, say, a coalition of mostly minority neighborhoods, organizations, and institutions inside the city.
What a shame.
Were the impressive if not heroic efforts of grassroots entities such as Heart of Camden, Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, and the Latin American Economic Development Association to be replicated and scaled up, the rebirth Redd so proudly hails would be something more people who live in Camden could celebrate, and participate in.
Redd, whom I’ve long known and respected, in recent weeks staged what could be described as successive soon-to-say-farewell appearances at the Adventure Aquarium, Rutgers-Camden, and, last Wednesday, outside City Hall.
I found this … showiness ... uncharacteristic of the shy, rather private Redd, an African American woman who overcame childhood trauma (she was orphaned at 8) and for decades has managed to conduct herself with dignity and grace in the mostly white, mostly male world of Jersey politics.
And although she has plenty of support in the city, many local folks see Redd as having further ceded what remained of local control of Camden and in particular of its police department to that peerless Democratic power-wielder George E. Norcross 3d and his team of county, state, and national politicians.
Detractors fault Redd for acceding to deeper oversight of public education in Camden by Team Norcross and (occasional honorary) team member Gov. Christie -- though he made a fine choice in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and has found the mayor to be a deft and dependable partner in difficult circumstances.
Nevertheless, to Redd’s critics, encouraging data about graduation rates and public safety, or the sight of dramatic new buildings downtown and on the South Camden waterfront, count for little in the face of the suffocating poverty and hollowed-out landscapes that continue to define so much of the city.
This desolation -- so compelling to the national media who occasionally parachute into town -- surely has been enabled and arguably, in part, created by the Democratic political establishment that has nurtured the mayor and many of her predecessors, and has overseen the city’s affairs in periodic partnership with Trenton Republicans, for 50 years.
So amid the explosion of effusive praise (“America’s best mayor”) surrounding Redd’s valedictory address, I offer some well-sourced skepticism.
It’s way too early to declare victory, people.
I also recognize, however, that in scope, scale, and potentially transformative power, nothing like the bountiful smorgasbord of development happening now has occurred in the nearly 40 years I’ve been writing about Camden.
All of this might not be happening were it not for the earlier and best efforts of Al Pierce, Joe Nardi, Randy Primas, Aaron Thompson, and, in particular, Gwendolyn Faison.
Even Angelo Errichetti, Arnold Webster, and Milton Milan, whose terms ended in disgrace, made worthwhile efforts.
Redd, like her predecessors, could not save Camden.
But she has made possible a better Camden.