Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Camden: The promise and the price

By Matt Katz
Inquirer Staff Writer

Raw sewage seeped into Jackeline and Eduardo Gonzalez's basement, through its bathroom, hallway, and bedroom.

 

The fumes forced the family to eat outside and sent 1-year-old Eduardo Jr. to the emergency room three times with respiratory problems. The toxic flow burned holes in walls and ruined clothes and a sofa. The mold ended Grandma's visits from Puerto Rico.

 

The sewage comes from a collapsed pipe at the end of their block, on Cherry Street in Camden. How does the city respond? For three hours, three days a week, a bored employee uses a noisy machine to transfer waste from the busted sewer into one that works.

 

This jury-rigged solution has been in place for more than a year.

 

Camden is so broke, so unable to perform the basic functions of government, that the obvious solution - repairing the century-old brick sewer system - is almost impossible to achieve, fiscally and politically.

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Photo Gallery
David M Warren / Staff Photographer
Photo gallery: Camden's Stalled Rebirth - Roza Ramirez, a citizen member of the Economic Recovery Board. In background are boarded up residences of 1256, 1254 and 1252 Sycamore St., Camden.
Coming face-to-face with a hippo is pretty cool in Adventure Aquarium´s West Africa River Exhibit. The exhibit was paid for with funds given to the aquarium in the state take-over of Camden in 2002.
Coming face-to-face with a hippo is pretty cool in Adventure Aquarium's West Africa River Exhibit. The exhibit was paid for with funds given to the aquarium in the state take-over of Camden in 2002.

By Matt Katz

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

Thanks to $25 million in recovery money, America's poorest city now has hippos.

 

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

 

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.

 

"Give us jobs, fix our schools," said Angel Cordero, a community activist. "Don't give us fish, let us fish."

 

Camden's residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state's "strategic revitalization plan," the recovery's guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.

 

But it didn't turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other "anchor" institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies.

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Photo Gallery
Clem Murray / Staff Photographer
Photo gallery: Camden's waterfront and its woes - Greg Charbeneau is the executive director of Adventure Aquarium in Camden. He is standing in the Shark tunnel, which was paid for with funds the aquarium received in 2002 when New Jersey took over the management of the city of Camden.

By Matt Katz
Inquirer Staff Writer

James Reilly sips morning coffee on his new front porch so he can watch the sunrise glow upon the looming Ben Franklin Bridge.


On the weekends, the 34-year-old Manayunk transplant and his new wife, Maria Nasidka, play tennis at the courts across the street and go for long runs along the Delaware River. They organize friends for coed football games at the nearby Rutgers University fields and walk to minor-league Riversharks games. Then they return home to three bedrooms, four bathrooms, 2,300 square feet, and a backyard of suburban proportions.


All this, in Camden - a city with one of the worst reputations in America - for the bargain price of $217,000 and the cheapest property taxes around.

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Photo Gallery
Ed Hille / Staff Phototgrapher
Photo gallery: Recovery aids some areas - Karima Dickerson, 9, dances with the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble as the troop rehearses for an upcoming performance, at the Unity Community Center on Mt Ephraim Avenue, in Camden.
Chelsea, Mass., City Manager Jay Ash gets a "Taste of Chelsea" during a fund-raiser. The city has improved significantly since the state took it over, and it offers crucial lessons for Camden.
Chelsea, Mass., City Manager Jay Ash gets a "Taste of Chelsea" during a fund-raiser. The city has improved significantly since the state took it over, and it offers crucial lessons for Camden.

By Matt Katz

 

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

CHELSEA, Mass. - At Teriyaki Yummy, an Asian fusion joint that opened this year, city manager Jay Ash introduces himself to the owners. He looms over the front counter with a 6-foot-7 frame and a smile wide enough to match. "Hi, I'm Jay, I run the city," he says.

 

Around the corner at Tequila's, Ash hops into a booth and invites the female foodies beside him to write restaurant reviews on the city Web site. Call the blog the "Three Divas," he says.

 

By the end of the night, as part of a charity tasting event at 14 mostly new restaurants in downtown Chelsea, a postindustrial city across the Chelsea River from Boston, Ash has sampled Middle Eastern baba ghanoush and Salvadoran horchata juice.

 

Two decades ago, having new eateries here (particularly without mobsters or illegal slot machines) would have been unthinkable.

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Photo Gallery
Matt Katz / Staff Writer
Photo gallery: How a state takeover revitalized a city - A view of the Boston skyline from the part of Chelsea's waterfront that remains industrial.
The success in turning around Chelsea, Mass., can be attributed in part to consistent support from mayors around the region, according to Jim Carlin, the first Chelsea overseer.